Former NASA astronaut Steve Nagel died Thursday. His hometown paper, the Canton (Illinois) Daily Ledger, said he died after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 67.
I met Steve in the mid-1980s, when I covered science at The Houston Post. And I still knew him when I came to Aviation Week & Space Technology as a space reporter. Steve was a consummate professional and a straight-shooter. (You can read his impressive NASA biography here.) But one exchange Steve and I had will always remind me he was a classy guy with a droll wit, too.
I was at Av Week then and covered shuttle Mission 37, which was flown in April 1991 on the Atlantis. Steve was the commander of a five-person crew, one of whom, Linda Godwin, is his widow. It was a high-profile mission, as it involved deploying the Gamma Ray Observatory, an important science satellite and one that required a spacewalk to free a stuck antenna.
Everything else went pretty much by the book -- except for the landing. The most important thing to remember about the shuttle when it is landing is this: The shuttle is a glider. There are no missed-approach procedures and no go-arounds. It's about like flying a brick with wings on it.
This time, the Atlantis was landing on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base in California. There's a reason so many aircraft are tested there. The area is flat as a billiard table for miles and visibility is usually unlimited.
But there is a runway marked on the lake bed. And the shuttle is supposed to land on it. Unfortunately, the Atlantis, with Steve the pilot flying, touched down about 600 feet short of the threshhold.
I could not tell that at the time, and NASA certainly didn't do anything to call it to anyone's attention. But about a week later, we got a tip that the landing had raised some eyebrows in Mission Control. So I called Steve in Houston.
I was impressed that he hadn't tried to duck my call. On the contrary, he answered every question I asked and didn't try to sugar-coat anything. He did point out that even if the shuttle had been landing back at its base in Florida, it would not have been horrible. We reporters like to point out, probably hyperbolically, that the shuttle runway at the Kennedy Space Center is "surrounded by an aligator-infested swamp." But there is 1,000 feet of load-bearing underrun. So Steve's dead-stick landing would not have ruined anyone's day.
"It would have caused a few more gray hairs," he allowed. "But we still would have been okay." However, he also blamed himself for not managing the energy of the gliding spaceplane more aggressively.
In fact, Steve was so forthright, I started to feel sorry for him. Believe it or not, we reporters do sometimes feel for people we have to put on the spot. So before ending the call, I said, "Steve, I have to ask you, is this going to hurt your chances of flying again? Will NASA hold this against you?" That's when his dry wit came to the fore:
"Well, being written up in Aviation Week for a short landing was not one of my career goals, if that's what you mean."
A classy guy. We'll miss him.
And, oh yeah, Steve did fly again. Two years later, Nagel commanded Mission 55, the German D-2 Spacelab flight. That's pretty quick turnaround by space shuttle standards.