Hank Hartsfield, Shuttle Discovery’s First Commander, Dies Aged 80

STS4-088-S82-32199-5.29.82 Retro Space Images post of NASA image of STS 4 Hank Hartsfield Ken Mattingly Photo Credit NASA / Retro Space Images posted on AmericaSpace
Hank Hartsfield (left), pictured with crewmate Ken Mattingly, shortly before the launch of STS-4 in June 1982. Photo Credit: NASA

Former NASA astronaut Hank Hartsfield, a veteran of three shuttle missions in the early 1980s—including command of the maiden voyage of the fleet leader, Discovery—passed away earlier today (Thursday, 17 July), reportedly due to complications from recent back surgery. He was 80. The news of Hartsfield’s death was reported by the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) and his former crewmate Mike Mullane added a touching Facebook tribute in which he reflected on “a great Commander and Pilot” and noted that he was “honored to have been a member of his crew.”

Henry Warren Hartsfield, Jr., came from Birmingham, Ala., where he was born on 21 November 1933. “When I was a kid, all I thought about was flying,” he told a NASA oral historian in June 2001. “The guy my dad worked for smoked Wings cigarettes; an old brand that has a little picture of an airplane on every pack. He used to bring them home to me [and] I collected those cards.” Hartsfield graduated from local high school and was accepted into Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., majoring in chemical engineering … until he found out that he was “a natural disaster in the chemistry lab, always blowing things up and catching things afire.” He switched to physics, which he thoroughly enjoyed, and received his degree in 1954. As a member of the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps of Engineers, he noticed a call from the Air Force for pilots and underwent tests at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. Hartsfield entered the Air Force in 1955 and immediately began theoretical physics work, hoping to achieve a master’s qualification. The service agreed to delay his entry into active duty until the following year, but, despite a strong letter of support from the head of his physics department, refused to grant him additional time to complete his degree. Thankfully, Hartsfield loved flying and decided to remain in the Air Force.

Primary training in Georgia and Texas was quickly followed by gunnery training at Williams Air Force Base in Mesa, Ariz., at which time he flew F-86 Sabre jets, then the F-100 Super Sabre, and eventually the F-105 Thunderchief. During this period, Hartsfield qualified as a fighter pilot and in 1959 decided to pursue a route into the space program. He was selected to attend the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio, for a master’s degree in the new field of “astronautics,” but left partway through his course to continue his flying career and build up enough hours to attend test pilot school. Allowed to resign from his degree without prejudice, Hartsfield found himself, within a month, flying an F-105 from the large air base at Bitburg in West Germany. The assignment lasted for three years and as soon as he passed the magic mark of 1,500 hours in high-performance jets, he applied for test pilot school … “and was selected, right off the bat. It was first try, so I was fortunate.”

Selected as an astronaut by NASA in September 1969, Hank Hartsfield served on the support crew of Apollo 16 and as a member of the backup crew for all three Skylab missions. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de
Selected as an astronaut by NASA in September 1969, Hank Hartsfield served on the support crew of Apollo 16 and as a member of the backup crew for all three Skylab missions. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Whilst at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Hartsfield met three other students, named Al Worden, Charlie Duke, and Stu Roosa, all of whom had their sights firmly set on the space program. At that time, there were two possible routes: either through NASA or via the Air Force. If they applied for the latter, the Air Force would nominate them for either NASA or its own Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) project. Worden, Duke, and Roosa applied only to NASA and were selected by the agency in the summer of 1966. Hartsfield applied to both … and was picked for MOL. Shortly after the crushing disappointment of MOL’s cancellation by President Richard M. Nixon in June 1969, he was selected by NASA as a member of its seventh astronaut class. At the same time, Hartsfield opted for a master’s degree in engineering science at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn., and graduated in 1971.

During this period, Hartsfield was assigned—together with fellow astronauts Tony England and Don Peterson—to the “support crew” for Apollo 16, which embarked on the penultimate manned voyage to the Moon in April 1972. He worked closely with the flight’s command module pilot, Ken Mattingly, and the two men developed an excellent, attention-to-detail rapport, which may have contributed to them eventually flying a shuttle mission together. In the aftermath of Apollo, Hartsfield served on the support crews for all three Skylab missions in 1973-1974 and worked throughout the remainder of the decade on the development of the shuttle, focusing specifically upon its flight control systems. He retired from active duty in the Air Force in 1977, having reached the rank of Colonel, but remained at NASA in a civilian capacity. At around the same time, the crews were announced for the first four Orbital Flight Tests (OFTs) of the shuttle, but unfortunately Hartsfield’s name was not among them.

That changed in the fall of 1979, when he and Mattingly were summoned to join fellow astronauts Jack Lousma and Gordon Fullerton—both of whom had been assigned to STS-3, the third OFT mission—for a joint session of training. “It was kinda funny,” Hartsfield recalled in his NASA oral history, “because it scared them. Lousma made a panic call to Houston; [he] thought we were going to replace them.” In fact, Mattingly and Hartsfield would serve as Lousma and Fullerton’s backup crew for STS-3. “It was a little bit confusing as to the way the crews were announced, because no one really knew. It was a standard joke…around the office, trying to figure out this crew structure and how it was going to work.” Mattingly and Hartsfield need not have worried. After pulling backup duty for both STS-2 and STS-3, on 1 March 1982 NASA formally announced their names to fly the fourth and final OFT mission, STS-4.

