Astronaut Tom Jones—a man who did, then didn’t, and then did again, embark on the hundredth spacewalk in U.S. history—turns 60 today (Thursday, 22 January). During his 12-year career as an astronaut, Jones flew four times aboard the shuttle, observing the Home Planet from high and low inclinations and participating in missions which showcased the capabilities of the reusable orbiters for research, satellite operations, spacewalking, and space station assembly. Yet his time within the astronaut office also saw Jones fall foul of the shuttle program’s last on-the-pad main engine abort, a scant 1.9 seconds ahead of liftoff, and a jammed hatch on STS-80 scuppered his first attempt to perform an EVA. Shortly before he finally ventured outside his craft in a pressurized suit, in February 2001, Jones’ wife, Liz, jokingly dubbed him: “NASA’s secret weapon … the best-trained spacewalker who’s never done a spacewalk!”
Thomas David Jones came from Baltimore, Md., where he was born on 22 January 1955, and grew up with the early astronauts of Projects Mercury and Gemini as his personal heroes. “I knew all of these guys by what missions they flew,” he later explained, “and I was really hoping to follow directly in their footsteps.” Although no one in his family had served in the military, or had trained in the sciences, Jones was guided by his teacher father and by the influence of the astronauts, all of whom showed him “how important it was to excel in academics and school.” One day, as a Cub Scout, he visited the Martin Aircraft production plant for one of their “Open House” Days, where the Titan II boosters for the Gemini VII and VIII missions were being readied. Gazing upon these enormous machines, Jones was entranced, enthralled … and hooked for life.
After leaving high school, he entered the Air Force Academy and earned a degree in basic sciences in 1977, then began his military career. He underwent flight training and spent six years flying strategic bombers at Carswell Air Force Base, near Fort Worth, Texas, and served as a pilot and commander of the B-52D Stratofortress, leading a six-strong combat crew. By the time he resigned from active duty in 1983, Jones had attained the rank of captain and was recipient of the Air Force’s Commendation Medal. As a civilian, he was admitted into the University of Arizona at Tucson and began working toward his doctorate in planetary sciences, which he completed in 1988. Jones’ research focus included the remote sensing of asteroids, meteorite spectroscopy, and the applications of space resources. During this period, he tried twice for admission into NASA’s astronaut corps, but was unsuccessful. Until he had received his PhD, Jones wrote in his memoir, Skywalking, “I just wasn’t competitive.” Shortly thereafter, he was hired by the CIA as a program management engineer at the Office of Development and Engineering in Washington, D.C., and sent off another application for the space agency’s scheduled 1990 astronaut intake.
“I tried to keep my expectations low,” Jones wrote. “About five percent of all qualified applicants would be interviewed; fewer than one percent would be hired.” Nonetheless, he completed a week-long series of interviews and medical and psychological evaluations at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, in October 1989. At around the same time, he was selected as a senior scientist with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) in Washington, D.C., supporting advanced mission planning for NASA’s Solar System Exploration Division. Jones was to assume his new role on 22 January 1990 and took a week-long vacation with his family before his start date.
During the course of that week, he received a telephone call, inviting him to become an astronaut, and that led to an awkward conversation with his SAIC boss, Chief Systems Engineer Harvey Feingold. Jones explained that he could accept the post with SAIC … but he could only accept it for six months, as NASA required him to be in Houston in July. “For someone who had just been told his company had, in effect, finished in second place,” Jones wrote, “Harvey was gracious to a fault. He said that although he was sorry to lose me, he was happy that my dream was moving closer to reality.”
That dream moved even closer two years later, in February 1992, when Jones sat in the office of Don Puddy, NASA’s director of Flight Crew Operations, alongside veteran astronaut Linda Godwin, to be told of his assignment as a Mission Specialist on the first Space Radar Laboratory (SRL-1) flight. Operating from an orbital inclination of 57 degrees, the payload would utilize imaging radar to map a substantial portion of Earth’s surface, including regions as far north as Juneau, Alaska, and a little farther south than Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of Argentina. “Synthetic-aperture radar technology,” explained Jones in Skywalking, “uses the motion of a spacecraft or aircraft to electronically synthesize an antenna much larger than its physical size, yielding higher imaging resolution.” After a little more than a year training with Godwin, in March 1993, the remainder of the STS-59 crew—Commander Sid Gutierrez, Pilot Kevin Chilton, and Mission Specialist Jay Apt and Michael “Rich” Clifford—were assigned. At one stage, Jones received a telephone call from Clifford, one of his classmates, with a simple message of unbridled joy: “We’re flying together on STS-59, T.J.!”
