'Building the Future Now': An Interview with Captain William F. Readdy, U.S. Naval Reserve

The A-6 performed its intended mission in spectacular fashion, but it was getting a little bit long-in-the-tooth.  The F/A-18 series—the E and F, in particular—surpassed it.  Even though the time had come to retire it, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the A-6.

Proceedings : What role did your naval service play in preparing you for a career in the space program?

Captain Readdy : Its influence is probably as large as the entire time I spent in the Navy—the foundation I got at the Naval Academy in aeronautical engineering, the different disciplines I learned as a young officer operating in a squadron, flight training itself and growing up in the fleet, being forced to make decisions in an aircraft, and being a naval test pilot.  I think that my naval career was a fantastic launching pad, if you will, for a career as an astronaut.  I learned a wide variety of things in the Navy that I put directly to use as a Shuttle commander.

Proceedings : How important is military service in becoming an astronaut?  Is it as important as it used to be?  It seemed as though all astronauts at one time had some sort of military background.  Now, it’s not necessarily true.

Captain Readdy : No, it’s not necessarily so.  But if you think of how the whole business has evolved, it’s not purely flight test and evaluation.  It’s not purely hand-eye coordination and manual piloting.  So much of it now, especially as we gear up in the space station era, is more directly like working in a laboratory.  So more than half of the office is composed of Ph.D.s and medical doctors, because much of the research we’re going to do in the future will be exploration of the human body, microbiology, physics, astronomy, and other hard sciences.  So I’d say that probably half or more of the astronauts from now on are going to be chosen from the scientific and the medical communities.

Proceedings : At one point the Shuttle and the space station were poised to play major roles in military operations.  For various apparent reasons, that all seems to have changed.  What role will the Shuttle play in future military space missions?

Captain Readdy : For starters, the whole world has changed.  The Department of Defense [DoD] was one of the original customers of the Space Shuttle, which has launched DoD and other national payloads.  That’s the way it was always intended.  It’s a national resource.  But certainly no one could have anticipated that the balance of power in the world would shift so dramatically.

The payload complement of the Shuttle, of course, has evolved more toward international space station development, more toward scientific payloads.  The DoD flights have tapered off at this point, but the Shuttle still has a military role to play.  I think this role will probably be pivotal in extending the first two space radar lab missions into a third one, which will be in partnership with the DoD to map the globe.  Once and for all, we will have a digital database of the entire globe, if you can imagine that and the kind of things that will enable in terms of geodesy.

We constantly find that parts of the world are improperly charted.  Now, we have a global positioning system [GPS]—a constellation of satellites that has been so useful in just about every walk of life, whether it’s out camping in the wilderness or on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean.  It’s just about beyond imagining how many different applications there can be for GPS.  But it’s valuable only if you can tie it to terrestrial conditions.

If those are properly mapped, then the two synchronize nicely.  The applications are clear for civil aviation, being able to chart the world so that your onboard navigation system knows not only where it is, but what the altitude of the terrain is.  Even without radar, you can avoid the terrain in all types of weather.  The safety applications of that alone are just phenomenal.

Proceedings : So the Shuttle is more of a commercial enterprise these days that it once was.

Captain Readdy : I’m not sure I’d use the word commercial, necessarily.  NASA has been trying to develop the commercial launch industry, and you have seen traditionally military booster rockets such as the Delta and the Atlas develop more and more into commercial launch platforms.  NASA is not in competition with the commercial world as a vehicle for launching communication satellites.  We are in the technology business, in partnership with industry developing new technologies, and the satellites we launch are going to advance the state of the art of scanning the universe.

Proceedings : Given the new international cooperation in space, namely between the Russians and Americans, do you foresee a time where some sort of international consortium will design and build the next generation of spacecraft?

Captain Readdy : We are already cooperating on the international space station.  It is truly international in that the Russians are one of the partners, and they’re making significant contributions in terms of launches, logistics, and modules.  The Shuttle missions to the Mir are just stepping stones, developing the operational techniques, the interfaces, to take the next step.  We’ll continue that series until we start building the space station.