Mattingly and Hartsfield launched aboard Columbia on 27 June 1982, on a seven-day flight to test the shuttle’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm, conduct hot and cold “soaks” of the orbiter’s airframe in space and perform a battery of scientific and technological experiments, including the first classified Department of Defense payload. As recounted in a recent AmericaSpace history article, the flight was an enormous success, with Mattingly and Hartsfield landing Columbia successfully on 4 July at Edwards Air Force Base, to be greeted by President Ronald Reagan.

Hartsfield (left) and Mattingly are greeted by President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan after STS-4. Photo Credit: NASA
Hartsfield (left) and Mattingly are greeted by President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan after STS-4. Photo Credit: NASA

Several months later, in February 1983, Hartsfield was named as commander of his first crew, STS-12, then planned for liftoff in March 1984. It was originally tasked to deploy the third of NASA’s “constellation” of Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS), although a booster malfunction during a previous mission caused this payload to be dropped. After many changes, having been redesignated “STS-41D” and having also endured the shuttle program’s first on-the-pad abort at T-4 seconds in June 1984, Hartsfield and his crew eventually launched on 30 August. Their six-day mission was the maiden voyage of Discovery and also became the first shuttle flight to launch as many as three communications satellites: Satellite Business Systems (SBS)-4, Telstar-3C, and the U.S. Navy’s Syncom 4-F2. The astronauts extended an experimental solar sail, measuring 102 feet (31 meters) long, for NASA’s Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology (OAST) and included among their number Charlie Walker, the first “industry” payload specialist, flying for McDonnell Douglas.

Never one of the most politically correct astronauts, Hartsfield’s crew had been dubbed “The Zoo Crew” by the 41D secretaries and, as the commander, he earned the moniker “Zoo Keeper.” In his 2006 memoir Riding Rockets, 41D crewman Mike Mullane wrote a great deal about his commander’s decidedly right-of-center political stance. At Hartsfield’s 50th birthday celebration in November 1983, the Astronaut Office presented him with outrageously satirical gifts: a copy of Ms magazine, signed by feminist journalist Gloria Steinem, a fake congratulatory message from the American Civil Liberties Union, and fake letters from Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov (thanking him for promoting global communism) and from Senator Ted Kennedy (thanking him for his “recent donation” to the Democratic Party).

Three weeks before lifting off on STS-41D, Hartsfield had been assigned to command STS-61A, the first Spacelab science mission dedicated to experiments sponsored by West Germany. Scheduled for launch in October 1985, the mission roared into orbit on the 30th of that month, marking the first (and only) occasion in spaceflight history that a crew of as many as eight people had launched and landed on the same vehicle. Hartsfield’s crew included five NASA members and three payload specialists, two from West Germany and one of whom—Wubbo Ockels, who died in May 2014—became Holland’s first citizen in space. During the course of the mission, the astronauts supported dozens of scientific and technological experiments, landing on 6 November, to conclude what turned out to be the final successful flight by the orbiter Challenger. Less than three months later, she was catastrophically lost, shortly after launch, killing her seven-strong crew.

Hank Hartsfield (bottom center), surrounded by his STS-41D crewmates on the maiden voyage of Discovery in August 1984. Photo Credit: NASA
Hank Hartsfield (bottom center), surrounded by his STS-41D crewmates on the maiden voyage of Discovery in August 1984. Photo Credit: NASA

In the aftermath of Challenger, Hartsfield served as deputy chief of the Astronaut Office and in 1987 became deputy director of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate. In this position, he was involved in the supervision of all activities within the Astronaut Office and Aircraft Operations at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. Following a temporary assignment to the Office of Space Flight at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., during which he facilitated the integration of Space Station Freedom and its unique requirements into the shuttle systems, he was appointed in 1990 as deputy manager of operations at the Space Station Projects Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Hartsfield later served as deputy manager of the office, then oversaw the Man-Tended Capability (MTC) phase. With the demise of Space Station Freedom, in 1993 he was appointed as manager of the International Space Station (ISS) Independent Assessment and later headed NASA’s Human Exploration and Development of Space (HEDS) Independent Assurance. He left NASA in 1998 and spent several years as a Raytheon executive, before retiring in 2005.

Married to the former Judy Frances Massey of Princeton, N.C., Hartsfield was the father of daughters Judy and Keely, the latter of whom predeceased him in March 2014. To the entire Hartsfield family, the AmericaSpace team extends its sincere condolences.


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  1. Hank Hartsfield was one of the astronauts who wrote me a personal letter way back in the Apollo days when I practically bombarded the Astronaut Office with questions and requests for flight plans, data books, etc. He had the patience and took the time to write me personally. I still have the letter.
    RIP Hank!

  2. So very sorry to get news like this. He was a pleasure to talk with at ASF events.

  3. Very sorry to hear about Hank Hartsfield’s death. It’s a really sad day when astronauts who are such positive and bright individuals of high accomplishment and passion, pass away. RIP Hank. My condolences to his family.

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