Almost a quarter-century ago, astronaut Loren Shriver—who turns 70 today (Tuesday, 23 September)—commanded a shuttle mission into the highest orbit ever attained by one of the reusable vehicles. On 24 April 1990, he led the crew of STS-31 to deliver NASA’s scientific showpiece, the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope (HST), into an orbit about 330 miles (530 km) above Earth, and in doing so helped to kick off one of the most remarkable missions of scientific exploration in human history. Yet Shriver’s career was filled with contrasts, from the intense publicity of STS-31 to the utmost secrecy of his first shuttle flight, STS-51C, and from an “All-American” mission for the Department of Defense to a voyage which boasted representatives of three sovereign nations on STS-46.
Loren James Shriver was born in Jefferson, Iowa, on 23 September 1944. Unlike many of his peers, who either grew up in a military family or dreamed of aviation, Shriver had no such aspirations as a child. “When I was a young boy,” he told the NASA oral historian, “we lived on a farm in Iowa, so I often wonder how I got started in wanting to be a pilot.” Not until his mid-teens did the “Space Age” begin, and, even then, it did not drive an ambition within him. In fact, an interest in engineering an aviation grew out of nowhere at high school.
Having been accepted to study at Iowa State University, the problem of paying for a college education led Shriver to the Air Force Academy. He passed through “prep school” and undertook training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, then entered the Academy in 1963. “It’s only authorized to give bachelor’s-level degrees,” Shriver remembered, “but I was among a group of several guys that took advance courses and they were credited by Purdue University.”
Consequently, after receiving his undergraduate degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Academy in 1967, Shriver worked feverishly to complete the remainder of his master’s degree in astronautical engineering at Purdue. By January 1968, with his master’s degree in hand, he entered pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Okla. After four years there as a T-38 Talon instructor, in 1973 Shriver qualified in the F-4 Phantom II and was sent to Thailand.
The prospect of becoming an astronaut had still not figured on his radar; by his own admission, he was simply following areas of aviation which fascinated him, although test pilot school beckoned and he spent much of 1975 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. He later served on the joint test force for the new F-15 Eagle. When the NASA call for astronauts materialized in the summer of 1977, around 60 percent of the pilots at Edwards applied. Shriver’s wife was none too keen, but eventually agreed and he submitted his application. He was called to Houston in late September, part of the fourth interview group, which also included Rick Hauck and Dick Scobee, and remembered being somewhat bemused the following January when Director of Flight Crew Operations George Abbey informed him, matter-of-factly, of his selection as a shuttle pilot candidate.
One of his earliest technical duties was the development of a night landing system, which was first trialed during STS-8’s nocturnal touchdown in September 1983. “The shuttle is a hypersonic vehicle,” Shriver said, “and during re-entry, everything’s got to be behind the [protective] tiles and inside the mold line. When the gear comes down, there are no landing lights on the shuttle. A normal airplane has several lights that come down when the gear are extended or other lights that the crew can deploy or turn on.” The Space Shuttle Program (SSP) needed the capability to land at night, in order to declare the fleet fully operational, and the solution was to create illumination on the ground, in addition to normal runway lights.
“There were lots of cues for the pilots, but there was nothing illuminating the touchdown zone,” said Shriver. “We had to figure out a way to supply some of that lighting onto the touchdown zone and far enough ahead that the commander could get the visual cues that he would normally have to fly in and land. We experimented with a number of methods to fly the glide slope on and then, after the pre-flare, to fly the shallow glide slope. We used various combinations of other high-powered lighting systems and ended up zeroing-in on xenon lights. We found that certain arrangements of these lights in groups of two or four, and angled across the touchdown zone, not only headed the pilots in the right direction, but supplied the light. Then it became apparent that, once the pilots came in, if the light sources were “behind” them and they were trying to land on a lakebed, the wingtip vortexes and the shuttle’s rollout would produce a huge amount of dust, which would start to cut out the light in the rest of the touchdown zone. So it’s maybe not a good thing to try to land on a lakebed at night, because the dust is soon going to block out all the light. Very soon after that, we put all that stuff on the concrete runways and decided if we were going to land at night, we wanted to land on a hard surface. It was an evolving process.”
