Over his career as an astronaut, Henry “Hank” Hartsfield Jr. spent many years in training and 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. “We talked about turning the radio off and staying up there.”
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 the shuttles 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 himself, 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. “This has to beat firecrackers!” the president joked.
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 took most of the questions and did the ‘Right Stuff’ routine of ‘Aaawh shucks, ma’am. Tweren’t nothing.”’
In an interview, Mullane called Hartsfield “an empowering commander and a fierce patriot.”
Hartsfield was so exuberantly right-wing that he deliberately took a bathroom break when the orbiter swung over Havana, Mullane said.
At Hartsfield’s 50th birthday party, his colleagues ribbed him with gifts playing off his political leanings. One was an autographed copy of Ms. magazine with an inscription to Hartsfield from feminist publisher Gloria Steinem. It had been arranged by astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.
Hartsfield’s Discovery crew included Judith Resnik, the second American woman in space. During their mission, Resnik set up a solar array that led to one now in use on the International Space Station, Mullane said.
Resnik was among the seven who died when Challenger exploded in midair on Jan. 28, 1986, three months after Hartsfield had commanded it.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., on Nov. 21, 1933, Hartsfield grew up near a local airfield. As a newsboy, he won a free ride and was hooked on flying.
Graduating from Alabama’s Auburn University with a physics degree in 1954, he joined the Air Force in 1955 and logged more than 7,400 hours of flying time in Germany and elsewhere. He also taught test pilots at Edwards. He later received a master’s degree in engineering science from the University of Tennessee.
In 1966, he was assigned to the Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory — a project that never got off the ground. Three years later, he joined NASA, where he was on the astronaut support crew before his space flights and an administrator from 1985 to 1998. He worked for Raytheon Corp., a defense contractor, until his retirement in 2005.
Hartsfield’s survivors include his wife, Fran; daughter Judy Hartsfield Gedies; two grandsons; and his brother Earl. His daughter Keely, who worked as a contractor to the space shuttle program, died in March.
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services