Review: Come Fly with Us

Come Fly with Us: NASA’s Payload Specialist Program
by Melvin Croft and John Youskauskas
Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2019
hardcover, 456 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-8032-7892-9

Not all astronauts are created equal—or, at least, perceived equally, even among themselves. For much of the shuttle era, particularly the time before the Challenger accident, missions included both career astronauts, such as pilots and mission specialists, as well as temporary “payload specialists” often representing companies or countries with payloads on those missions. To the average person there was no difference, but within NASA, and its astronaut corps, there certainly was.

The history of the payload specialist program, and those payload specialists who flew on the shuttle, is told in great detail in Come Fly with Us by Melvin Croft and John Youskauskas. The title of the book comes from a line that astronaut Ken Mattingly, who commanded the STS-4 shuttle mission, would give in speeches after that flight, the last “test” flight after which NASA declared the shuttle operational and thus open to a wider range of people.

Croft and Youskauskas trace the concept of the payload specialist back to the early days of the shuttle program. The first use of the term they found was in a mid-1972 speech by a NASA official at a workshop about shuttle applications, noting that such payload specialists “need not be astronauts or even scientist-astronauts requiring several years of training” but instead scientists and engineers that could be trained for a flight in just a few months. At the same time, NASA was pursuing an agreement with what would become the European Space Agency to develop the Spacelab module for the shuttle, an agreement that would include the ability to fly Europeans on the shuttle missions that carried the module.

There were internal debates through much of the 1970s, though, about payload specialists, including turf battles between the Johnson Space Center and the Marshall Space Flight Center—the latter seeking to take a bigger role in shuttle payloads—over who would be responsible for payload specialists and what their roles would be. Some astronauts, as well as JSC leadership, were skeptical about the need for payload specialists at all, citing the expertise of astronauts who could carry out the work of payload specialists. Every seat on a shuttle mission allocated to a payload specialist meant one less opportunity for a career astronaut to fly, particularly as the astronaut corps swelled but the shuttle flight rate grew far more slowly than envisioned.

But while career astronauts may have been hostile to the concept of the payload specialists, they welcomed the individuals who served as payload specialists as part of their crews. The authors make heavy use of interviews and other oral histories with individual payload specialists and the astronauts they flew with on their missions. Those accounts indicate that payload specialists were, in general, treated well by the astronauts on the missions they flew. In some cases, payload specialists were able to carry out research or adapt to changing conditions that even a well-trained mission specialist would have been unlikely to do, like in-flight repairs Charlie Walker made to electrophoresis hardware he helped develop as a McDonnell Douglas engineer.

The book also sheds light on one incident that had appeared to be a black mark on the payload specialist program. On the STS-51B mission in 1985, payload specialist Taylor Wang, a JPL scientist, was reportedly so depressed when his experiment in the Spacelab module malfunctioned that mission commander Bob Overmyer was worried about his mental health and had padlocked the shuttle’s hatch. Other members of the crew, though, believed that Overmyer overreacted; Wang returned to his experiment and, after repairs, was able to get it working again—another argument of the benefit of flying a payload specialist, the authors noted.

Later crews flying with payload specialists also saw padlocks on the shuttle hatch door, and assumed it was linked to Wang’s flight (although, in that case, the hatch was actually secured with duct tape, not a padlock.) However, the book states that there was another reason to lock the hatch that had nothing to do with the mental well-being of payload specialists: the hatch handle was often used as a towel rack by shuttle crews, and there was a concern dating back to the early shuttle missions that an astronaut pulling a towel off the handle could inadvertently move it to the open position.

The payload specialist program didn’t end with the Challenger accident, but the decision to stop using the shuttle for commercial satellite launches meant the end of flying company engineers or representatives of countries whose satellites were being deployed from the shuttle. More non-traditional payload specialists also went by the wayside with the end of the Teacher In Space and follow-on programs, although Barbara Morgan did eventually fly, albeit as a full-fledged astronaut. The last payload specialist to fly was Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut on the ill-fated final mission of Columbia in 2003.

After all these years, are payload specialists now accepted by their astronaut peers? Not always. Bob Cenker, an RCA engineer who flew on final shuttle mission before the Challenger accident as a payload specialist (along with then-Rep. Bill Nelson), says he’s often treated equally at meetings of the Association of Space Explorers. “But then you’ll hear rumblings from other people, ‘Well, he’s not an “RA”—a real astronaut,’” he recalls in the book. “It doesn’t really matter to me because I got to fly.”

And, as Croft and Youskauskas note at the end of Come Fly with Us, the concept of the payload specialist may be making a comeback, although not with NASA. Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have plans to fly experiments on their suborbital vehicles. In some cases, those experiments could be tended by someone—a company employee or someone involved with the development of that payload—during the mission: a payload specialist, in the purest sense of the term. Perhaps, like Cenker, they won’t care if they’re considered a “real astronaut” or not, as long as they get to fly.

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