From Rutgers to the Space Shuttle Challenger
For Terry “T.J.” Hart, a Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer and U.S. Air Force Reserve pilot, 1978 was a banner year. He received his MS in electrical engineering from Rutgers School of Engineering and learned he had been accepted into NASA’s Astronaut Group 8 – the first new group of astronauts in nine years and the first to include women, and African and Asian Americans.
During his six years with NASA, Hart was initially a member of the Mission Control Team, supporting crews on four shuttle flights as Ascent and Orbit CAPCOM or capsule communicator. Later, in April 1984, he spent seven days in space as a member of the crew of the STS-41-C Challenger space shuttle. He helped to release the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF), which contained 57 experiments from 200 researchers from eight countries. The mission made history by successfully completing the first on-orbit spacecraft repair of the disabled Solar Maximum Mission, or Solar Max, satellite.
Today, Hart teaches aerospace engineering at Lehigh University, his undergraduate alma mater, where he loves to see his students launch careers in the field.
You earned an MS in mechanical engineering from MIT. Why did you choose Rutgers for a second MS degree in electrical engineering?
I’d just come back from active Air Force duty and was working at Bell Labs in New Jersey on government defense projects such as the antiballistic missile system. When my job began to involve more electrical work, I went back to night school to learn about electrical engineering. It was a wonderful opportunity to have such a good school there as Rutgers.
You were one of 35 astronauts chosen by NASA from a pool of 8,000 applicants in 1978. Why did you apply?
Right in the middle of working at Bell and towards my master’s degree at Rutgers, NASA announced they were going to hire the first group of astronauts since the Apollo missions. I put an application in on a whim.
It was dumb luck – kind of like Forrest Gump – in that I was in the right place at the right time. NASA loved Bell Labs and fact that I was a weekend fighter pilot with the New Jersey Air National Guard and that my educational development included both mechanical and electrical engineering.
My group had the first women astronauts. These six women were a breath of fresh air for NASA. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was in the group and we were best friends. We shared an office for four years and flew T-38s – supersonic jet trainers – together. She was one of my favorite co-pilots and one of the first of our group to get to fly on a shuttle mission.
What was your role as a mission specialist on the 1984 STS-41-C Challenger mission?
We took the Long Duration Exposure Facility with up with us and deployed it. We used a mechanical arm to unberth it and deploy it – and the experiments that were on it.
Four years earlier, the Solar Maximum Satellite had been launched but had become disabled and couldn’t be used. We trained underwater with space suits on and with simulator training for space walks in order to be able to repair and replace it. My job was to work with Commander Bob Crippen and grab the satellite with the shuttle’s mechanical arm. Other guys space walked to do the actual repair – the first ever rendezvous with and repair of a satellite.
What did you most enjoy about being in space for a week – and what was your greatest challenge?
The view out the window of the Earth in three dimensions is quite thrilling and worth all the training I’d gone through. You see how beautiful and fragile our planet is. These images stay fresh in your mind even many years later.
Weightlessness is fun, but it’s also the biggest challenge. You don’t feel too good at first. Tummies get upset and you bang around a lot. After two or three days, you do learn to move around.
We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing. What do you think about the Trump administration’s plans to send Americans back to the moon by 2024?
This time of celebration has been interesting and kind of bittersweet because we haven’t been back to the moon in so long. We’re making progress and will get there again.
NASA has been funded to build, but nothing has been financed by Congress lately in the way of a mission. President Trump has not done anything except make non-funded pronouncements.
NASA does have a pretty solid plan for deep space exploration. It has built the Orion Capsule able to take humans back to the moon and on to Mars. All the pieces are coming together.
They are thinking of an orbiting deep space gateway further away than the moon that would be like a gas station. Future missions would leave from there to go to Mars.
Where would you like to see space travel go in the future?
My number one priority would be an asteroid recovery mission that would bring an asteroid – or pieces of an asteroid – back to earth. This is something that scientists have wanted for a number of years, because it would help us better understand the origins of the solar system and answer other science questions – and would probably be more interesting than landing on the moon again. Yet before we would launch for Mars, we’d want to learn how to live on the moon.
One thing that’s interesting is that President Kennedy’s challenge in 1961 to grow the space program and put a man on the moon was such a stretch. So many things had to be invented to meet the challenge. Nobody had been in orbit yet – although astronaut Alan Shepard had just completed his suborbital flight. But to get to Mars, we don’t need to invent anything new – we know how to do that already. It is more of a logistical problem.
It’s a totally different world now. Space travel and exploration ignite the human spirit. It’s something the whole world does together. A couple of hundred years from now when historians write the history of the space program, they’ll note that the best thing to come out of it is international cooperation.
What advice would you have for Rutgers students who would want to follow in your footsteps?
There are exciting careers through aerospace engineering in many fields. NASA is certainly one path for this. Students, who would want to apply to NASA as astronauts, should focus on a breadth of studies and be able to learn things quickly. NASA looks for people who learn well and who have the personality traits that make them good team players.