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At 75 years young, Dr. Norman E. Thagard is a Floridian whose work has been immortalized in history books. While he jokes about being a foot-note on Sally Ride’s first trip to space, Dr. Thagard has had a long and illustrious career as a doctor, pilot, engineer, astronaut and first American Cosmonaut.
A two-time graduate of Florida State University, Dr. Thagard exemplifies a lifelong commitment to education. He attended the University of Florida in his mid-sixties in pursuit of an MBA, a degree that he felt he needed as he worked to co-found the Challenger Learning Center in Downtown Tallahassee.
In his interview with April Salter, Dr. Thagard discusses the early days of NASA’s space program, the intense training and schooling he endured to become an astronaut, and the nearly six-months he spent in space with a Russian crew.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the Sunshine State's brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and it's millions of weekly visitors.
In this episode, created by SalterMitchell PR, our executive producer, April Salter, the CEO of SalterMitchell PR talks to NASA astronaut Norman Thagard.
April Salter: Today's guest on Fluent in Floridian is Norman Thagard, who is an American scientist and a former U.S. Marine Corps officer, a naval aviator, and what he's perhaps best known for, a NASA astronaut. He was the first American to ride to space onboard a Russian vehicle, and is considered to be the first American cosmonaut. So welcome to the show, Norm. Thanks for coming.
Dr. Thagard: Well, thanks for having me.
April Salter: You have had quite an interesting career. We certainly have had guests from all over Florida, but we've never had one who spent any time in outer space. Can you just talk a little bit about the context of the size of the space program in the 1970s and the 1980s, when you were involved? What it felt like to be at Kennedy Space Center at that time?
Dr. Thagard: The astronauts, I know it's commonly thought that we are from Kennedy Space Center, are based there. The fact is, we lived in Houston and we're at Johnson Space Center. We didn't spend necessarily all that much time at the Cape, but it was an exciting place to go because that's where all the action was. When you weren't training and actually flying, you would be down there to go launch and fly in space.
April Salter: Mm-hmm (affirmative). There must've been just mobs of people who would come to see you, to see the space center, and so forth. What was that like?
Dr. Thagard: If you mean Johnson Space Center, we some time actually had to conduct tours for some people. Not the general public. But I remember that there was one influential Saudi who came there, and I helped give him a tour when they opened Space Center, Houston, which was the visitors' center there. Actually, we had a visitors' center before that, but that was the big rebuild of it. I had to be there for the opening of that.
Dr. Thagard: Then Barbie Benton, who at one point was Hugh Hefner's girlfriend, came. I was tasked to give her a tour of one of our simulator buildings.
April Salter: I bet both of you enjoyed that tour very much.
Dr. Thagard: Well, I have a nice picture from her, thanking me for the tour.
April Salter: Okay. The original space race really began in the 1950s, and didn't end until the early 1990s, and the end of the Cold War. You were the first American cosmonaut when you flew your fifth mission on the Mir, which is the Russian space station. How different was it to launch out of Russia versus launching out of Cape Canaveral or the Johnson Space Center?
Dr. Thagard: The differences that stand out in my mind have to ... First of all, the preparation is almost identical between what we do at NASA and what the Russians did. But the Soyuz is a lot smaller rocket. But unlike the Cape, where before they start putting fuel in the shuttle, they move everyone except for a small white room crew that assists the crew in getting on the vehicle back three miles from the pad. When I went out to launch on the Soyuz, I had two doctors on either side of me because I was in quarantine, as you always are. They had to push their way through this crowd of people right at the base of the launchpad. I thought that was remarkable because the Russians, it wasn't a Soyuz, a craft with people in it, but it was basically the same vehicle except they call it a Progress, because it had supplies on the top of it, and it killed 160 some odd people when it blew up. And yet, despite that, the Russians were allowing this huge crowd.
It was eerie on my first flight because you're used to being at the pad, and it's a beehive of activity. All kind of people are around. The morning we went out there on STS-7, my first flight in June 1983, it was before dawn. Once you got past that gate where the press side is and the launch control center is, then that next three miles, there was no one. The pad was bathed in these lights, very bright lights. But it was otherworldly. It was eerie because there was no one around. We went over to the elevator and pressed the button that says 195. That's the level where you board the ... 195 feet. When we got up there, we walked over toward the shuttle, across the gangplank. Because you've got a gangway that lets you in there, and they put a white covering over the part just as you go into the shuttle.
