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Remembering Henry Warren “Hank” Hartsfield, Jr.
Discovery’s First Commander (1933-2014)

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Henry W. “Hank” Hartsfield, Jr.

Henry W. “Hank” Hartsfield, Jr.: USAF Pilot, NASA Astronaut, Executive. Credit: NASA

Henry “Hank” Hartsfield served as commander of the first mission of Space Shuttle Discovery, now on display at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. The six-day STS-41D mission began on August 30, 1984. An earlier launch attempt ended with the first on-the-pad abort just four seconds before launch. The first Discovery crew successfully deployed three communications satellites, tested a towering solar array, and used the IMAX® motion picture camera in orbit.

Crew of STS-41D

The crew of Discovery’s first mission, STS-41D, 1984.
Charles D. Walker and Judith A. Resnik behind (l to r) Richard M. (Mike) Mullane, Steven A. Hawley, Henry W. Hartsfield, Jr. and Michael L. Coats. Credit: NASA

Hartsfield loading film into the IMAX camera on the STS-41D mission

Hartsfield loading film into the IMAX camera on the STS-41D mission. Credit: NASA

Hartsfield was the first native of Alabama to become an astronaut. He graduated from the USAF Test Pilot School and served in the Air Force for 22 years. He logged more than 7,400 hours flying time, mostly in fighter jets (F-86, F-100, F-104, F-105, F-106) and in the T-33 and T-38 training jets. He was selected to be a military astronaut in the USAF Manned Orbital Laboratory program but was reassigned to NASA in 1969 when it was cancelled.

As an astronaut Hartsfield supported the Apollo 16 mission and three Skylab missions before transitioning to the orbital flight test team for the new space shuttle program. His first spaceflight occurred in 1982; with commander Thomas K. Mattingly, he piloted Columbia on its fourth and final orbital test flight, STS-4. President Ronald Reagan greeted the crew upon landing, and NASA declared the shuttle “operational” – ready for routine spaceflight.

STS-4 pilot Hartsfield (left) and commander T.K. Mattingly.

STS-4 pilot Hartsfield (left) and commander T.K. Mattingly. Credit: NASA

STS-4 Crew Greeted by President and Mrs. Reagan at Landing

President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan share a meeting with Astronauts Thomas K. Mattingly II, right, and Henry W. Hartsfield Jr., after the successful landing of the Space Shuttle Columbia at Edwards Air Force Base on July 4, 1982. Credit: NASA

The Discovery mission was his second flight. Hartsfield flew his last shuttle mission on Challenger as commander of STS-61A in 1985, the last successful flight of this vehicle. This scientific research mission carried more than 75 experiments. Designated Spacelab D-1, it was the first shuttle mission operated for Germany and the European Space Agency, and it was the first with an eight-member crew. Altogether he spent 483 hours (20 days) in space.

Crew of STS-61A

The crew of STS-61A:
(l to r, front) Reinhard Furrer, Bonnie J. Dunbar, James F. Buchli, Henry W. Hartsfield Jr
(l to r, back) Steven R. Nagel, Guion S. Bluford Jr., Ernst Messerschmid, Wubbo Ockels. Credit: NASA

After the 1986 Challenger tragedy, Hartsfield held a series of NASA management positions until 1998.  He worked on the International Space Station program and the future-oriented Human Exploration and Development of Space enterprise before moving on to become an executive with Raytheon Corp. until his retirement in 2005. He received numerous military and civilian awards during his long career.

Valerie Neal is a curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s Space History Department.

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