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Flying with Story Musgrave April 3, 2009

Posted by skywalking1 in Space.

Astronaut crewmate Story Musgrave, with editors Anne and Lance Lenehan, have produced The NASA Northrop T-38, a photo-essay tribute to the training jets flown by the astronauts since the mid-1960s. Here is the foreword I wrote for the book. The book is now in release and can be previewed here.

Enroute to the Cape for STS-80; I'm in the far Talon's rear cockpit

Enroute to the Cape for STS-80; I'm in the far Talon's rear cockpit

On a brilliant afternoon in May 1978, I strapped into a Northrop T-38 Talon and rocketed into the blue sky over Oklahoma, easing effortlessly up through white cumulus towering over emerald wheat fields twenty thousand feet below. The approach controller watched the twisting blip of my Talon on his scope and radioed, “Must be some nice ‘puffies’ up there today!” He heard the laughter in my reply: “Roger that!” Nineteen-year-old John Gillespie Magee, Jr. wrote of a similar flight in 1941: “Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things on earth you have not dreamed of…” Surely my T-38 equaled his Spitfire in its capacity to delight a fledgling aviator.

Story Musgrave felt the same exuberance at the controls of his own T-38. In 1969, NASA had sent Story, a new scientist-astronaut, to pilot training in Lubbock, Texas. He broke every student performance record on the way to earning the Commander’s Trophy as the outstanding graduate at Reese Air Force Base. He was just getting started. In nearly thirty years of flying, Story logged over 8,000 hours in the Talon, including 3,000 as an instructor. His love for the plane that so effortlessly broke the bonds of Earth is obvious in this beautiful book.

Story’s astronaut colleague, Skylab 3 veteran Owen Garriott, was a frequent visitor to my training field, Vance AFB, located on the outskirts of Owen’s hometown of Enid, Oklahoma. One frosty January weekend he dropped in for a quick family visit, parking his gleaming NASA “White Rocket” adjacent to our Air Force Talons. Spotting the blue-trimmed T-38 on the Vance ramp, I laid a reverent, gloved hand on the immaculate jet. A friend’s snapshot captures my expression of admiration and hopeful envy.

Since 1961, the T-38 Talon has launched the dreams of nearly 80,000 USAF, allied, and NASA pilots. Northrop’s swept-wing, two-place jet first flew in 1959; adopted by the Air Force as a high-performance jet trainer, 1,187 Talons were built by the time production ended in 1972. Its two General Electric J85-GE-5 turbojet engines (with afterburners) together pump out more than 6,000 pounds of thrust, enough to power the Talon from sea level to 30,000 feet in less than a minute. (In February 1962, the nimble, 12,000-pound aircraft set four international time-to-climb records.) In nearly a half-century of service, the -38 has proven itself as a workhorse student and attack trainer, a flight test chase plane, an astronaut proficiency trainer, and even a recurring performer in the movies. Updated and improved in the last decade, about 700 T-38s remain in service worldwide.

After pilot training, I went on to fly the Talon again in Strategic Air Command, and then again at NASA; it was exhilarating to rocket out of Ellington Field in the very jet Own Garriott had piloted to Vance a dozen years earlier. Beginning with astronaut training in 1990, I was airborne once or twice a week, practicing everything from aerobatics, to instrument flying, to the principles of “cockpit resource management,” often while dodging thunderstorms between Houston and Cape Canaveral at 39,000 feet and Mach 0.9.

Back on the ground, my astronaut candidate class, the “Hairballs,” regularly heard from experienced shuttle veterans assigned to teach us a particular aspect of human spaceflight. Our EVA expert was Story Musgrave, spacewalker extraordinaire, who had helped design the shuttle space suit and in 1983 was the first astronaut to venture outside the shuttle’s airlock. Already an astronaut for nearly 25 years, Story had more hours in the T-38 than any stick-and-rudder man on–or off—the planet. He loved to fly, and the object of that romance was the Northrop T-38.

I never crewed a T-38 with Story: by 1990, NASA rules limited its mission specialists to only back-seat sorties, with instructors or shuttle pilots in the front cockpit. But in 1993 we teamed up as aircraft commander trainees in NASA’s Cessna Citation II. Story and I sweated out two weeks of simulator and ground school sessions together, then joined a handful of other astronauts in the Citation’s left-seat, helping other mission specialist astronauts acquire the cockpit and teamwork skills they would need aboard the space shuttle. I saw Story at work in the air: cool, methodical, yet lyrical about the joys of being aloft. He thrilled to have the machine respond to his deft touch, an exhilaration he experienced wherever he flew–in the T-38, in the space suit, or in the cockpit of a shuttle orbiter (his six launches aboard the shuttle set a record only lately surpassed).

In early November 1996, Story and I joined our STS-80 crew for a heady formation flight to the Cape. Entering the final days of pre-launch quarantine, our crew winged across the Gulf of Mexico to Kennedy Space Center, our four jets gliding in from high above Orlando until we whistled at 300 knots across the Banana River toward Launch Complex 39. Rolling left, Story, the crew and I looked down a thousand feet past our wingtips to Pad 39-B and our rocket – the shuttle Columbia! The hair stood up on the back of my neck. Our T-38s had delivered us to the threshold of space.

Story brought his T-38-honed serenity aboard Columbia on our 18-day mission, the longest in shuttle history. Those unequaled hours alone in the Talon’s cockpit also gave him an expert eye for observing Earth. At nine-tenths the speed of sound, the Talon trims beautifully, easily controlled with a thumb and fingertip occasionally nudging the stick. On the ninety-minute run from El Paso to Houston’s Ellington Field, the T-38 offered a superb perch for the prospective orbital observer. The ancient, up-thrust reefs of the Guadalupe Mountains, the eroded sandstones of the Permian Basin, the dissected central peak of the Sierra Madera impact crater – all unfolded beneath the Talon’s wings. At sunset, stars winked on one-by-one in the deep blue-black dome above, wrapping the crew in a night sky nearly as thick with stars as space itself.

The Talon will train the crews of America’s next-generation spaceship, the Orion crew exploration vehicle. A T-38 sortie serves up a rapidly changing diet of challenges, forcing future crewmembers to recognize and deal with problems of deteriorating weather, imperfect communications, task saturation, and marginal fuel reserves. The demanding operational environment in a T-38 cockpit produces teammates with mutual respect and trust, traits essential to success when strapping on a real rocket.

To fulfill that mission through 2020 and beyond, NASA has heavily modified its two dozen or so T-38s, improving the takeoff efficiency of engine inlets and tail pipes, protecting crewmembers with more capable ejection seats, and easing piloting and navigation workload with a modern, all-glass cockpit. The Air Force has followed with propulsion and cockpit improvements to its own fleet of T-38Cs.

For future deep space explorers, the road to the Moon, near-Earth asteroids, and Mars will still pass through the cockpit of Northrop’s sleek, timeless Talon. As Story Musgrave puts it: “A thousand years from now its beauty will not have changed; it’s not in any time or place – it’s eternal.”

Dear Story: Anytime you need a co-pilot…..


More imagery of the T-38 at NASA’s Dryden Research Center here.

Story’s new book is a beauty. Make sure you get a copy. And let me tell you some T-38 stories (in “Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir“)….




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