There, the white room crew was. That was a small group of technicians, including one of our own 1978 group of astronauts, Dave Walker, who also a Floridian. That was it. Other than us, our crew, the five of us and that small white room crew. No one there. Again, it was still dark, so it really stuck out in my mind as being otherworldly.
April Salter: So being in space on a Russian spacecraft, you spent 115 days in space, what was that like?
Dr. Thagard: The thing that made it different was that it was long duration. My longest shuttle flight had only been eight days. This started out, supposed to be a 90 day mission. But we were going to launch on a Russian Soyuz, which we did. But then at the end, the Atlantis, space shuttle Atlantis was going to come up and dock, and bring the Russians who would replace us. My two Russian crew mates and I, we'd get on it and come home.
There's a huge difference between a short shuttle flight, where you're so well-trained for everything you do. You could do it in your sleep. And a long duration flight, where you can't possibly train for everything that will come up. You have to actually learn some things while you're there. So kind of a different mission. Instead of having at least three other, well actually four other crew mates as I had on ... At least four others on my shuttle flights. For much of that 115 days, I only had two Russians. One of those two Russians, our commander, spoke no English. The flight engineer could speak English, but I would say 95% of the time I was conversing in Russian. Of course, I'm dealing with the Moscow Mission Control Center, where all the controllers, except for occasional talks with my American Flight Surgeon, he was on console in Moscow Mission Control Center, I'm dealing with Russians who are speaking in Russian.
April Salter: Did you speak Russian?
Dr. Thagard: I had to. As part of it, you have to take courses in all of the Soyuz capsule and rocket systems, and all of the Mir space station systems. When you finish one of those courses, the members of the training department there at Star City, which is the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, plus, in many cases, people from the Design Bureau, sometimes the very people who had designed those systems, and you'd sit at a table like we're sitting here today, and they'd array themselves in front of me, and they would fire questions at me in Russian, on their system. I had to answer those questions in Russian. I had to pass all those oral exams to fly. That, although the training was very similar to NASA's, that was a difference. Because at NASA, crews were never formally tested before flight.
If the training people thought you needed some extra help, they made sure you got it. But never took a test. In Russia, we actually had to take tests and pass those tests. Again, many of them as I've said were oral examinations in the Russian language. So I had no choice. I had to learn Russian.
April Salter: Did you teach your Russian partners, did you teach them English at all on the trip?
Dr. Thagard: I didn't try to teach them English. No. But again, our flight engineer could make himself understood in English. He spoke slowly, but he could do a credible job. But our commander never ...
April Salter: When you think back on that time, what are the things that really standout to you about the experience of being 115 days? Was it boring at times? Was it exciting?
Dr. Thagard: It was boring for me because I had primarily been sent there to do studies on the effects on humans of being in space for long duration. So I had collected a number of biological samples both from myself and my two Russian crew mates. Most of those samples had to be stored in a refrigerator, a freezer, in order to be preserved for post-flight analysis. That freezer failed.
April Salter: Oh, dear.
Dr. Thagard: When that freezer failed, a lot of what I'd been scheduled to do sort of went out the window. I wound up with not enough to do. When that happens, you're going to be bored. My two Russian crew mates were actually overworked, and I saw that, that led to some friction at times between them and the Mission Control Center.
So when I came back, I said it was important on long duration space flights to be kept reasonably busy with meaningful work because you don't want to be bored and you don't want to be overworked to the point where you have friction with the controllers on the ground.
April Salter: What do you think people don't understand about space and being an astronaut in general? What are some of the things that people may not think about?
Dr. Thagard: I think people don't realize how much work is involved. You don't get sent up when it costs half a billion dollars to fly a single shuttle flight to have a good time.
I remember on my first flight, it was about the third day, and Bob Crippen, our commander, finally came down on the mid-deck, where I'd been conducting a lot of physiological studies looking at space motion sickness. Basically told me to just take a break and go up to the flight deck and look out the window. You've got to have some time to just enjoy the experience.
