Since July 1990, the 23 members of Astronaut Group XIII had studied and trained together for their ultimate challenge in space. Although all of us wanted to be the first in our class to fly, we knew it would take a couple of years to get every Hairball into orbit, flying a couple of us rookies at most with every shuttle mission. Bernard Harris and Charlie Precourt were the first in the group to get to space, flying in April 1993 on STS-55. It was almost a year later before I got my chance on STS-59.
Just six months earlier, in October, I was floored to learn I’d be joined on STS-68, flying the SRL-2 radar imaging payload, by THREE of my Hairball classmates: Terry Wilcutt, Jeff Wisoff, and Dan Bursch. We’d spent a year together in “astronaut school” at Johnson Space Center, and flown everything from the simulators to T-38 jets together. We knew each others’ personalities well, and I was reassured that I was flying with good friends and strong, capable crewmates. Jeff and Dan had flown in the previous year as mission specialists, and Terry would be our crew’s pilot. The way we split up our orbit team for round-the-clock radar operations, Dan and I would work the “night” shift together–the Blue Shift–, along with Steve Smith, and Terry and Jeff would take up the Red Shift–daytime back in Houston–with commander Mike Baker.
Today, Terry is the safety and mission assurance chief at NASA, Jeff is principal associate director of the National Ignition Facility (“lasers”), and Dan is a senior project engineer at the Aerospace Corporation. They’ve taught me so much, both on space and on Earth.
Here we are, just after suiting up down the hall from astronaut crew quarters in the Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy Space Center. From here it was just a few short steps to the elevator down to the Astrovan, and our ride to the pad for the launch of STS-68,
Read more about the STS-68 mission in “Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir,” and at my website, www.AstronautTomJones.com.