When we think of “astronauts,” we think of the hundreds of heroes who have voyaged beyond the sensible atmosphere, into low-Earth orbit, and beyond, into cislunar space, lunar orbit, and even the dusty surface of the Moon itself. However, it is a sad fact of history that many outstanding individuals fell short of that goal. Some of them—like the tragic Apollo 1 crew—breathed their last on the launch pad, before ever having the chance to complete their mission, whilst others lost their lives in untimely aircraft disasters and other calamities. Yet arguably one of the saddest stories is that of Shuttle Challenger’s final pilot, Mike Smith, who would have turned 70 today (Thursday, 30 April). Originally earmarked for the first shuttle flight out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., he also backed up a fellow pilot on another mission, and had it not been for his untimely death aboard Challenger on 28 January 1986 he might have become the United States’ 121st spacefarer.
Michael John Smith was born in Morehead, N.C., across the Newport River, to the west of Beaufort, on 30 April 1945, the son of Robert L. Smith and Lucile Safrit Smith. Aviation fascinated him from a young age and, as a child, he watched with fascination and excitement as aircraft took off and landed on an airstrip adjacent to his family’s farm. “I can never remember anything I wanted to do but fly,” he was once quoted. Shortly before his 16th birthday, Smith wrote to his cousin and highlighted one of his worries: how to pass an upcoming test for his pilot’s license and fly solo. As described in an article by the U.S. Naval Institute, he forgot to mail the letter and later scribbled a postscript: “I went flying, all right. I soloed!”
He entered the Naval Academy, where he was described as a “hard worker and gifted student,” and emerged in 1967 with a degree in naval science. In addition to his academic study, Smith was an accomplished athlete. “Mike helped anchor the consistently strong Sixth Battalion football team,” it was noted in his undergraduate yearbook. “During the winter, he has divided his time between the weight room and the boxing ring, while in the spring he relaxes by participating in the softball league.” A year after receipt of his degree, Smith gained a master’s credential in aeronautical engineering.
He completed flight instruction in Kingsville, Texas, won his aviator’s wings of gold in May 1969—shortly after the birth of his first child, Scott—and was assigned to the Advanced Jet Training Command. After two years as an instructor pilot, Smith deployed to Vietnam aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and flew A-6 Intruders as part of Attack Squadron 52 (the “Knightriders”), along the way earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. Smith completed Naval Test Pilot School in 1974—one of only 10 pilots that year to make the grade to do so—and was detailed to the Strike Aircraft Test Directorate at Patuxent River, Md., working on missile guidance systems for the A-6. He subsequently served as an instructor at the school and completed two deployments to the Mediterranean Sea, as a pilot and maintenance officer aboard the USS Saratoga. By this time, he had become a father twice more, to Alison in June 1971 and to Erin in August 1977.
Following NASA’s selection of the first class of shuttle astronauts in January 1978, he applied for admission into their ranks. By the beginning of 1980, no fewer than 3,122 applications had been received for shuttle pilot and mission specialist positions, and on 7 April Smith was invited to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, along with 19 others, as part of the fourth group of candidates, for a week of interviews and physical and psychological screening. Whilst there, he met four other candidates in particular—Guy Gardner, Ron Grabe, Bryan O’Connor, and Dick Richards—who would shortly be selected with him as members of NASA’s ninth class of astronauts. The agency announced their names in May 1980, and in August of the following year Smith qualified as a shuttle pilot.
His early years were spent in a variety of capacities, including command of the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL), deputy chief of Aircraft Operations, technical assistant in the Flight Operations Directorate, and membership of the Astronaut Office’s Development and Test Group. Smith participated in the development of a night landing system for the shuttle and in November 1986 would posthumously be awarded a Presidential Commendation for his work.
On 7 June 1984, Smith was assigned as Pilot of Mission 51H, then planned for a 27 November 1985 liftoff aboard Atlantis. Joined by Commander Vance Brand, Mission Specialists Owen Garriott, Bob Springer, and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Claude Nicollier, together with Payload Specialists Byron Lichtenberg and Mike Lampton, he would have supported the first Earth Observation Mission (EOM-1), featuring a Spacelab short module and single pallet, laden with space plasma physics, solar physics, atmospheric physics, astronomy, and Earth observation experiments.