But no, you hit the deck running, because shuttle flights were very short, and you had a lot to do, so the workload was intensive. I wouldn't say you were overworked, but you had to keep busy to accomplish what you were tasked to do.
April Salter: Dr. Thagard, tell us a little bit about growing up you were born in Marianna. Tell us about your family, your early life?
Dr. Thagard: I was born in Marianna because my dad was a bus driver for Greyhound during the war. I was born in 1943. He had been in training in the Signal Corps out of Fort Ord in California. Was injured in a training accident and the Army discharged him on partial disability. He was based out of Marianna, so I wound up being born there, but I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida.
April Salter: Any special memories of growing up in Jacksonville? What was it like as a kid?
Dr. Thagard: Well, Jacksonville, I liked it a lot. It as kind of funny because I started grade school. In the first grade I remember I could count to a million. I could read our textbook. I would sit there in class and the kids would say, "Look at S ... Spot." You didn't curse, because that wasn't what six year olds did, but I'd be sitting there thinking it's, "See the blank dog run." It was just frustrating.
When I was in second grade, they tried to move me to third grade. But they couldn't do it because third grade was on double sessions, as I recall. It was either second or ... But somewhere in there. Because of that, all my teachers always thought that I'd be a doctor. My parents did too. They said that one of my great grandfathers or something had been a doctor.
It was nice because you get a lot of inspiration. My dad was a truck driver and every summer he would take me on a trip with him. By the time I graduated high school, I had been to 36 states and Canada and within a block of Mexico out at El Paso. Some of my high school classmates had never been more than a few miles outside of Jacksonville. I really do think that gives you a wider view of things and helped me a lot in terms of outlook.
April Salter: Tell us a little bit about your educational path. How did you go from being an Engineering Science undergrad to becoming an astronaut?
Dr. Thagard: I came to Florida State in 1961, as an Engineering Science major, with the intent to get a Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering. That stemmed from getting a book in the school library in the seventh grade that showed how to build something called a foxhole radio, which was a form of crystal radio. So I got an interest in electronics. At 14, I became a ham operator.
But I was valedictorian of my high schools. All of my teachers and my whole family thought that I was going to be a doctor, or should be a doctor. I felt so too. My intent was to get that Bachelor's Degree in Engineering only because I had a hobbyist interest in electronics. But I never really intended to make my living as an electrical engineer. I was going to med school after graduation.
But the first thing you discover, or I discovered when I got to Florida State is they required all male students to take ROTC, either Army or Air Force, for their first two years there. I signed up for the Air Force. They stressed in ROTC that you had a draft, and you were going to do military service. I also had a huge interest in airplanes from the time I was a kid. I figured if I was going in the military, I wanted to go in as a pilot. I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I joined the Air Force ROTC. I joined the drill team. For my freshman year, I was on the drill team. They even flew us out, our whole drill team, the Air Force did. They flew us C-54 transport into the Tallahassee Airport. Flew us all out to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base out in Tucson, Arizona. We competed in an ROTC-wide, all college wide, drill competition.
But my freshman year, my roommate and I were going across campus, through the Student Union, and my roommate was already in the Naval Reserve. He wanted to give this Marine recruiter, this Sargent who had set up a recruiting booth there in the Student Union, a rough time. So he goes up with me in tow, and says to the recruiter, asks him a question, "Is it true that Marine Corps builds men?" And of course, this Marine Sargent says, "Yeah, that's true." My smart alack roommate says, "Well, you know, the Navy only takes men."
This Sargent looks at me with a glare on his face and says, "What are you here for, son? You just want to give me a rough time too?" I was embarrassed by what my roommate had done. The Sargent behind him, on his desk, had some pictures of F-4 Phantoms, fighters and crusaders. I said, referring to the picture, I said, "Oh, no. I want to be ..." and it was true. "I want to be a Phantom Pilot." The Sargent's eyes lit up.
He said, and I told him that I was in Air Force ROTC, and he says, "Well, you know, son, if you go in the Air Force, they're going to put you in the back seat of that fighter." That was true, because in the Air Force, they had controls in both seats. A new pilot would go in the back seat. In the Navy and Marine Corps, in their Phantoms, there were no controls in the back seat, and the guy back there wasn't even a pilot. He was a Radar Intercept Officer. As a Phantom pilot, even a new pilot, I would go right in the front seat. That was true.
What was not true was that it was likely that I was ever going to get Phantoms, fighters, because it turned out that most, the majority of the Marine student naval aviators weren't being sent into jets. They were being sent into helicopters. Even if you got jets, only a subset of those were going to get the fighters. But it's like all, everything else or much else, it's all competition. In the end, I got the fighters. But not because the recruiter promised it. I had to take ROTC that first year, but then in the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, and again between my junior and senior year, I went up to Quantico, Virginia for Marine officer training for six weeks, and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant the day I graduated. That was the way that I wound up in the Marine Corps.
I graduated and the School of Engineering Science had written a letter to the Marine Corps, asking them to defer me. I had a National Science Foundation grant for Master's work, and I'd been accepted in the Master's Program. To my great surprise, the Marine Corps deferred me to get the Master's Degree.
I got the Master's Degree, and just a couple of days after of doing the oral defense of that, I was ... I had been accepted into the Doctoral Program and the National Science Foundation sent me a letter saying, "Due to your successful completion of the Master's Program, you're awarded this grant for another year." But the Marine Corps wouldn't defer me, so I had to drive the 200 miles between Tallahassee and Pensacola to start flight training.
Meanwhile, I left behind a 19 year old wife. We'd only been married something like 9 months at that time. One of the first things I did was go outside the gate at Pensacola Naval Air Station, and by a little MG sports car, and set land speed records between Pensacola and Tallahassee on weekends to get back to my young bride. I'm proud to say, as of today, we've been married for over 53 years.
April Salter: Oh, that's wonderful. That is wonderful. Where is she from?
Dr. Thagard: She was born in Atlanta, but grew up at South Ponte Vedra Beach. Went to St. Augustine High School. We grew up probably only 35 miles apart, but we didn't meet each other until our freshman ... Well, she was a freshman, an entering freshman, 17 years old. Every fall, Jenny Murphy Hall, the freshman women's dorm, had a lawn mixer in front of the dorm. All the male students saw it as a way to check out the incoming crop of freshman women. I'll be honest about it. I went there.
I'm standing in front of the dorm, and with this crowd. There's a tug on my sleeve. I turn, and this young freshman woman says, "Hi. I'm ..." I'm not going to mention her name. She said, "And this is my friend Kirby." I looked at Kirby. Kirby was pretty. I engaged her in conversation and asked her if I could give her a walking tour of campus. She didn't tell me they'd already had their walking tour [crosstalk 00:19:15] information. But she was a month and a half from her 18th birthday.
This is a true story. I and five friends were sharing a three bedroom house that semester. I got back at the end of the evening to that house, and they all wanted to know, "Where you been?" I told them. "Did you meet anyone?" I told them about Kirby. They said, "Well, what was she like?" I said, "Well, she was the kind of girl, if you were thinking about marriage, you'd think of someone like her." Goodness.
April Salter: You weren't thinking about marriage at that time?
Dr. Thagard: No. But that was my honest assessment of Kirby.
April Salter: Yeah. It's been all these years. How wonderful. How many children do you have?
Dr. Thagard: We had three sons, and now we have eight grandchildren. Another one on the way.
April Salter: How great. That's wonderful. How did you move from FSU and from that experience in Pensacola to then becoming an astronaut?
Dr. Thagard: Right. Well, I did a tour as a fighter pilot. I spent a year in Vietnam. We had two children while I was in the Marine Corps. They were both born at Buford, South Carolina Naval Hospital.
Just before I got out, I was the Maintenance Test Pilot for our squadron. Meaning if we had a plane coming out of the hangar after repair work, it was my job to take it up and run it through some tests, and make sure we could put it back in general operation.
My skipper, my commanding officer came to me and offered me Test Pilot School if I would accept a regular commission and remain on active duty. I was a reserve officer on active duty, so I had a contract. The contract was for three years, but the clock didn't start until the day I pinned on the Naval Aviator Wings, and flight training took about a year and a half. So I wound up with four and a half years in the Marine Corps.
