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.
I volunteered in preschool recently at church not really knowing what was expected of me. I expected to do something along the lines of change some diapers, corral some kids and play with kids and toys.
What happened though is I was asked to teach the kids a story and sing some songs.
OK. I didn’t really come prepared to do that but I can tell a short Bible story and sing some songs, no problem.
I gathered the kids around and one of the boys handed me a book about Jonah and said, “read this.”
Great! That solved what story to tell.
So I read the book and a few pages in the story says that Jonah was swallowed by a big fish. One of the boys interjects, “Whales aren’t fish.”
Hmm. Well, let’s talk about that. I asked all of the kids about what makes a fish and fish, and I heard a lot of very good answers —like fish live in the water, and fish eat other fish. One girl said fish eat insects like sea beetles and sea ants. OK. I’ve never heard of that but we’ll go with it.
Despite determining that fish live in water and whales in live in water, and a number of other similarities between fish and whales, there was no convincing this boy that whales are a kind of fish. Which is a good thing since I looked it up later and discovered that he was right; whales aren’t fish. Whales are mammals. Every time the story referred to Jonah in the belly of the fish the boy said to me, “It was a whale not a fish.” I just let him and read on.
Then came an even tougher question but one that turned this story into more than just another fish tale. After hearing me read that Jonah didn’t obey God, a little girl asked, “What does it mean to obey?” Wow. Great question.
It was a great opportunity to talk to the kids about doing the things we’re told to do. Jonah was told to go to Nineveh. He didn’t go. That was disobedience. If your parent tells you to put away your toys and you don’t do it, that’s disobedience.
I described Jonah’s three days in the belly of the
fish whale as his “time out.”
One little girl piped up, “My brothers have to sit in time out.”
The whole experience felt a little like playing host on “Kids say the darndest things.”
The Bold They Rise book launch, for me, was the high point of everything it took to write and publish this book.
It was a day to bask in the feeling of accomplishment, first that it was done. It feels amazing that it’s just done.
But beyond that, I could bask also that it’s a good work.
A few months ago, I was scared for people to read it. What readers thought would be the true test as to whether or not we did well what we set out to do. But we’ve had nothing but good reviews so far, which has added to my confidence that we did a good thing.
The epitome of that, though, is that the astronauts who spoke at the launch — Robert “Hoot” Gibson and his wife Rhea Seddon — had heard of Bold They Rise even before I contacted them to come talk for us. Not only had they heard about it, they’d pre-ordered a copy and by the time of our event Hoot had read most of it.
He read words that I/we wrote about his experiences and he liked the words that he read.
That’s a HUGE compliment.
It’s great that the lay reader likes it. But when the person who lived the story likes it, that’s something else all together.
I loved hearing them talk. Both of them, but especially Rhea Seddon.
Below is her sharing the story and photo of her first spaceflight and the giant hug her son gave her upon her return. Isn’t this photo just precious?
I was fascinated that this couple both pursued very demanding careers yet also had a family, and even after retiring as astronauts continued to have very full careers, she as a doctor and he as a pilot and businessman. They were the first astronaut couple, and 30-plus years later they’re still together. The accomplishments of the space shuttle is an amazing story, but so are the accomplishments of these individuals and the family they represent.
It was fun, during the down time, to ask Rhea about her children and grandchildren and what they were doing now, about their love story — “did he ask you out?” — and even silly things like “do you call him Hoot at home?” The answer is no; she calls him Robert.
Having them headline the release of Bold They Rise was as good as I could make it, and a satisfying point on which to to end this journey.
I went to Spacefest VI in May to promote Bold They Rise. Our publisher, the University of Nebraska Press, had organized to have many of the series authors at the event to speak on the series and to be available for book signings.
Our talk was early on the first day of the conference, and a handful of folks came. It was actually great, in my opinion, to have a smaller more intimate audience; it allowed us to make it more of a conversation and less “lecture.”
I was very, VERY fortunate that my friend Andrea went with me on the trip. Not only was she a HUGE help when I was busy with book things, she helped me keep my sanity when I started to stress out. Plus we had fun exploring SoCal and talking it up all weekend long!
The best moments of the trip, though, were two casual encounters with two pretty famous astronauts.
Both of these happened on the ride between Pasadena and LAX on the Super Shuttle.
First, on the way out to Pasadena, a group of three or so people were in the shuttle van with us. The woman in the group commented to a man in her party that Edgar had lost his cell phone. Poor Edgar I thought. I think she wanted the man to call it and help find it. They went to the same hotel as us and ended up in line with us to checkin. Andrea asked me if I thought they were going Spacefest too. I nosily eyed the luggage tag of the man who had lost his phone and saw his full name. Edgar Mitchell, as in the sixth man to walk on the moon. I whispered this to Andrea and then it was like what do we do? Do we say something? Do we let him go in front of us? Do we treat him like a regular person and wait his turn in line? We ultimately did nothing, opting to let him just be a regular guy and letting us just be in awe that at “regular” he seemed for someone who once walked around on the moon.
The second close encounter with an astronaut was on the ride back to LAX early Sunday morning. By early I mean, the shuttle van was picking us up at 5:15 a.m. The last passenger arrived after the rest of us had already piled in the van. I heard the driver at the rear of the car ask, “Last name Collins?” at which point Andrea and I looked at each other and mouthed, “Could it be? Collins? As in, Eileen Collins?” Sure enough, it was her. Once she as in the car, we let her know that we knew who she was and talked about why I was at Spacefest, about Bold They Rise, how the event was for her, etc. She was a delight to talk to and so down to earth. She even said she had wished she could’ve left her area and come to get my book and see my talk and get me to sign a copy. Maybe she was just being nice, but it was sweet and flattering all the same.