Endeavour thundered into orbit on 9 April 1994 and, writing a decade later in Skywalking, Jones remembered the lucidity of the adrenaline-charged 8.5 minutes of his first ascent. A “nasty shaking” was accompanied by the peculiar sensation of the entire cabin whipsawing around him, as the “Roll Program” oriented the shuttle for its high-inclination orbit. Jones thought of his father, who had died two years earlier. His first view of the Home Planet was a glorious one. “As Endeavour rose toward sunrise, I gasped,” he wrote. “Between heaven and Earth was a vision of pure beauty, the robin’s-egg-blue of the atmosphere backlighting the darkened horizon.” For an instant, his eyes filled with tears.
After 11 days, the STS-59 touched down on 20 April, but for Jones it marked a direct transition into his second shuttle mission, for he had already been assigned—in August 1993—as payload commander for SRL-2. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., which developed the radar instruments, wanted at least one crew member to fly aboard both missions for the purposes of continuity. Originally, SRL-1 and SRL-2 were supposed to fly at least a year apart, as shown by NASA’s February 1991 and January 1992 shuttle program manifests, which anticipated a gap of about 15 months between them. However, when a decision was taken in mid-1992 to advance Endeavour’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST) servicing mission ahead of SRL-1, the two radar flights drew much closer. And by the time Jones was named to SRL-2, it was clear that he would be flying in April and August 1994, with a gap of just four months between his first and second shuttle missions.
At the time of his return from STS-59, the SRL-2 flight—also aboard Endeavour and designated STS-68—was expected to launch on 18 August, which offered Jones a new record of just 120 days between landing and liftoff. This would neatly eclipse the previous record of 128 days, set by astronaut Steve Nagel in 1985. Unfortunately, it was a record which would endure a little longer, for on 18 August 1994 Jones and his crew of Commander Mike Baker, Pilot Terry Wilcutt, and Mission Specialists Steve Smith, Dan Bursch, and Jeff Wisoff succumbed to the fifth and last Redundant Set Launch Sequencer (RSLS) abort, as the shuttle’s main engines shut down, a mere 1.9 seconds ahead of liftoff.
The six astronauts had strapped into Endeavour cheerily that morning, and Jones and Wisoff, both seated on the middeck, killed some time playing rock, scissors, paper. At 6:54 a.m. EDT, Endeavour’s engines roared to life … and suddenly, and shockingly, shut down under computer command. In the seconds which followed, as acronym-laden communications passed between engineers, controllers, and managers in the Launch Control Center (LCC), it became apparent that no fire detectors had been tripped and the crew was extracted safely from the vehicle.
Had the engine shutdown been triggered a couple of seconds later—after the ignition of the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs)—it would have placed the astronauts in the unenviable situation of having to execute the shuttle program’s first Return to Launch Site (RTLS) abort, performing a hairy landing back at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF). “The RTLS is a daunting prospect for the crew,” wrote Jones. “We would have to fly the orbiter and attached [External Tank] through half an outside loop, then ride backward through our exhaust plume at Mach 5. Ditching the empty tank, we would then try to make it back to the Kennedy runway. No shuttle crew had ever flown such an emergency approach. None wanted to be the first to try.”
Fortunately, Endeavour and her crew survived to fly another day and were successfully launched into orbit on 30 September. As circumstances transpired, their flight coincided with the eruption of Klyuchevskaya Sopka on Kamchatka, the highest active volcano in Eurasia, which the astronauts viewed with surprise as a tremendous black plume on the horizon. Jones remembered being called up to the flight deck to see it. At first, he thought it was an anvil-shaped thunderhead, or perhaps a clump of dust lifted by high winds, but it soon became obvious what it was. “We soon had every camera zeroed-in on the eruption,” he wrote in Skywalking, “as Endeavour gave us a dramatic, down-the-throat view of this impressive geology lesson.”
Returning to Earth after 11 days, Jones spent more than a year working as a Capcom in Mission Control, before his next assignment in January 1996 to STS-80. He was joined by Commander Ken Cockrell, Pilot Kent Rominger, and Mission Specialists Tammy Jernigan and Story Musgrave. Launched the following 19 November aboard Columbia, it was a long-duration mission and was tasked with the deployment and retrieval of two free-flying spacecraft—the Shuttle Pallet Satellite (SPAS), equipped with the Orbiting and Retrievable Far and Extreme Ultraviolet Spectrometer (ORFEUS), and the Wake Shield Facility (WSF)—and the execution of two EVAs to rehearse International Space Station (ISS) maintenance operations. Jones oversaw the deployment of both satellites, using Columbia’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm, and on 28 November he and Jernigan prepared for their first spacewalk.