The only concern I had was, I've pinned on those wings on February 29, 1968. With a three year contract, was I like Frederick the apprentice pirate in the Pirates of Penzance, by Gilbert and Sullivan? Because he was apprentice until his 21st birthday, but he was born on February 29th, in a leap year, so he actually had 84 years. So did I have three years or 12 years of service? But the Marine Corps let me out at the end of February, three years later.
But I had been accepted in the Doctoral Program back at FSU, once again. So I turned down the skipper. Came back in the PhD program in March or April. In March, I think, of 1971. Almost within a few weeks after coming back, Stanley Marshall, then FSU President, announced he was going to terminate the School of Engineering Science. I was thinking I'd made a bad decision getting out of the Marine Corps and giving up being a test pilot. But he wasn't going to terminate it until June 1972. That meant I did five quarters. I completed all the course work, but never did the dissertation for the doctorate.
But I started taking premed courses. When the school finally terminated in June 1972, I rented a U-haul van and with my wife and two young children, and no job, we moved to San Antonio, Texas. We did that because my mother-in-law lived there. My concern in going into med school was age discrimination. It was still legal in those days.
For example, I sent off for Baylor College of Medicine catalog, and I open it up. The first page said, "Applicants over age 25 are rarely given serious consideration." When I interviewed at Duke Medical School, I still remember the man's name who was Chairman of Admissions Committee. I won't mention his name either. But he interviewed me, and at the end of the interview he said, "I'm gonna be honest with you. There are gonna be members of my committee biased against you because you'll be 30 when the class starts."
When I started at, as one of 154 freshman med students at University of Texas, Southwestern Med School in Dallas, in September 1973, at age 30, I was the oldest person in my class. Real age discrimination. Now, a couple of years later, Congress passed a law forbidding that, but it was still perfectly legal.
To give you an example of the fact that it was working, when I interviewed at one med school, University of Texas med school in Houston, my interviewer told me that my medical college admissions test scores were the highest he'd ever seen. That should've guaranteed that I got into every med school, which I applied. But I only got into five of the nine, and went on the alternate list at the University of Florida and Vanderbilt. But I was accepted to all four of the University of Texas med schools, and to Emory in Atlanta. I wanted to go to Emory, but its tuition was let's just say-
April Salter: It's pricey.
Dr. Thagard: I went all four years at Southwestern for what one semester at Emory would've cost me.
April Salter: Well, you ultimately did go to the University of Florida? So you must have a little bit of Gator blood in you. You decided to get your MBA there. Why in the world, after all the education that you had, what made you go and get an MBA?
Dr. Thagard: Because I was the founder of the Challenger Learning Center here. I had needed more business knowledge. I wasn't the director. I hired a director to run it. But I wasn't totally confident in the financial aspect of it, and that's what motivated me to. I spent my own money to do it, too. I get that. But that was curious too, because obviously University of Florida, a lot of my classmates, because it was the Executive MBA Program, started out with about 43 students and I think 37 graduated.
Even from the professors, all of whom are UF professors, I'm putting up with some minor abuse during the course of the 20 months. I graduate with a 4.0, and was the only one in the class that did it. When my classmates found out about it, they were all, "How did this happen?" I looked at them with a straight face and I said, "This is typical performance for an FSU person in a U of F program." So I think I got the last laugh.
April Salter: That's great. Your experience, so many things came together for you to make you become an astronaut. Did you seek that or did they recruit you? How did that work?
Dr. Thagard: The way that worked was I was a senior in med school. It was February 1977. I graduated in June 1977. I came home from Southwestern Med School one evening. My wife said, "I heard on the radio today that NASA's taking application for astronaut again." They hadn't taken a new group in nine years. I said, "Well, I've got to send off for an application." She said, "I already did."
I did fill out the application. I graduated. I went off, again, we rented a U-haul van, and with the wife and two children, moved from Dallas, Texas, to Charleston, South Carolina, where I did an internship in internal medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. It was the very last day of October that year, 1977, and I got a call from Johnson Space Center, asking me if I could come the next week for an interview and physical and psychiatric exams. I had to get special dispensation from the Department of Internal Medicine at the Medical University, because that wasn't ... I was going onto County Hospital, a general medicine rotation, and that wasn't a rotation in which med students could normally take vacation.
