Over his career as an astronaut, Henry “Hank” Hartsfield Jr. spent only 20 days in orbit – but they were very good days.
“I’ve never had so much fun,” he once said of his first mission, a test flight of the shuttle Columbia that made a triumphant July 4 touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base in 1982.
He was less ebullient in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded and seven astronauts perished. By then, Hartsfield, who had flown into space on Columbia, Discovery and Challenger, learned that NASA officials had failed to inform him and others about a mechanical problem involving malfunctioning seals.
“I was surprised and angry we didn’t know this,” he told reporters. “If we don’t make something better out of this, we’re missing a safe bet. I think my friends who died would want us to be better for it.”
Hartsfield, an Air Force test pilot who joined NASA in 1969 but had to wait 13 years before going into space, died July 17 in League City, Texas. He was 80. His death was announced by NASA, which described its cause only as an illness.
An unflappable man with an Alabama drawl, Hartsfield was a space rookie at 48. As copilot of the Columbia, he spent seven days in space with commander Ken Mattingly on a mission described by the Los Angeles Times as “rekindling America’s love affair with manned space flight.”
When they landed, more than 500,000 people jammed Mojave Desert highways for a glimpse of the incoming Columbia. Fascinated by the venture, more than a million Americans had called a special phone line to listen in on the Columbia duo’s laconic conversations with ground control.
Showing their support for the space program, President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan were on hand to greet the returning heroes. Columbia disintegrated on a mission in 2003, killing its seven-member crew.
In 1984, Hartsfield commanded the space shuttle Discovery on its maiden voyage, a flight that had been delayed by potentially lethal mechanical problems three times, once just four seconds before liftoff. At one point, he decided to keep his frustrated crew in their cramped capsule because of a fire on the launchpad.
“At a press conference we all lied about the tension in the cockpit following the abort and the fire,” fellow astronaut Mike Mullane wrote in his 2006 memoir “Riding Rockets.” “Hank … did the ‘Right Stuff’ routine of ‘Aaawh shucks, ma’am. Tweren’t nothing.”‘