In October 1982, Shriver was named as pilot of STS-10, which was scheduled for launch in September of the following year and would mark the first classified Department of Defense shuttle mission. He was joined by Ken Mattingly in the commander’s seat and mission specialists Ellison Onizuka and Jim Buchli. Shriver was unsurprised that his crewmates were all active-duty military officers. “I think NASA believed that it didn’t have to do that,” he reflected, “but I think it also believed that things would probably go a lot smoother if they did.”
However, STS-10 proved a long time coming. Its primary payload required a Boeing-built Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) to deliver it from the shuttle into its operational orbit, but this solid-fueled booster had given a less than auspicious performance on STS-6 in April 1983. All future IUS-boosted missions were delayed, including STS-10, whose crew found itself indefinitely grounded. By November 1983, they were reassigned to a new mission, STS-41E, planned for a July 1984 launch. However, this was also delayed in the wake of Discovery’s dramatic on-the-pad abort, just seconds before liftoff, on 26 June 1984.
For a time, Shriver wondered if he would ever fly, but unlike other missions, they were a Department of Defense crew. “You were kind of linked to it,” he said, “as long as there was some thought that it was going to happen and it never did completely go away. It just went kind of inactive for a while.” At length, Mattingly, Shriver, Onizuka, and Buchli—who had by now been joined by an Air Force Manned Spaceflight Engineer (MSE), Gary Payton—were reassigned to Mission 51C and scheduled for December 1984. Processing delays to their orbiter, Challenger, caused the flight to move onto her sister, Discovery, which effected a slight postponement until late January 1985.
Throughout these delays, the crew continued to train for their mission. Its classified nature meant that they often had to “disguise” the places where they were training. For instance, they might file a T-38 flight plan to Denver, Colo., then file new ones to the San Francisco Bay area, then rent a car to reach their destination at Sunnyvale, Calif. They were obliged to perform training sessions by day and night, to keep the exact launch time a secret from prying eyes and minds, and on one occasion their secretary booked “secret” motel rooms for them at an undisclosed destination.
Due to the classified nature of the flight, some Air Force officials did not even want the precise launch date, or even the astronauts’ names, released to the public. Loren Shriver was not alone in his amazement at this excessive insistence on secrecy. “We weren’t going to be able to invite guests for the launch in the beginning,” he told the NASA oral historian. “This is your lifelong dream and ambition. You’re finally an astronaut and you’re going to go fly the Space Shuttle and you can’t invite anybody to come watch … We finally got them talked into letting us invite … 30 people, and then maybe some car-pass guests, who could drive out on the causeway … but trying to decide who, among all of your relatives and your wife’s relatives, are going to be among the 30 who get to come see the launch, well, it’s a career-limiting kind of decision if you make the wrong decision. You have part of the family mad at you for the rest of your life!”
Fortunately, Shriver’s family and most of his wife’s relatives were from Iowa, which was sufficiently distant for many to be unable to make the journey to Florida. Privately, Shriver and his crewmates were worried that their inability to discuss the mission openly might compromise their preparedness and the thoroughness of their training.
At length, Discovery thundered into orbit on 24 January and spent 73 hours aloft, deploying its classified payload and spending the shortest time in space of any “operational” shuttle mission. Despite his position in command, Ken Mattingly described 51C as “Loren’s mission,” since it allowed Shriver to cut his teeth as a first-time shuttle pilot, before moving up to command his own flight. By the summer of 1985, Shriver had been assigned to lead Mission 61M, scheduled for July 1986 to deploy a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) and operate McDonnell Douglas’ Electrophoresis Operations in Space (EOS) payload. He would have been joined by pilot Bryan O’Connor, mission specialists Sally Ride, Bill Fisher, and Mark Lee and a McDonnell Douglas payload specialist, Bob Wood.
Of course, the tragic loss of Challenger in January 1986 put paid to Shriver’s hope of commanding his mission, and the entire shuttle program was brought to its knees for almost three years. His next flight assignment in March 1988 came as something of a surprise, for it was in command of perhaps the most important shuttle mission of the immediate post-51L era: the deployment of Hubble. He was joined by four other veteran astronauts: Bruce McCandless, Steve Hawley, and Kathy Sullivan, as well as pilot Charlie Bolden, who is today’s incumbent NASA Administrator. “If there were ever two missions that were completely opposite in terms of the public attention that was given to them, it would be my first and second missions,” Shriver told the NASA oral historian. “It seems like, sometimes, everybody in the world was interested in that and what it would be and what it could do. There was a lot of publicity surrounding the mission.”
Launched on 24 April 1990, STS-31 rocketed into the highest orbit yet attained by a shuttle crew: some 330 miles (530 km). Putting this into context, and excluding the Apollo lunar voyages, an altitude this high had not been achieved by U.S. astronauts since Gemini XI reached 850 miles (1,370 km) in September 1966. Shriver’s crew successfully deployed Hubble and returned safely to Earth after five days in orbit. The winds at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., were described as very high—in fact, Shriver’s brother and uncle were staying there, in a camper van, and had been unable to sleep, so strong was the buffeting—but Discovery’s landing was smooth and precise.
In the aftermath of STS-31, Shriver and fellow astronauts Jim Wetherbee and Dave Hilmers were named as a backup crew for the time-critical STS-41 Ulysses deployment mission in October 1990. Although NASA had stopped announcing shuttle backup crews several years before, a respiratory ailment in one of the STS-36 astronauts in February 1990 had forced a launch delay. Ulysses’ narrow, 18-day launch “window” made such a delay unacceptable and thus the prime and backup crews trained in tandem. Fortunately, the backup crew was not needed, and in December 1990 Shriver was reassigned to command STS-46, a multi-faceted science mission to deploy the Italian Tethered Satellite System (TSS) and the European Retrievable Carrier (EURECA).
Launched on 31 July 1992, the seven-strong crew included Switzerland’s first man in space, Claude Nicollier, plus Italy’s first man in space, Franco Malerba, making it only the fourth shuttle flight in history—after STS-51G, STS-61A and STS-42—to feature representatives of three discrete sovereign nations. They even informally added STS-46 Payload Commander Jeff Hoffman’s English-born wife, Barbara, to the crew roster. “It never ceases to amaze me,” said Shriver, “how quickly crews coalesce into a highly-functional unit. Once you get worked out who is going to be doing what … then the plans start to fall in place and you go off and start training and everybody knows what they need to do.”
Seven astronauts in a relatively closed area of the flight deck and middeck did make for somewhat crowded conditions, although Shriver admitted that the three-dimensionality of operating in microgravity did not cause undue difficulty. “It was a little more crowded on the flight deck,” he told the NASA oral historian, “during the busy periods, but everybody had a specific function for being up there: whether it was doing shuttle-related stuff, or flying the shuttle, as I was doing, or operating the systems of the satellite itself. Everybody had a specific purpose and it worked out fine. In zero-G, you tend not to notice the congestion as much, just because you can occupy more of the space than you can on the ground.”
STS-46 successfully deployed EURECA to begin 10 months of free-flying scientific and technological experiments, although the effort to deploy the Tethered Satellite stalled when its 12-mile-long (20-km) electrodynamic tether jammed at a distance of just 840 feet (257 meters) and would budge no further. The crew returned safely to Earth on 8 August 1992, marking the last shuttle mission to land without a drag chute.
Two months later, he was assigned as deputy chief of the astronaut office, and in 1993 he retired from the Air Force, with the rank of Colonel, and became Space Shuttle Program Manager for Launch Integration at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). He subsequently served from 1997 as deputy director for Launch and Payload Processing, before departing NASA in March 2000 to assume the role of Deputy Program Manager for the Space Shuttle Program for United Space Alliance (USA). Shriver held this post until his retirement in 2006. Married with four children, he is a veteran of three shuttle missions, spent a cumulative 16 days in orbit, and circled Earth a total of 252 times.