As a payment for giving me the week to go to Johnson Space Center and do this, interns usually work either Christmas or New Years, but I got to work both days that year. But I went, and I came back. I thought well, after seeing ... Because I was interviewing with, I think, 20 other people. Everyone wanted to know what it was like. I said, "Well, it was great. It was really ... I need experience, but I can't believe after seeing who was interviewing there with me that they're gonna pick me." Probably about that time was the end of the first week or so of November 1977.
In January 1978, I hadn't heard anything. It was one of those rare nights when I wasn't in the hospital. I was at home and my wife and I had some friends over, and we heard the television newscaster in the background saying, "On Monday morning, NASA's going to announce the first new group of astronauts in over ... In nine years." We were all disappointed because we thought that surely NASA had already told all those people who had been accepted.
I was at the VA Hospital outpatient clinic. Every morning we would meet from 7:00-8:00 with the attending physicians before starting to see patients. We're in this conference room there, and the phone rings, and it's for me. I picked up the phone and this man on the other end says, and this is what he said, he said, "I was calling to see if you were still interested in the astronaut position." I thought, "That is really weird." If I had been a quick-thinking, smart alack, I might have said something like, "Oh, no. You know I only did that on a lark just to see if you guys would actually pick me." But fortunately, I didn't think of that, probably. He said, "Well, I'm gonna put you on the line with the Personnel Director, and you all can discuss the ..."
The fortunate thing was, this is January, but our reporting date wasn't until 10 July. Internships run from July 1st of one year til June 30th of the next, so I was able to complete my internship, make the personal appearance before the South Carolina Board of Medical Examiners after completing internship. They gave me my south Carolina medical license, and then a week later I'm at Johnson Space Center as a brand new astronaut candidate, and really never practiced medicine. At least not as a ... Well, not quite true.
For the first year and a half after I got there, because I had been a fighter pilot, NASA actually for the first few years I was there, let me fly as a pilot in the T-38s. For the first year and a half I was there, on a Friday afternoon, I would hop in a T-38, fly from Houston to McDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Go downtown to Tampa General. Work in the emergency room from 8:00 pm to 8:00 am. Go back to the BOQ at Tampa. Grab some sleep, and then fly back.
But after a year and a half, it was pretty clear to me that although that NASA had stressed that they wanted us to maintain the proficiency in our profession, that wasn't what was really going to get you an early flight, so I quit doing that.
April Salter: That must be all the competition in the astronaut world is everyone's doing training, and when do I get to go on a flight. What is that like?
Dr. Thagard: Well, I don't remember anyone being cheating or doing anything like that. But obviously, yes, you want to fly. You want to fly the sooner the better. I mean we all have egos. They made the announcement of the first of our group to fly. I wasn't in that group.
Then in December 1982, there was an announcement that they were going to add physicians to the seventh shuttle flight and the eighth shuttle flight to study space motion sickness, because they had had a problem with that on one of the earlier shuttle flights. I think the fifth shuttle flight. I was the astronaut/doctor assigned to fly that seventh mission. That was the mission in which Rick Hauck and Sally Ride and John Fabian, who were the first members of our 1978 group. We call ourselves The 35 New Guys, the TFNG. I'm added to that flight. So I became ... I wound up flying on the first flight that anyone out of our 35 flew.
This is December, and they were supposed to launch as I remember, in April or May. So I'm basically assigned to a mission only four months or maybe five months before we flew. That may be the shortest time ever that somebody was assigned before they were actually supposed to launch. We did in fact didn't launch due to delays, until June 18, 1983.
I like to joke sometimes that when Sally Ride flew on the shuttle to become the first American woman in space, it's a little known fact that there were four other people onboard with her. It's even less well-known, that I was one of those four.
Before I'd even flown that flight, I get called back into the Flight Operations Directorate's Director's office, and I'm assigned to another flight. So I had two flight assignments. The one he gave me then was for an 85 flight, as a flight engineer on space lab three, and I haven't even flown my first flight. I may also be the first one that ever had two flight assignments before they ever even flown the first. For whatever reason, I wound up being pretty fortunate. I think I was the first one. I was 35, to fly five flights. No one in our group flew more than five.
Then in 1992, I'd flown my fourth flight as the Plato Commander for the First International Microgravity Laboratory in January of that year. It's now July, and I'm in my office that I still shared with Dave Hilmers, who was a Marine Colonel. He'd been a bombardier navigator in A-6 aircraft before becoming an astronaut. He had a Master's Degree in Electrical Engineering, as did I. He hadn't been a pilot. But, of course, he was an air crew member in Marine aircraft, jet aircraft. He had always looked at me, he always wanted to be a doctor, and I guess he looked at me and figured, "Well, if you can be a doctor, I can be a doctor."
We're having a discussion. We both had flown our fourth flights on that 1992 Space Lab mission. The conversation was, "What would NASA have to offer us for us to stay?" Because we had just finished our fourth flight. Dave's answer was, there was nothing NASA could offer him. He was 42 years old. Full colonel in the Marine Corps. As I said Bombardier Navigator in A-6 aircraft, and he had been accepted to Baylor College of Medicine as an entering ... This is the same Baylor as when I was trying to get in said, "That they didn't get-
April Salter: No one over 25.
Dr. Thagard: Right. He's at 42. Today, I think he's at least an associate professor, at least I would think, of Pediatrics and Internal Medicine at Baylor.
Then it's my turn. I said, "Well, Florida State has talked to me from time to time about coming back and doing something there. But," I said, "I'd heard that one of us is going to get to go fly with the Russians and a Russian's gonna fly with us." I said, "I would stay here if I could get that." Standing in the doorway, listening to Dave and my conversation, was Mark Lee, who had been one of my crew mates on my 1989 flight, the Magellan mission. Mark says, "Did you tell Dan that?" Says to me. By Dan, he meant Dan Brandenstein, the Chief of the astronaut office. I said, "No. Why would I?" He said, "Because in November of last year, Dan told us about this."
Every Monday morning at 8:00, we always had an all hands meeting in the astronaut office. He said, "Dan said back in November at one of our AOMs, that anyone interested in being the American in this exchange, let him know." The problem was, I had been over at Huntsville training for my 1992 flight, and I hadn't been at that meeting, and I didn't ... I was mulling it over in my mind whether it was too late to throw my hat in the ring, and I'll be dog gone if it wasn't the next morning that Dan met me. He came in early and met me and all.
I always got into work at 6:00 am. If I were in town, I was always the first one in the astronaut office in the morning. I was always the one that prepared the first batch of coffee for the whole office. Dan said, "Let's go in your office." We went in my office. He closed the door behind me and he asked me if I wanted to fly the Russian mission. I had not thrown my hat in the ring. Out of curiosity, I went to his secretary later and asked her if, "Did no one apply?" She said, "No. About 13 or 14 had said they wanted to fly the mission." So I got it even though I ... But there were three reasons I probably got that mission.
One is, I hadn't been reassigned to fly another mission at that point, because it was only six months after flying my previous mission. I was a medical doctor and the main reason that we wanted to send someone up is because we knew that we were going to have a space station up there with long duration space flight. And except for the three sky lab missions, NASA didn't have that much information on the effects on humans of being in space for a long period of time. So they wanted to send a medical doctor up to do those studies, and I was a medical doctor, and I had four space flights. They didn't want to send someone up who wasn't already well-experienced. Those were probably the threes.
By the way, a few months, a couple of months after we got to Houston in 1978, I was at a party with one of the members of the Selection Board, was there. Out of curiosity I went to him and I asked him, I said, "Why was I picked?" He said, "Well, we were looking for engineers. We were looking for pilots, and we were looking for doctors, and you were all three."
April Salter: They got a three for.
Dr. Thagard: Yeah. That's right. Whatever I thought about Stanley Marshall terminating the School of Engineering Science, it may have been one of the best things that every happened to me. Because if he had not done that, I would've never have become a physician. I would've probably been a PhD in ... I don't think I would've been as strong a candidate for that program and that situation. So it was actually a good thing to happen.
April Salter: I'm sure you get asked this a lot, but would love your thoughts on the future of space. It's always been something that inspires the imagination. It's the subject of movies. I know you've consulted on space movies. You've been a part of companies that are dealing with space. What would you tell young people about the opportunities ahead? Or what you see as the future of space for America?
