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On the Sea of Stars

Naval Aviators in Space

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched America’s campaign in the space race, he had several reasons for insisting the nation’s first astronauts be selected from among its top military pilots: Such men were accomplished engineers, experienced in flying experimental craft, and had performed well under pressure. It’s also likely that Eisenhower, who saw the space race in pragmatic terms, wanted to emphasize the astronauts – though they worked for the new civilian space agency, NASA – as men engaged in grim technological battle against the Soviet enemy.

Astronaut Alan Shepard Mercury-Redstone 3

Astronaut Alan Shepard, a naval aviator, became the first American in space. He launched aboard his Mercury-Redstone 3, named Freedom 7, to make an historic 15-minute suborbital flight.This image shows Shepard in the capsule before launch. After several delays and more than four hours in the capsule, Shepard was ready to go, and he famously urged mission controllers to “fix your little problem and light this candle.” NASA photo

Perhaps without meaning to, Eisenhower established a space program that was uniquely American: The Russian space program relied on automated systems, and the human occupants of its ground-controlled craft were essentially passengers – its first cosmonauts were accomplished parachutists who could safely exit their craft over land.

By contrast, America’s first space program, Project Mercury, placed great emphasis on the skills of its individual pilots. The astronauts known as the Mercury Seven became working members of the Space Task Group charged not only with planning and executing spaceflights, but also with the design of the spacecraft, simulators, and other hardware and systems.

At the time, it had yet to be shown that a person could do much to influence a spaceflight – how much control, after all, could an astronaut have over a rocket-mounted projectile? After several preliminary missions were conducted with chimpanzees in the cockpit, the press began to joke about how hard an astronaut’s job could be, while other test pilots began to deride the Mercury Seven as “Spam in a can.”

It didn’t take long for the Mercury Seven – four of whom were naval aviators – to prove the worth of NASA’s human element. Without the skills and quick thinking of NASA’s astronauts, in fact, several missions in the ensuing decades would have failed. Throughout the history of the U.S. space program, naval aviators have been at the forefront, leading NASA’s exploration of space with courage and intelligence.


The First Astronauts

The Mercury Seven began the space race in second place after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin entered Earth orbit on April 12, 1961. Astronaut Alan Shepard (USN), who had flown Navy aircraft for more than a decade before becoming an astronaut, made up some ground less than a month later, on May 5, when he became the first American in space. In a capsule he had named Freedom 7, Shepard rode a Redstone rocket on a ballistic trajectory, 116 miles above the surface of the Earth.

Unlike Gagarin, Shepard took some control of the capsule on the way down, adjusting its angular orientation before re-entry into the atmosphere. While Shepard was instantly a national hero whose success inspired President John F. Kennedy to urge America’s astronauts on to the moon, he had not equaled Gagarin’s feat of orbiting Earth. For that mission, NASA would send in a Marine.

On Feb. 20, 1962, in a capsule named Friendship 7, John H. Glenn (USMC) – who had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1957 for conducting the first transcontinental supersonic flight – rode an Atlas rocket into Earth orbit. After his first orbit, Glenn ran into problems with the capsule, which kept drifting off course and consuming fuel – fuel Glenn would need to leave orbit and re-enter the atmosphere – as it corrected course. Glenn switched off the automatic system and took control himself. As he prepared for re-entry, the capsule’s gyroscopes fed him inaccurate altitude readings, and Glenn flew the capsule literally by hand, keeping the constellation Orion centered in the cockpit window. He was the first astronaut, American or Soviet, to take so much control of a spacecraft, and he had proven the wisdom of placing a trained pilot inside even the most highly automated craft.

When M. Scott Carpenter (USN) duplicated Glenn’s mission in Aurora 7 on May 24, 1962, he was also forced to manually compensate for a failure in the capsule’s automatic control system. On Oct. 3 of that year, however, on the penultimate Mercury mission, Walter M. “Wally” Schirra (USN) conducted a nearly flawless six-orbit engineering test flight in Sigma 7.