Commercial joint ventures are currently being negotiated between Russian and American firms, between Rockwell and the Energia works in Moscow, between Lockheed and the Krunachev Rocket Factory in Moscow.  They are in their infancy, but the international space station may become a springboard to launch some future effort, perhaps back to the Moon, which would be a likely place to prototype the hardware required to go farther, maybe to Mars.

Proceedings : Russia does not have a Shuttle or anything similar to it.

Captain Readdy : Not today.  The Russians developed their own Space Shuttle called Buran, which means “snowstorm.”  As a matter of fact, they were thinking of flying it in 1988 to precede STS-26 in our own return to flight after the Challenger accident.

Buran was a major development effort for them.  It was produced by Energia, and it was similar to the Space Shuttle in many aspects.  When we formed this joint partnership, the Russians had always planned to have a Shuttle-like vehicle to resupply their space station, and they were planning to launch a next-generation Mir station.  Of course, we already had an operational Space Shuttle program, so the marriage was obvious.

Proceedings : How difficult was it adjusting to flying spacecraft as opposed to aircraft?

Captain Readdy : There are many similarities.  The launch phases of the Space Shuttle are very similar to being catapulted off a pitching carrier flight deck at night.  Most of that is in the hands of the catapult officer.  My hand is on the stick, but that’s only to talk on the radio or to push the engage button if I need to take control.  It’s eight-and-a-half minutes versus three seconds, but it’s still the same kind of ride, the same kind of physical sensation.

Once you get on orbit, it’s a spacecraft for a week and a half or two weeks.  It’s very much like life at sea.  Everything has to be shipshape, you stand watches, and it’s very much a team environment.

Rendezvous and docking, I’d say, are like any kind of coordinated operation at sea where you have a formation of ships or aircraft.  I’d liken the final approach and the physical docking to flying formation and finally doing aerial refueling.  The tolerances are similar in that we’re talking about inches and very small increments of closure, typically about an inch a second when you finally dock.  You’re working with a 100-ton orbiter and 120-ton space station, so you want to do everything very carefully, and you want the alignment to be precise.

Proceedings : What about reentry?

Captain Readdy : For our landing at the Kennedy Space Center, which occurred just after sunrise, we did our deorbit burn over Australia.  That was the last powered event of our flight.  From Australia, our orbital track took us over the Pacific in darkness.  As we started to sink into the atmosphere, we were surrounded by a pink-orange glow so bright we could read our checklists by it.  We were into a right-hand turn pretty much the entire time.  Our orbital path took us over Vancouver, British Columbia, then Chicago, then down the Appalachians, and over Cecil Field, Florida.  We arrived over the Kennedy Space Center at about 55,000 feet at Mach 1 and then started a right-hand turn all the way around, landing on Runway 15, after about 4 million miles over ten days and 160 orbits.

The actual manual flying of the orbiter was much like flying a dive-bombing pattern.  The outer approach is a 20° dive at 300 knots and then at about 1,700 feet you shallow to an interglide slope of about a degree to a degree-and-a-half.  You put the landing gear down at 300 feet above the ground and then continue to decelerate to land at a speed of approximately 200 knots.

That entire evolution, I think, is similar to coming on board a ship.  The tolerances are very exacting.  Even though the runway is long, no engines are running at this point, so you’re intent on flying the proper glide slopes.  As soon as you touch down, you deploy the drag chute and then lower the nose to the runway.  The drag chute is so powerful that you need only the absolute minimum amount of braking.  We stop with 3,000 feet of runway remaining.

Proceedings : How big of a blow was the failure of the hatch to open during STS-80 in November 1996, thus preventing space walks that were to test space station-building techniques?

Captain Readdy : It was a big surprise, quite frankly.  I’m sure we could have opened the hatch if we really wanted to, but a space walk was low on the list of priorities for that particular flight.  It was one of those nice-to-do activities.  So the decision was made not to risk opening the hatch and have it jam in an intermediate position while trying to get it closed.

No black magic is involved.  If it’s an engineering problem, we’ll figure it out and fix it.  I can guarantee you that as long as we continue flying in space there will be other surprises.  Our job is to minimize them.  I’m sure we’ll run this one to ground and we won’t have this problem again.  It was certainly disappointing for the crew members who had trained to evaluate tools and techniques for a space station, but those same objectives will just wind up on another flight downstream.  One primary objective for the flight was to deploy the wake shield facility and to grow ultrapure materials in space for microelectronics.  The other was to deploy an ultraviolet telescope and retrieve it at the end of the flight.  Each of those was accomplished.