However, with the pre-Challenger shuttle manifest in near-constant flux, crew assignments regularly changed. At one stage, Smith was also tipped to fly Mission 62A, the first shuttle flight out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., but it was also expected to include Navy Capt. Bob Crippen and the Air Force did not desire two naval officers to serve as commander and pilot for the inaugural manned space voyage from one of their facilities. As a consequence, in January 1985, Air Force pilot Guy Gardner was assigned to join Crippen. By this stage, Smith had also trained in a backup capacity for fellow astronaut Loren Shriver, who suffered what has been described as “a potentially career-ending medical problem.” As circumstances transpired, Shriver recovered and remained on flight status to fly Mission 51C in January 1985, but in his memoir, Riding Rockets, fellow astronaut Mike Mullane noted that “had the sick pilot’s convalescence taken just a few more weeks, [Smith] would have flown on the earlier mission and another pilot would have died on Challenger.”
Two days after the completion of Mission 51C, on 29 January 1985, Smith was announced as Pilot for Mission 51L, which was then targeted for launch aboard Atlantis in November of that year. With this assignment, he joined Commander Dick Scobee and Mission Specialists Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, and Ron McNair. Their original goal was to deploy a NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) and one of the communications satellites—either Palapa-B2 or Westar-VI—which had been recently retrieved from orbit during Mission 51A in November 1984. As 1985 wore on, however, Mission 51L’s objectives morphed. By late March, the crew had retained their TDRS payload, but had lost the Palapa/Westar in favor of a retrievable Spartan free-flyer, dedicated to observations of Comet Halley. Their orbiter also changed from Atlantis to Challenger, and the targeted date for liftoff slipped until no sooner than 22 January 1986. By the time Mission 51L approached its launch date, the crew size had expanded to seven, with the addition of Payload Specialists Greg Jarvis of Hughes Aircraft and civilian teacher Christa McAuliffe.
As he spent his final days on Earth, Smith was aware that upon his return from the six-day Mission 51L he would plunge directly in training for his second flight. In September 1985, he had been named as Pilot of Mission 61I, scheduled for launch in the fall of 1986. His crewmates included Commander Don Williams and Mission Specialists Bonnie Dunbar, Jim Bagian, and Manley “Sonny” Carter, and they were initially tasked with the deployment of the large Intelsat 601 communications satellite and the long-awaited retrieval of NASA’s Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF). By the time of Smith’s death aboard Challenger on 28 January 1986, the Intelsat 601 payload had been dropped and replaced by India’s Insat-1C communications satellite, and launch of Mission 61I was anticipated no sooner than 27 September. The flight, also aboard Challenger, would have lasted five days.
Mission 61I would have seen a professional journalist taking one of its two Payload Specialist seats. At the time of the Challenger disaster, the number of applicants for this seat had been winnowed down to 40 semi-finalists, which including Pulitzer Prize winners John Noble Wilford and Peter Rinearson, freelancers Jay Barbree, Time’s Roger Rosenblatt, and veteran CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite. (Interestingly, John Noble Wilford later shared a second Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his reporting of the Challenger disaster and its aftermath.) The candidates were expected to undertake screening at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, in April 1986, and the successful prime and backup candidates would have commenced training with the 61I crew in May. Also aboard the flight was an Indian crew member, mechanical engineer Nagapathi Bhat.
Following the loss of Challenger, Smith was interred in Arlington National Cemetery and was posthumously promoted by Congress to the rank of Captain in the U.S. Navy. A chair at the Naval Postgraduate School was named in his honor, and the Michael J. Smith Field airstrip, near his home in Beaufort, N.C., pays tribute to one of its most famous sons. In November 1986, in addition to gaining recognition for his role in the shuttle night landing system, Smith and the four NASA members of Mission 51L were awarded the agency’s Distinguished Service Medal. Eighteen years later, in July 2004, the entire 51L crew received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.