Project Gemini

The two-man spaceflights of Project Gemini involved four of the original Mercury Seven, including Schirra (Shepard, sidelined with inner-ear problems, served as chief of the Astronaut Office before being restored to service in 1969), as well as Navy pilots Gene Cernan, Charles “Pete” Conrad, Richard F. Gordon, James A. Lovell, and John W. Young. Neil Armstrong, a former Navy pilot, had left the service by the time he joined NASA in 1962, and consequently became the first American civilian in space.

Gemini-Titan VI (GT-6)

NASA’s Gemini-Titan VI (GT-6) spacecraft as seen from the Gemini-Titan VII (GT-7) spacecraft during their rendezvous mission in space. A handmade sign, “Beat Army,” is being held up to the windshield of the Gemini VI spacecraft. NASA photo

The Gemini astronauts laid the groundwork for the later moon voyages, and the skills of tested military pilots again proved invaluable during these missions. Young co-piloted the first manned Gemini mission, commanded by Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Conrad, aboard Gemini V, piloted the first weeklong spaceflight, completing 120 orbits from Aug. 21-29, 1965. On Dec. 15, 1965, two Gemini spacecraft – one commanded by Frank Borman and co-piloted by Lovell, the other commanded by Schirra and co-piloted by Thomas P. Stafford – demonstrated orbital rendezvous techniques. For six hours, the spacecraft kept within 1 to 300 feet of each other – close enough that Borman, a West Point graduate, could clearly read the “Beat Army” sign Schirra held up in his window.

The Gemini flight that did the most to affirm the value of a skilled pilot was the near-fatal Gemini VIII, commanded by Armstrong on March 16-17, 1966. While Armstrong and his co-pilot, David Scott, adroitly performed the first “hard dock” with a target vehicle, things went horribly wrong afterward. A thruster on the capsule was held open by a short circuit in the electrical system, and sent the capsule and target vehicle spinning end over end.

Armstrong had been a test pilot for the X-15 rocket plane, which had also been controlled by maneuvering thrusters, and had some experience in stabilizing a craft at high speed. He jettisoned the target vehicle, but Gemini VIII’s tumbling worsened, spinning at about one rotation per second, a rate that would, in time, cause both Armstrong and Scott to lose consciousness.

Armstrong decided quickly to counter the thrust by hand. His skillful counter-fires stabilized the capsule enough that the rate of spin was slowed until the stuck thruster ran out of fuel. Because they had consumed re-entry fuel, their mission was cut short, and Gemini VIII was brought down for an emergency splashdown in the Pacific – the first emergency landing of a manned U.S. space mission.


To the Moon

For the series of Apollo missions that would take men to the moon and back, a new group of naval aviators joined the astronaut corps: Navy pilots Alan Bean, Roger Chaffee, Walter Cunningham, Ronald Evans, Joseph Kerwin, Bruce McCandless II, Ken Mattingly, and Edgar Mitchell, along with Marine aviators Jack Lousma and Fred Haise.

Neil Armstrong lunar module Eagle

Former naval aviator Neil Armstrong shown in the lunar module Eagle on the moon after his historic moonwalk. NASA photo

Seven of the 12 men who have walked on the moon – including the first (Armstrong) and last (Cernan) – were trained as naval aviators, as were the only three astronauts to fly more than one lunar mission: Cernan, Lovell, and Young.

Apollo 8, flown by Borman, Lovell, and William Anders from Dec. 21-27, 1968, was a quantum leap for the astronaut corps. All previous missions had remained within the Earth’s gravitational sphere, the highest maybe 800 miles up; Apollo 8 traveled 250,000 miles to the moon and 250,000 back – the first human spaceflight to leave Earth orbit; the first to enter and exit the gravitational field of another celestial body; and the first manned voyage to return to Earth from another celestial body. The crew completed 10 lunar orbits, and the photograph taken by Anders of the distant, fragile-looking Earth hovering over the moon’s horizon remains one of the most famous images ever recorded.