Proceedings : You say surprises happen all the time.  Did anything surprise you on your latest mission?

Captain Readdy : Shortly after we got into orbit, after main engine cutoff, our Number 2 auxiliary power unit (APU) shut down inexplicably.  Nothing on board indicated any malfunction, and the ground team pulled all their data and looked at it for days.  We were concerned—because there was no obvious explanation, from where we were sitting—that the mission might be shortened.  We had contingency plans for expedited transfer and rendezvous, so we were thinking seriously about it.

The ground team was confident that we would not have a recurrence on any of the other APUs.  As it turns out, detailed troubleshooting revealed that, in the most recent design change of the APUs, the polarity of two wires in the drawings was changed.  So all APUs on all the orbiters were rewired before they were cleared to fly again.

Proceedings : What about the next stage Shuttle?  Some of these orbiters seem to be getting a bit old.

Captain Readdy : It seems to some people that we’ve been flying these things for a long time.  The Shuttles have been around since 1981, so they’ve been flying for 15 years.  But each individual orbiter, the airplane portion of it, was intended to fly a hundred missions.  And we’re nearing about 20 missions on each orbiter.  So they still have an incredible amount of life left in them from their original design.  I flew A-6s off the Coral Sea .  That was flying a 35-year-old airplane off a 45-year-old aircraft carrier, neither of which got the kind of tender loving care that the orbiters do.

These things are young pups—teenagers.  They’re at 20% of their intended lifetime, and there isn’t any reason to think that they wouldn’t be flying for the next 15 or 20 years.  There are several second-, third-, and fourth-generation spinoffs that I’m sure NASA would like to take advantage of in terms of increased payload, reliability, reduced maintenance time per mission—all the things you would typically do with a fleet airplane over its lifetime.  It’s happened to every airplane that I’ve flown in the Navy.  I think it’s going to be at least 15 years before we have a new human-rated launch system to replace the space Shuttle.

Proceedings : Do you think we will live to see a Man-to-Mars mission?

Captain Readdy : Without question.  If we really wanted to throw money at the problem, I think we could have gone to Mars ten years ago.  It’s no longer a question of technology.

At this point, I think we need to focus on advances in propulsion technology rather than spending tens of billions of dollars on a mission that will take the better part of a year to get there and almost the same amount of time to come back.  Just as the jet engine eclipsed the propeller in World War II and the rocket engine was the enabling technology for our initial exploration of space, there is going to be another advance in propulsion technology.  The science fiction writers, I’m sure, already know what it is.  Whatever it is, it will open exploration beyond the moon.

Proceedings : Will the Mars spacecraft be more Apollo-like or Shuttle-like?

Captain Readdy : The initial Apollo spacecraft was going to look like a kind of rocket ship that landed on its tail rather than a lander that left the base of a larger craft.  During Apollo, we ended up doing lunar rendezvous, in which the landing craft detached from the service module, went down to the surface, did a lunar orbit rendezvous back up to the command and service module, and then eventually jettisoned what was left into the surface of the moon.

Mars has a different atmosphere and a different gravity, factors that will dictate whatever kind of lander you choose.  I doubt if it’s going to be any kind of winged aircraft, because the atmosphere is corrosive with dust and wind.

With budgets shrinking, the possibility of mobilizing an Apollo-sized effort is slim—even with the results we have from recently discovered Martian asteroid fragments, the micrometeorites that landed in the Antarctic.  I’m not sure that’s a compelling enough argument to demand a human mission to Mars within the decade.  Of course, that’s what President [John F.] Kennedy directed for a Moon landing in the early 1960s.

Proceedings : What recommendations do you have for young people contemplating a career in the space program?

Captain Readdy : Currently, the different career fields that would compel one to get into the astronaut business are virtually unlimited.  The space program favors any kind of hard science—biomedicine, chemistry, physics, astronomy, astrophysics.  The number of possibilities is almost endless.

My advice would be to do whatever you’re truly interested in, and do it with the most professionalism that you can, so that you can be competitive.  It’s a very competitive process.  There may be 4,000 applicants for a dozen jobs when NASA comes looking for volunteers.  You need to do something that you enjoy, because the odds are so staggering against being selected.  It has to be worth doing in and of itself—not just a means to an end.

