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Space: America’s Five Highflyers

4 minute read

Frederick H. Hauck, 47, mission commander. If any one man typifies the “right stuff” aboard Discovery, it is Hauck. “Rick’s the ultimate straight shooter,” says crew member Pinky Nelson. “He’s the ideal commander.” Hauck has flown on two previous shuttle missions. One, which he commanded, was the 1984 Discovery mission to retrieve two wayward satellites. He has not lost a sense of wonder about the shuttle: “It’s kind of mystical being out there on the launchpad listening to the sounds. It seems like a breathing, alive machine.” A graduate of Tufts University and a Navy combat pilot in Southeast Asia, Hauck planned to take Beatles and Billy Joel tapes on Discovery. He and his wife Dolly have two adult children, Whitney and Stephen. Hauck, a water skier and car buff, enjoys tinkering with his 1958 Corvette. He is encouraged by NASA’s overhaul since the Challenger debacle. “What went wrong?” he asks. “We didn’t communicate well enough. Now we are talking much better than before. We need to ask ourselves tough questions.”

Richard O. Covey, 42, pilot. “If I thought we were the only five guys in the whole world willing to fly Discovery, it would be different. But I’m in an office of people who are hungry to go sit on that rocket.” Covey’s sentiment amply reflects his gung-ho attitude about NASA’s return to space. Covey rose to the rank of colonel after graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1968 and studying aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University. He flew 339 combat missions in Viet Nam, then became an Air Force weapons-system test pilot. He piloted the 1985 Discovery shuttle flight that deployed three communications satellites and repaired a fourth. The Coveys — Dick, wife Kathleen and daughters Sarah, 14, and Amy, 12 — often socialize with the Haucks outside work and enjoy a close relationship. Covey, who is in line for a shuttle command himself, snapped up Hauck’s invitation to pilot the critical Discovery mission.

David C. Hilmers, 38, mission specialist. Jan. 28, 1986, was Hilmers’ 36th birthday. But it was no time for celebrating: that was the day Challenger disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Ever since, Hilmers has had a dream that “one day a shuttle would once again make its way to the launchpad to launch Americans into space.” A religious man, he says his anxiety about the mission was “soothed by my faith in God.” Hilmers, who doubles as Covey’s backup pilot, is a math whiz. He graduated summa cum laude from Cornell College, in Iowa, and earned an electrical-engineering degree from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. He joined the Marines in 1972, and was selected as an astronaut in 1980. Hilmers was mission specialist on the first flight of the orbiter Atlantis five years later. Hilmers, a proficient pianist and an enthusiastic gardener, and his wife Lynn have two sons, Matthew, 12, and Daniel, 9.

George D. Nelson, 38, mission specialist. An astronomer by training, Pinky Nelson has logged a total of 314 hours in space, ten of them spacewalking, mostly during Challenger’s 1984 satellite-repair operation. He is the only member of the crew who is not a military man. Nelson is an avid reader, jogs about three miles a day and is a good golfer. He plays guitar along with fellow astronauts Hoot Gibson and Brewster Shaw in an all-astronaut rock band called Max Q. Nelson, born in Charles City, Iowa, and his wife Susan have two teenage daughters, Aimee, 16, and Marti, 13. Like other crew members, Nelson questions the efficacy of some new safety features built into the shuttle. Still, he says, “I don’t think we’ll ever see a rocket built again that doesn’t have an escape system.”

John M. Lounge, 42, mission specialist. NASA is very much a full-time business for the Lounge family. “Mike” Lounge has been with the agency since 1978, first as an engineer and since 1981 as an astronaut, and flew his first shuttle mission in 1985. His wife Kathryn is a manager of shuttle cargo at the Johnson Space Center. He and Kathryn have three children, Shannon, 17, Kenneth, 7, and Kathy, 4. The Lounges live near a private airstrip and enjoy taking their Tiger airplane up for an afternoon flight. Lounge, who plays a mean bluegrass guitar, holds a master’s degree in astrogeophysics and shares his colleagues’ concern about the Soviets’ lead in space. He warns that the flight of Discovery alone will not be enough to let the U.S. catch up. A former Navy flyer, Lounge is a lieutenant colonel in the Texas Air National Guard. He declares that the Discovery mission “is just one stone we have to put in place.” Was he afraid before the lift-off? “Afraid is too strong a word,” cracked Lounge, “and a fighter pilot would never admit to that.”

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