Two 'Gray Man' Space History Connections

Fifteen years ago today — March 22, 1996 — the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched from the Kennedy Space Center on a mission to Russia’s Mir space station.

(STS-76 launch. NASA image.)

Shuttle mission STS-76 was the third Shuttle-Mir docking mission, and carried astronauts Kevin P. Chilton, Richard A. Searfoss, Linda M. Godwin, Michael R. Clifford, Ronald M. Sega, and Shannon W. Lucid. Lucid stayed aboard Mir when the rest of the crew returned to Earth.

What’s the Gray Man connection to STS-76? When Dr. Sega became the Under Secretary of the Air Force, I worked for him until my retirement. In fact, he presided over my retirement ceremony:

(Two-time Shuttle astronaut Dr. Ron Sega, Under Secretary of the Air Force, presents Gray with a letter of appreciation from the Chief of Staff. USAF image.)

The second Gray Man space history connection comes from another launch, 5 years ago today: a Pegasus-XL rocket carried three microsatellites (ST5-A, -B, and -C) to orbit as part of NASA’s New Millennium Program. As I’ve mentioned before, when I was stationed at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards AFB many years before, I was on the Flight Readiness Review Committee for the first-ever Pegasus launch.

It looks ever more doubtful that I’ll get to fly in space, but it was nice to be at least marginally associated with the space program during my career.

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With yesterday’s landing, the Space Shuttle Discovery itself moves into the realm of space history.

(Shuttle Discovery in orbit. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.)

Yours truly worked two Discovery landings when I was stationed at Edwards AFB. Even though my duty station was across the lakebed at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory, I got to be part of the AF Flight Test Center shuttle recovery team, and was part of the contingency convoy for the landings of STS-33 and STS-31. Quite a thrill for a space-happy young officer!

An era is ending … I hope the next era will be even more spectacular.

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National Security Space History: Minuteman ICBM

Fifty years ago today — February 1, 1961 — an SM-80 Minuteman-IA intercontinental ballistic missile was successfully launched, marking the first test flight of the full-up solid-fueled ICBM.

(Minuteman-I missile. USAF image.)

Of more interest to me, this Air Force fact sheet notes that in April 1959 “Boeing launched the first Minuteman mockup at Edwards AFB, California. Test flights of mockup missiles continued into May 1960, all of which were successful.”

Why does that historical tidbit interest me so? Because many years later my first assignment was to the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards, where those test flights had taken place. What made them remarkable was that those test flights at the Rock were tethered, meaning that after the missile left the silo* it was still shackled to the ground. I wish I had one of the images to post, of the missile trying to get away while sturdy lines held it fast.

Many of my friends spent tours of duty as missileers and missile maintainers, on later versions of the Minuteman as well as other ICBM systems. To each of them, and others whom I don’t know, I say: I’m grateful for your quiet diligence and your deterrent power which kept (and keeps) us secure. I salute you all.

*Which I visited many times, at Area 1-100.

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Lifting Body Powered Flight: M2-F3

Forty years ago today — November 25, 1970 — test pilot Bill Dana flew the M2-F3 lifting body on its first powered flight.

(M2-F3 on the lakebed at Edwards AFB. NASA image.)

The M2-F3 was an upgraded model of the M2-F2 lifting body, which had control problems resulting in a crash. The F3 version added a central vertical fin, and the result improved the control so much that only three few unpowered glide flights were needed before Dana’s powered flight.

Dana later flew the M2-F3 on its fastest-ever flight, reaching Mach 1.6 (1064 mph) on December 13, 1972.


Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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Last Titan Launch

Five years ago today — October 19, 2005 — the last Titan-IV rocket launched from Vandenberg AFB. (The next-to-last Titan rocket had been launched successfully about six months earlier, on April 29th, from Cape Canaveral.)

(Final Titan-IV launch, Space Launch Complex 4, Vandenberg AFB. USAF image. Click to enlarge.)

The rocket carried a classified DoD payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.

This last Titan launch was a milestone of sorts for me, for two reasons.

First, I’d worked on Titan twice in my Air Force career — at Edwards AFB, supporting Titan-34D and Titan-IV test firings, and in the Titan System Program Office at Vandenberg, managing the engineering and contracting for the facility that stored and processed Titan-IV solid rocket motor upgrade segments. (If you ever come to my office, ask me about the piece of a failed Titan-IV that sits on my desk.)

Second, I’d written a speech for the Under Secretary of the Air Force to honor the final launch. It’s not often that the speeches we write for others have to do with things that are so special to us.

Each Titan was a huge, complex machine built to carry out a difficult task. It was an honor to be associated with the program.

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Space History at Two of My Duty Stations

Forty years ago today — October 14, 1970 — test pilot John A. Manke flew the X-24A lifting body on its first supersonic flight over Edwards AFB.

(X-24A on the lakebed at Edwards AFB. NASA image.)

The X-24A was one of several lifting bodies used to study Space Shuttle flight characteristics.

And 45 years ago today, in 1965, the second Orbiting Geophysical Observatory — OGO-2 — was launched by a Thor rocket from Vandenberg AFB. It was the first OGO launch from Vandy, and was placed in a polar orbit.

