Astronaut Hank Hartsfield died last week.
He was 80 years old. That’s a long life.
He was Alabama’s first astronaut, which as a native Alabamian is something I care about.
He flew three missions on the space shuttle and his role in the space shuttle program is prominently featured in my book, Bold They Rise.
He was Pilot of the only all-Auburn space shuttle crew. Note: If you’re reading this Victoria, that fact is for you.
I never met him, I never talked to him, although I wish I had. And I’m not just saying that either.
Technically “we” talked tor him for Bold They Rise — I didn’t; I wasn’t an author on the book at that time — so I was surprised when my co-author posted online that Hartsfield was one of the first astronauts “we” interviewed for the book. He was?! I didn’t know that. Cool!
So I asked David to tell me the story:
“When I went to Houston with (astronaut) Bo Bobko in … April 2007, I think, we called him (Hartsfield) up and asked if we could talk to him, he invited us over. … We talked to him at his house. … His stories were fresh and engaging and entertaining, and he had the delivery of a storyteller who likes his stories; the memories of flying with Wubbo (Ockels) or doing pre-flight work in Germany genuinely amused him.
He seemed like he would have been a great commander to fly with, especially for a MS-centric mission like a Spacelab, a leader confident enough to facilitate capable people doing their jobs.”
So, in tribute to Hartsfield, a few of my favorite Hartsfield stories, from Bold They Rise:
Waiting 16 Years To Fly
After sixteen years in the Air Force and NASA astronaut corps, he was finally about to fly. “To me, it was kind of an emotional thing. I remember when we were going out to the pad in the van, and just before we got up to the pad to get out and go to get in the bird, it just sort of hit me, and I said something to Ken (Mattingly), I said, ‘Ken, I can’t believe it. I think we’ll really get to do this.’ It hit me emotionally, because tears started welling up in my eyes. You know, I had to wipe me eyes. It just, to me, was an emotional thought, after all that time, I was finally going to get to fly, it appeared. And I did.”
STS-4 was the first Shuttle mission to include a classified military aspect to the mission. “Because it was highly classified, the work we were doing on this one experiment, they had a classified checklist,” Hartsfield said. “Because we didn’t have secure comm, we had the checklist divided up in sections that we just had letter names like Bravo Charlie, Tab Charlie, Tab Bravo that they could call out. When we talked to Sunnyvale to Blue Cube out there, military control, they said, ‘Do Tab Charlie,’ or something. We had one drawer, one locker that was where we kept all the classified material, and it was padlocked. So once we got on orbit, there was nobody going to steal it because we didn’t have to worry about it. We unlocked it and did what we had to. When we finished the last part of that thing, and I remember I finally got it all stowed, I told Ken, I said, ‘I got all the classified stuff put away. It’s all locked up.’ He said, ‘Great.’
“It wasn’t thirty minutes, and they said that the military folks needed to talk to us. So the Capcom came on, the military guy, and says he wanted me to do Tab November. Ken said, ‘What’s Tab November?’ I said, ‘I ain’t got the foggiest idea. I’m going to have to get the checklist out to see.’ So I got the padlock off and got the drawer and dug down and got the checklist out and went to Tab November, and it says, ‘Put everything away and secure it.’ Ken and I really laughed about it.”
Moved Ate My Cheese?
Wubbo brought a big bag of gouda cheese with him. I like gouda; everybody likes gouda, nearly. The coolest place in the Orbiter was in the tunnel. It was velcroed up to the side of the tunnel. Which is a great area, you would go floating through, and grab yourself a piece of the gouda. Good Lord, it was good stuff.
“It was so convenient. Anybody that went back there, on the way back and forth, your reached in. About the second or third day, ‘Who’s been eating my cheese!?’ He was upset because about two-thirds of his cheese was already gone.”
These are just a few of the many Hartsfield anecdotes included in the book. Moments like this made me proud that Bold They Rise exists as a permanent collection of stories from great storytellers with many the great story to tell.
Thanks, Hank, for sharing your stories.