I am sure the number of people who fly in space will increase over the years.  I’m sure, for instance, that we’ll have people living in space, on the Moon, and elsewhere.  But for the moment, the number of possibilities in terms of being a crew member are limited.

To a young naval officer, I would say the same thing.  Warfare specialty makes no difference.  I know during the last go-‘round that we were looking at submariners, Civil Engineering Corps officers, surface warfare officers, and certainly aviators and flight officers.  All the career fields in the Navy now have become so technical and specialized that it’s almost a logical extension into the technical, specialized world of the astronaut business.  One last thing: When NASA comes looking for volunteers, be sure to raise your hand.  If you don’t raise your hand, they can’t pick you.  Don’t ever count yourself out.

Proceedings : Do you perceive a public relations problem with the space program?  It seems that something could be done to stimulate more interest with the general public.

Captain Readdy : First of all, the space program is not only fascinating, it’s necessary.  It is one of the few investments we actually make in our future.  Most people don’t understand what a trivial amount is spent.  Less than a penny out of every Federal tax dollar has built everything we have done in space, including not only the space hardware but all the NASA field centers and all the contracts across the country.  We’re also talking about educational programs.  All the money is spent on this planet, in this country, developing technologies that have been the enabling link for things such as electron microscopes, ultrasound imagery, portable pacemakers—things that make life better on Earth.

I think it’s a very compelling story and one that most people in the media know.  But it’s not always popular, because it’s perceived as a choice on Capitol Hill—housing or space, welfare or space, people programs or space.  In fact, what we do in space is a people program.

It is still exploring, it is still adventure, it is still the future.  And that kind of sells itself.  I think the trouble lies with people who tend to get a little bit jaded as they grow older.  They grew up with the space program.  It’s like having grown up with color TV and not remembering that it wasn’t always there.

I think the space program is a fantastic national treasure.  It’s something that continues to keep the United States at the forefront.  If you want to see what would happen to this country if we stopped leading the world in communications and aerospace technology, just look at the U.S. automobile and steel industries in the last 20 to 30 years.  I don’t think we want that to happen to our country in the aerospace world, where we continue to have an edge.

Proceedings : What is your forecast for the future of the space program?

Captain Readdy : We’re building the future right now.  We’re already doing the test and evaluation on the international space station hardware, and not only building and testing it on the ground.  In fact, STS-79 flew some space station hardware to give it a shakedown cruise.

The first launch of the space station is going to occur in November 1997.  That’s what we’ll be building for the next five to six years.  At that point, the space station will be on orbit for decades as a research platform.  Its crews not only will be doing planetary science, meteorology, and characterizing the world’s environments, they also will track the functions of the human body in space.

When you’re able to subtract gravity from the equation, you’re better able to understand human physiological effects—on the vestibular system, for example.  It turns out that osteoporosis has quite a parallel to what we experience in long-duration space flight—porosity and loss of bone mass over a long period of time. So we will be able to tackle many scientific issues.

Proceedings : How much did we learn from Shannon Lucid’s unintentional longevity in space?

Captain Readdy : We had already learned a tremendous amount from our Skylab astronauts 20 years ago.  We had our own space station in Skylab, and the final crew on board flew for three months.  We’ve also learned a tremendous amount from our Russian colleagues, and we’ve had two long-duration crew members of our own, Dr. Norman Thagard and Dr. Shannon Lucid.  I think folks have forgotten that Norm got to spend an extra month in space waiting for the Specter module to arrive and then for the Atlantis to get up there for the first docking mission.

Shannon got to spend an extra six weeks waiting for the Atlantis again, but I think that shows you the tremendous versatility of the Space Shuttle.  In a little bit over a year we have flown the Atlantis with four different cargo bay configurations to four different Mir station configurations.  It’s amazing what a versatile workhorse we have in the Space Shuttle, and I think it is definitely going to be the mainstay for building an international space station.



Conferences and Events

View All

From the Press

Guest Speaker & Book Signing

Wed, 2016-05-04

Guest Lecturer & Book Signing

Thu, 2016-05-05

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership