John Youskauskas is a captain for a major fractional business jet operator. He has also served as an aviation safety board member and has contributed to a number of aviation safety publications. He teamed up with co-author Melvin Croft to write Come Fly with Us: NASA’s Payload Specialist Program (February 2019). Croft has over thirty years of experience as a geologist and is a member of the organization collectSpace, which is dedicated to educating the public about historical and current space exploration. Both Youskauskas and Croft are also contributors to Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969–1975 (Nebraska, 2010).
“Hello John? This is Gary Payton…” The voice on the other end of the phone was of a man I never really expected to hear from. He was part of a secretive contingent of military officers who trained to fly aboard NASA’s space shuttles, carrying out classified Defense Department missions. When Mel Croft and I began researching our new book about the payload specialist program, we naturally assumed that these officers would be the most reluctant to speak with us. But we were surprisingly proven wrong, and that phone call began a whirlwind two years of work on our new book, Come Fly with Us: NASA’s Payload Specialist Program.
Often overlooked in the history of the space shuttle program, the payload specialists—NASA outsiders who flew aboard America’s space shuttles—are not famous names. So one might ask, why write a book for a spaceflight series about people who weren’t considered to be career astronauts? Our research revealed fascinating insights about these very talented, driven, and brave space flyers whose stories have remained largely untold. Each payload specialist followed his or her own unique path to spaceflight, and each one’s impressions of that adventure is equally unique and interesting.
As we approach eight long years since the end of the thirty-year-long shuttle program, the payload specialist program’s history offers a new perspective into the unlimited possibilities envisioned in the formative years of the Space Transportation System. In an era of space policy shifting away from exploration and toward the exploitation of low Earth orbit, the shuttle was intended to be the sole launch vehicle of the United States for the foreseeable future. It would ferry crews to and from an orbiting space station, carry laboratories full of experiments from all over the world, and be a commercial and military satellite launcher.
Some of these missions required specialists in their respective fields; metallurgists, medical doctors, oceanographers, astronomers, and satellite engineers. The call went out to industry and attracted the attention of hundreds of civilians who just happened to come along at the right time, and had the appropriate skill set to qualify. For those who eventually got to fly into orbit, it was as if they’d won the greatest lottery imaginable. On the other hand, some NASA managers and astronauts bristled at the concept of having “passengers” take coveted seats aboard the shuttle and perform work that they felt NASA crews were more than capable of performing.
The Department of Defense also took a reluctant role in the shuttle program. The involvement of the Air Force and the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office arguably saved the shuttle from cancellation in the mid-1970s, and they too wanted their own people aboard. The Air Force selected thirty-two “manned spaceflight engineers” (MSE’s) to crew classified missions to further the national security interests of the United States, including Gary Payton and Bill Pailes.
From 1983 to 1986, twenty-two payload specialists flew aboard the shuttle. Scientists from the United States, West Germany, and the Netherlands worked aboard Spacelab missions; foreign guests from Canada, France, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico accompanied their countries’ satellites and conducted vital space research; and even two U.S. politicians, who held influence over NASA’s budget appropriations in the halls of Congress, flew controversial “junkets” to space. Throughout these early years of the space shuttle program, nothing seemed impossible. Following the flights of the first scientist and military payload specialists, NASA even considered flying regular civilians aboard the shuttle, eventually answering President Ronald Reagan’s call to make a schoolteacher the first “citizen in space.” Inspiring the nation’s youth to dream of great things for their futures melded with politics at a unique time in the nation’s space program.
While the story of shuttle program is one of historic triumphs, it is also one of great tragedy. The ill-fated final missions of Challenger in 1986, and Columbia in 2003 both included payload specialists. The loss of teacher Christa McAuliffe and her six crewmates stunned the nation like few events in modern history, and ended the dream of flying civilians for years to come. While the NASA organization struggled throughout the 1980s to understand the risks associated with flying such a complex machine, none of the payload specialists we interviewed denied being fully aware of what they were getting into. In the words of Australian oceanographer Paul Scully-Power, “It is perhaps the only binary decision you will make—you either survive or not.”
In speaking and corresponding with this unique fraternity of shuttle crewmembers, it was fascinating to hear them reminisce about their once-in-a-lifetime chance to fly in space over three decades ago. Their experiences in the weightlessness of a black sky high above the blue planet are vividly recalled half a lifetime on. One payload specialist from this era, Charlie Walker, actually flew three successful missions. Others like Dr. Rick Chappell and MSEs Frank Casserino and Eric Sundberg trained for years without ever going to space, yet their contributions to the success of the shuttle program was critical and is seldom recognized. But the pride they take in making those contributions shines through in their recollections today.
Come Fly With Us explores some previously unseen aspects of the early shuttle program, but is also a timely story when considering what is occurring today in manned spaceflight. With the imminent flights of several commercial spacecraft fast approaching, more brave people will step forward to fly with their scientific payloads in space. After a hiatus stretching back to 2003, engineers and scientists—not just professional astronauts—will soon be headed into space again, aboard suborbital ships named VSS Unity and New Shepard. Not far in the future, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, and Boeing’s Starliner may even take them into orbit. Perhaps this generation’s version of the payload specialist will read our book during their free time in space, and think of the story as the beginning of their own adventure.