Actually landing on the moon was another story – internally, NASA’s experts fixed the probability of the first attempt’s success at about 50 percent. To increase the odds, they selected the former naval aviator who had averted disaster during Gemini VIII – Neil Armstrong – to command the mission.

It proved a wise choice: After discovering the lunar module (LM) Eagle had overshot its landing site and was cruising over a field of boulders, Armstrong promptly overrode the flight computer and flew calmly to a clear landing site. The first walk on the moon, performed by Armstrong and his co-pilot, Buzz Aldrin, is an achievement that historians are still trying to put into perspective.

In April 1970, the Apollo 13 mission once again demonstrated the importance of an experienced crew that could think quickly under pressure. Commanded by Lovell, with Haise as the LM pilot, Apollo 13 ran into trouble after an oxygen tank ruptured and severely damaged the spacecraft’s oxygen and electrical systems. Despite the challenges caused by limited power, a loss of heat in the cabin, and a seat-of-the-pants repair of the carbon dioxide removal system, Lovell, Haise, and command module pilot Jack Swigert were able to bring Apollo 13 home in what NASA called a “successful failure.” Lovell and Haise, however, had missed their chance to walk on the moon.

Naval aviators were also instrumental in servicing Skylab, the United States’ first space station, launched on May 14, 1973.  The first two of the three manned missions, Skylab 2 (Pete Conrad, commander; Paul J. Weitz, pilot; Joseph P. Kerwin, science pilot) and Skylab 3 (Alan Bean, commander; Jack Lousma, pilot; Owen Garriott, science pilot) featured all-Navy crews, while the third and last, Skylab 4, was commanded by Marine aviator Gerald P. Carr.

The space race came to a symbolic end in July 1975, when commander Thomas P. Stafford, command module pilot Vance D. Brand (USMC), and docking module pilot Donald K. “Deke” Slayton performed the American portion of the first joint U.S.-Soviet spaceflight, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. When Stafford and cosmonaut Alexey Leonov exchanged the first international handshake in space through the open hatch of the Soyuz, it signaled the success of the last manned U.S. spaceflight before the space shuttle era.


The Shuttle Era and Beyond

The epic span of NASA’s space shuttle era, concluded in 2011, has been a chronicle of extraordinary achievement and heartbreaking loss.

STS-1 crew members Cmdr. John W. Young and pilot Robert L. Crippen. NASA photo

The successes of the space shuttle era have been achieved, in part, through the work of literally dozens of naval aviators-turned-astronauts. The era began in April 1981 when John W. Young – whose 19-year NASA career saw him become the only person to have piloted four different classes of spacecraft: Gemini, Apollo command/service module, Apollo lunar module, and space shuttle – commanded the maiden flight of shuttle Columbia, along with his co-pilot, Robert Crippen (USN). The last shuttle flight will also be commanded by a naval aviator – either STS-134, set to depart in 2011 with either Capt. Mark Kelly (USN) or his backup, Frederick Sturckow (USN), in command; or STS-135, which, if funded by Congress, will be commanded by Christopher Ferguson (USN) [STS-135 launched in July 2011, commanded by Ferguson – Editor].

In the past 30 years, two Coast Guard aviators have also become astronauts: Bruce Melnick, an astronaut from 1988 to 1992, and Daniel Burbank, who is currently scheduled for a six-month tour aboard the International Space Station (ISS) beginning in November 2011.

Mission Specialist Sunita Williams

U.S. naval officer and Mission Specialist Sunita Williams is enthusiastic about donning her launch suit to check the fit, including the helmet, which also is part of the prelaunch preparations. Williams holds the record for the longest spaceflight for a female astronaut. NASA photo by Kim Shiflett

If two of today’s naval aviator/astronauts can be believed, it’s not often that a pilot begins a military career with an eye toward space. Sunita Williams, a helicopter pilot and captain in the Navy, earned her wings in 1989, four years before future astronaut Kathryn Hire (USN) became the first female in the U.S. military assigned to a combat aircrew. “The thought [of becoming an astronaut] never crossed my mind,” Williams said. The idea was planted during a chance meeting with several astronauts at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, including John W. Young, who, she said, “Talked … about flying something that had vertical landing capability to land on the moon – and I thought: ‘I’ve got that skill.’”