I feel privileged, and somewhat awed, to have served (and done some neat things) at both of those bases.

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A Special Stop on the Tour, and I Provide Commentary on a Web Video

(Cross-posted, with minor edits, from the “Manufacturing Makes It Real” tour blog.)

Yesterday the “Manufacturing Makes It Real” tour stopped at Scott Health & Safety in Monroe, NC, where they make Scott Air Paks — self-contained breathing apparatus used by firefighters and emergency responders all over the world.

Of all the places we’ve been, why was the Scott Health & Safety tour stop so special to me?

When I was stationed at Edwards AFB, California, at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory,* I was the chief of the Disaster Response Force. Not only did I don Scott Paks and Graylite suits** in training, but I had occasion to wear them several times for real-world accident responses. (Ask me about them sometime.)

Yet as many times as I wore a Scott Pak, I never thought about where it was made or by whom. That’s the way it is with a lot of things we use — we take for granted that they exist and that they will work when we need them to, but we too often forget that real people made those things.

So I had no idea that Scott Paks were made by a company in North Carolina, nor did I have any idea of the pride they take in making products that help save lives. But I saw it firsthand yesterday afternoon, and that was nothing short of fantastic.

I know the weather is threatening to impact our next few stops on the tour, but I hope folks will come out to hear more about the great people at these companies who make terrific products that are vital to our lives.


Yesterday morning, during our stop at ArvinMeritor in Fletcher, I took local radio reporter Dan Hesse (News Radio 570, WWNC) through our display trailer so he could shoot some video for the station’s website. I answered some questions and provided some commentary, and for a few seconds you can catch my ugly mug on the video. The segment is six minutes long, and you can watch it on YouTube.


*The name changed twice while I was there; when I left, it was the AF Astronautics Laboratory. Now it’s part of the Phillips Lab, but it will always be the “Rocket Lab” to me.

**Or, “rocket propellant handler’s ensemble.”

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First Titan Launches on Solid Rocket Motors: Titan-IIIC

Forty-five years ago today — June 18, 1965 — the first Titan-IIIC (“three C”) launched from Cape Canaveral on a test flight.

(A 1978 Titan-IIIC launch. USAF image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The IIIC was the first Titan variant to use strap-on solid rocket motors for additional lift capacity. The Air Force flew a large number of SRM-augmented Titans through the years. This Aerospace Corporation article has a little of the Titan vehicle history.

The SRMs were built up in segments, with each full-size segment being ten feet in diameter and ten feet tall. The Titan-IIIC and IIID models used two five-segment SRMs each; the later Titan-34D used a pair of five-and-a-half-segment SRMs, while the Titan-IVA used two seven-segment SRMs. The last Titan model, the Titan-IVB, used the SRMU — solid rocket motor upgrade — which consisted of fewer, but larger, motor segments.

And why do I care about the SRM and SRMU details? Because I had the privilege of working on parts of the Titan program — primarily dealing with the solid rockets — during my assignments at Edwards (Titan-34D and Titan-IVA test firings, Titan-34D launches) and Vandenberg (Titan-IVA and -IVB launch processing facilities).

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Another Space Shuttle Precursor Flies

Forty years ago today — June 2, 1970 — NASA test pilot William H. “Bill” Dana flew the Northrop M2-F3 lifting body on its first flight.

(M2-F3 lifting body on the dry lakebed at Edwards AFB. NASA image.)

The M2-F3 was one of a series of lifting bodies flown by NASA and the USAF to test spacecraft reentry. On this flight, it was dropped from its B-52 mothership and Dana glided it to an unpowered landing on the dry lake bed at Edwards AFB, much the way Shuttle pilots glide their vehicle back to Earth.

The M2-F3 was rebuilt from the crashed M2-F2, with a center stabilizer added to reduce the pilot-induced oscillations that had caused the M2-F2 landing mishap. Powered flights of the rocket-equipped M2-F3 eventually took it up to Mach 1.6 and over 70,000 feet of altitude.

On a personal note, I wish I had known more of this history back in the late 1980s, so I could have asked Mr. Dana some pertinent questions when I met him at Edwards.

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Bell X-1, Chuck Yeager, and Salad

This is more “air and space” than “space” history, and it’s as much of a curiosity as anything, but 60 years ago today — May 12, 1950 — Chuck Yeager flew the first Bell X-1 rocket plane (serial number 46-062, or X-1-1) on its final flight.

(Bell X-1 in flight. USAF photo from NASA image collection.)

The aircraft, the first to be flown faster than the speed of sound, was retired and sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where it is on display at the National Air and Space Museum. If you’ve never been, you should go. (And the new Udvar-Hazy annex to the museum is very nice, too.)

Semi-related personal recollection to explain the title: I remember seeing General Yeager in the Officers Club at Edwards AFB when we were stationed there. I didn’t talk to him — what’s a brand-new second lieutenant non-pilot going to say to someone like that, especially standing next to him at the salad bar? But it seemed pretty cool at the time … and pretty okay even now.

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