Their tasks included a rehearsal for replacing an ISS battery and would be followed by a second EVA on 30 November to evaluate tools and equipment, including the Body Restraint Tether (BRT) and Multi-Use Tether (MUT). Unfortunately, when Jernigan and Jones prepared to open the outer airlock hatch into the shuttle’s payload bay, it remained stubbornly closed. “Initially, I thought we just had a sticky hatch and the fact that Tammy’s initial rotation wasn’t able to free it up was just an indication that we’d have to put a little more elbow grease into it,” Jones told CNN in a space-to-ground news conference.
The hatch handle apparently stopped after about 30 degrees of rotation, making it unable to release a series of latches around its circumference. An engineering team was promptly assembled to determine the most likely cause of the mishap and Mission Control adjusted the STS-80 crew’s schedule in anticipation of a second attempt on 29 November. A minor problem was also noted with a signal conditioner in Jones’ space suit and it was decided to replace should the EVA go ahead. By the afternoon of the 29th, analysis suggested a misalignment of the hatch against the airlock seal, and the crew were told that a definitive cause could not be identified and both EVAs were cancelled. After Columbia had returned to Earth, inspections revealed that a small screw had worked its way loose from an internal assembly and lodged in a gearbox-like actuator. This made all of Jernigan and Jones’ efforts to open the hatch fruitless. When the actuator was replaced, the hatch opened normally.
Extended by two days, Columbia touched down on 7 December, completing a record-breaking 18-day mission, a duration achievement which would remain unbroken until the very end of the shuttle era. By the middle of 1997, Jones had been named to another crew. Paired with veteran spacewalker Mark Lee, he would support three EVAs on STS-98, which would deliver the U.S. Destiny laboratory to the ISS. However, as hardware and other delays plagued the program, STS-98 slipped far beyond its original May 1999 launch date, into 2000 and beyond. In the meantime, the rest of the crew—Commander Ken Cockrell, Pilot Mark Polansky, and Mission Specialist Marsha Ivins—was assigned, but in September 1999, with launch only months away, Mark Lee was dramatically removed from STS-98.
By his own admission, Jones was stunned. “His leadership and hard work in preparing for … the Lab EVAs had been not only superlative, but, to me, indispensable.” For a time, Jones and his crewmates considered resigning from STS-98, but recognized the futility of such a move. A new crew would be appointed “and our colleagues would have less than a year to prepare for the mission.” Shortly thereafter, astronaut Bob Curbeam was assigned to STS-98 and Tom Jones—who had come within a hair’s breadth of performing an EVA on STS-80 and had been training for the Destiny EVAs for more than two years, but had yet to actually make a spacewalk—was unexpectedly moved into the position of lead spacewalker for arguably the most important flight in the early ISS assembly sequence.
STS-98 eventually launched on 7 February 2001, aboard Atlantis, and two days earlier the shuttle successfully docked at the nascent space station, which was then occupied by the Expedition 1 crew of Commander Bill Shepherd and Flight Engineers Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko. At length, on the 10th, after more than a full decade as an astronaut, Tom Jones finally got his chance to venture outside on an EVA. “I stopped outside the airlock for a moment, exulting in the sensation of free-fall,” he wrote. “Twisting slightly to the left and right, I discovered that moving the suit took almost no effort at all. After waiting and working nearly 11 years for this moment, I was free—and perched on the edge of the cosmos.”
By the time STS-98 ended, he and Curbeam would have supported no fewer than three EVAs and spent 19 hours and 49 minutes in the vacuum of space, making Jones to this day the 84th most experienced spacewalker of all time. Their EVAs also provoked a rather interesting question which remains unanswered to this day. Jones understood that the third EVA of STS-98 would mark the 100th U.S. spacewalk since Ed White’s pioneering excursion in June 1965 and planned to commemorate it with a few words. He was prevented from doing so, when a message from NASA Public Affairs reached them to inform them that the actual 100th U.S. spacewalk had taken place during their second EVA, a couple of days earlier. Jones made little note of the peculiarity in Skywalking—remarking simply that “It was nice that they caught their mistake, but why cut it so close? Oh, well, we all make mistakes; I could think of a few of my own without too much trouble”—but the incident and the “miscount” led to some speculation aboard a covert EVA on an earlier classified shuttle mission, which may help to explain the discrepancy.
Atlantis returned to Earth on 20 February, wrapping up Jones’ fourth and last mission and giving him a career total of over 53 days in space. “Although my EVA experience gave me some prospect of flying again in the next three years,” he acquiesced, “the wait for my fifth mission might be a long one.” He duly resigned from the astronaut corps later in 2001. Yet Tom Jones’ astronaut career traced the evolution of the shuttle program from a standalone research platform into the vehicle which would construct a permanent research platform, the multi-national outpost. And when the ISS passes, star-like, across Earth’s skies, a part of its structure was put there through no small effort by Thomas David Jones himself—truly a fitting and proud legacy.