Williams flew to the ISS aboard shuttle Discovery in 2006 and stayed in space for 195 days, performing four spacewalks that totaled 29 hours and becoming the first person to run the Boston Marathon in space. She is scheduled to return to the ISS in May 2012, when she will take command of the space station.

Her training as an aviator, Williams said, prepared her well for long-duration spaceflight, which she compares to an indefinite Navy deployment. Her work as an H-46 pilot, she said, also prepared her for the logistics of a spacewalk, or extravehicular activity (EVA). “[When peforming an EVA] you have in the back of your mind how the vehicle is operating, how your suit is operating, where the other guy is, what tasks need to be done, how to make this more efficient. I was thinking: ‘Wow, this is just like battle group logistics. I’ve done this before.’ So I think, unbeknownst to me, the career I had picked really got me ready for my first spaceflight.” The groundwork for her stint as ISS commander, Williams said, was laid on her last Navy tour, as the hangar deck officer aboard the amphibious assault carrier USS Saipan: “Having had that leadership opportunity, I hope, is going to set me up for my ISS commander billets.”

EVA STS-115 Solar Alpha Rotary Joint

Astronaut Daniel C. Burbank waves to fellow spacewalker Steve MacLean during the second EVA, or extravehicular activity, of mission STS-115. They spent the day preparing the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint, which will allow the new solar arrays to track the sun to generate power. NASA photo

Charles F. Bolden, like Williams, had no idea he would become an astronaut when he began his career as a Marine Corps infantry officer in 1968. “I found,” Bolden said, “that I didn’t really like crawling around in the mud.” He went to Naval Air Station Pensacola, earned his wings, and flew more than 100 sorties in the Vietnam War.

It was Dr. Ronald McNair – like Bolden, an African-American from Columbia, S.C., and one of the astronauts later lost during the Challenger mission on Jan. 28, 1986 – who challenged Bolden to realize his experience made him a fine astronaut candidate. “If you talk to most of my friends who are still active in the Astronaut Office and ask them to compare a shuttle launch to a night carrier landing,” Bolden said, “they will tell you there’s no comparison. The night carrier landing causes your heart to beat much faster. The shuttle is exciting; don’t get me wrong. But a night carrier landing scares the living hoo-hah out of you.”

Bolden’s space shuttle missions – he piloted two and commanded two – included three international missions, including the first joint Russian/U.S. shuttle mission, which he commanded in February 1994. The interoperability between U.S. and foreign partners, he said, prepared him for an extraordinary career trajectory: After returning to active duty in the Marine Corps later that year, Bolden served as commanding general, I MEF (FWD) in support of Operation Desert Thunder in Kuwait; deputy commander, U.S. Forces Japan; and commanding general of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Miramar, Calif. He retired from the Corps in 2004 with the rank of major general – and returned to NASA in 2009, when President Barack Obama appointed him administrator.

There can be no better preparation for a career in space, Williams said, than service as a naval aviator. “When you’re coming out of flight school at 23 or 24 years old,” she said, “you have responsibility for a multimillion-dollar aircraft. I think it puts your whole life in perspective. You also understand what it is to lose a friend, and how important and dangerous this business is. I think it sets us up perfectly for the job we have – because it’s fun, it’s glamorous, it’s cool, but it’s also pretty serious and you need to know when to focus on the task at hand. So I think naval aviation and being a naval officer has really served [the Astronaut] Office very well.”

Bolden, likewise, thinks the traditions of naval aviation and spaceflight are naturally complementary: “It should not be a surprise,” he said, “that the majority of people who have ventured into space, at least from the United States, come from the naval service – and that includes the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard … we all wear the same Navy Wings of Gold, and we all started in Pensacola.”


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...