Dr. Thagard: I don't like to try to predict the future because countries can, and often do, turn in on themselves and quit looking ahead. It would be a mistake, I think, because it's something that does inspire people to go a little bit beyond themselves. You have to solve problems to get in space and do the things you would want to do. That would be especially true, say, of interplanetary missions. It's inevitable in solving those problems, that you solve problems that actually have real world applicability. So it's not as though you're just throwing the money down a sinkhole and you get no return for it. I think the inspiration that it provides is worth a lot, too.
At least for now, it looks like we will continue the space program. I hope we never stop talking about going to other planets. There are some problems, some physiological problems, radiation exposure and bone loss, that need to be addressed, but you can always conquer those things. So I hope we continue to do it.
One thing people ought to keep in mind is if we had some catastrophe, irreversible catastrophe on earth, that's the end of the human race. But if we had colonies, say on Mars or somewhere else, then it's not necessarily the end. It would even be possible for those colonies to exist long enough to repopulate at some point, an otherwise devastated earth. So I really hope that we do continue.
April Salter: We see a lot of commercial companies, SpaceX, et cetera. We now have a privatized space industry. We're now seeing the civilians being able to, at least, make reservations for a future space flight. What are your thoughts about that?
Dr. Thagard: I'm not sure that there's that much difference. I know there's a big to do about the privatization. But the fact is, companies contract to do all the things, supply all the things that NASA uses. Rockwell built the space shuttle. A contractor built the space station. These contractors or business like SpaceX still require, I would imagine, a fair amount of government money to do what they do. So I'm not really sure how much has changed, in fact. I've not investigated it that deeply, but something tells me that without the government, you still don't do these things.
April Salter: For young people who may listen to the podcast, what would you say to them if they have an interest? How can they prepare themselves to one day participate in space travel?
Dr. Thagard: Just pursue what you want to pursue as an earth career, but keep in mind that there might be some future opportunity. Don't plot your life out to get into the space program. The odds are just too low. I wouldn't have done it. I'm just fortunate that circumstance obviously played a role. But that isn't to say you don't need to be prepared. So NASA has usually looked for as we heard, for pilots, for engineers, and for physicians, and other scientists of course, now, too. So if that's your interest, pursue those things and be the very best you can in those things. It certainly doesn't hurt to have some obvious interest in aviation. That's one thing you could do fairly easily. You could be a private pilot, for instance.
But mainly, just take a career that satisfies you. Don't plan on becoming an astronaut, but do all the things that you can do that if there ever were that opportunity, at least you would have a chance for it.
April Salter: Thank you. Now we're going to wrap up with some of the questions that we ask all of our guests. First of all, who is a Florida leader that you admire? This could be someone from history or someone who is still actively working.
Dr. Thagard: Just from people that I've known fairly well, I guess, I've thought that Sandy D'alemberte was a great example of a Floridian. He was a good president and he had had quite a nice career, and good career, and good reputation before he did that.
April Salter: He's someone we definitely need to get on our show. Is there a favorite Florida location that you and Kirby like to go visit?
Dr. Thagard: Well, Kirby and I like our hometowns, but the truth is Kirby has relatives here in Tallahassee, so this is her preferred spot. I've even proposed from time to time that we move, because we have three sons who are located, one in Ft. Lauderdale, one in a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina, and another in Potsdam, New York, which is upper state, upstate New York. But she doesn't want to leave Tallahassee. She likes it a lot. I could conceive of going back to Jacksonville, but she wants to stay here, and I'm going to stay with her.
April Salter: We're glad that you are here. Finally, do you have a favorite Florida sports team?
Dr. Thagard: Although it didn't do too well this last year, I still I guess prefer the Florida State Seminoles.
April Salter: Absolutely. Go Noles.
Dr. Thagard: Right.
April Salter: Well thank you so much for being a guest today. We thank you for your long, and very distinguished career. You make Florida very proud.
Dr. Thagard: Well, thank you, and thanks for having me.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. This show is executive produced by April Salter, with additional support provided by Heidi Otway, and the team at SalterMitchell PR.
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