An Astronaut’s View on the Moon Landing

Frederick Hauck, A62, talks about watching Neil Armstrong, his own three journeys in space, and his hope for a future mission to Mars
Five astronauts pose for a photo during their Space Shuttle Challenger mission in June 1983. Astronaut Frederick Hauck, A63, talks about the Moon landing fifty years ago, meeting Neil Armstrong, and his hope for a future mission to Mars
Frederick Hauck, center, was pilot during the June 1983 flight of Space Shuttle Challenger with Sally K. Ride, the first American woman in space. “You are just standing there and thinking, ‘My God, am I going to be in this machine?’” he said. Photo: NASA
July 19, 2019

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Ever since he was a young man, Frederick H. “Rick” Hauck, A62, H07, was fascinated by space exploration. In May of 1961, when Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut to reach space, Hauck was just finishing up his junior year at Tufts—he’ll never forget listening to every word of the radio broadcast in Miller Hall. He wondered if he could ever do something like that.

Some twenty years later—after Tufts, service in the Navy and in Vietnam, and time as a test pilot—Hauck became an astronaut himself. He was pilot of Challenger in 1983, the seventh flight of the Space Shuttle, on a journey on which he was accompanied by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. (“What a terrific person and engineer, and crewmate she was,” Hauck said.) The next year he commanded Discovery—he and his crew recovered two satellites on what NASA called “history’s first space salvage mission”—and, in 1988, he commanded the redesigned Discovery, the critical first Shuttle mission after the Challenger tragedy.

One of the nation’s most decorated astronauts—he was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2001, in the first class of space shuttle fliers—Hauck is also one of Tufts University’s most distinguished alumni. An emeritus trustee and Tufts parent (A87P, J92P), Hauck has received the Tufts Presidential Medal, the Light on the Hill Award, and an honorary doctorate in public service, among other honors. “I’m very proud of the accolades that I’ve been given by many organizations,” Hauck said, “but Tufts in particular.”

Ahead of the fiftieth anniversary of the Moon landing, Hauck spoke with Tufts Now about watching the Moon landing when he was just back from Vietnam, meeting Neil Armstrong, and his hope for a future mission to Mars.    

Tufts Now: Do you remember where you were when watching the Moon landing in July 1969?

Frederick Hauck: I had just gotten back from a combat cruise on the USS Coral Sea. I was at my home in Virginia Beach with my wife and two children. We watched breathlessly—as did one-third of the Earth’s population, I’m told. What a thrilling experience, as Neil Armstrong came down the steps [to the moon], and one of my reactions was great envy. To think that a human being could do that. Gee, I thought, what a dream it would be if I could do that.

I didn’t have any expectations, of course, that I would be able to become an astronaut, but I sure hoped that I could.

Can you describe the path you followed to realizing that dream?

I was in Navy ROTC at Tufts, and when I graduated I was commissioned in the Navy. Although I’d always wanted to be a pilot, there was a longer commitment of your life to the Navy if you were trained to be a pilot. I didn’t think I wanted to commit myself to that long a period. Of course, in the long run, I spent twenty-nine years in the Navy, eleven of which were with NASA.

Commander Frederick Hauck is aboard as the Space Shuttle Discovery lifts off on November 8, 1984 for an eight-day stay in earth orbit, during which two satellites were retrieved for eventual re-deployment. Photo: NASAThe next step, I was selected to go to the Monterey, California Naval Postgraduate School. I studied physics there and did well enough to be sent off to MIT, where I got a master’s degree in thermonuclear physics.

It was at that point that I decided I would make another move to become a pilot at last. I got my wings in February of ’68, got back from Vietnam in ’69. And then in ’71, I applied for test pilot training. I was fortunate enough when I was a test pilot to be the Navy test pilot in charge of evaluating the F-14 Tomcat and the aircraft carrier environment.

There are these events in my career that eventually allowed me to be competitive in the astronaut selection process. And that started with my education at Tufts University.

Do you remember the moment you knew you would become an astronaut?

I was aboard the USS Enterprise flying three different types of aircraft, which is unusual. NASA had announced that they were going to be selecting a new group of astronauts. They needed some newer, younger pilots to fill the ranks of the astronaut core. This was in 1977, so I was thirty-six, which is fairly old for selection into this program. But it served me well that I was fairly old.

So I put in my paper application—it was a standard government form—and I was selected in January 1978 and reported to NASA. My understanding was there were several thousand applicants for pilot positions in this group, and they wound up selecting fifteen. So those were pretty long odds.

Did you get a chance to learn from Neil Armstrong and other astronauts?

Part of astronaut training was listening to the older guys. They would come in and give us an hour or two of their perspectives. One day we might have Alan Shepard come in and talk to us, and another day we might have Mike Collins [from Apollo 11]. As it turned out, Neil Armstrong came in for a seminar. Getting the straight skinny from him was fascinating, thrilling, and a great memory.

You later became friendly with Neil Armstrong. What stands out in your memory about those conversations?

One was when Tufts offered to present him with an honorary degree [in 2004]. President Larry Bacow asked me if I knew him, and I said, “Well, we would know each other if we met in the street.” [Armstrong] said he’d be pleased, so that’s how that came about. My wife and I were basically his escort for that weekend, and so that was three days I spent in close contact with him. So I got to know him a bit more.

Another one of my cherished moments was when my wife and I were in the lobby of a hotel for a function, and he walked in with his bags. I went over to him, and he dropped his bags and gave me a big hug, and said, “How are you, my friend?” So, if he was willing to call me his friend, I will call him my friend.

During your first mission in 1983, when you were pilot of the Challenger, did you think back to that advice you heard from older astronauts?

Oh, sure. By my first flight, there had been six other flights, and each one, the crew would bring back their impressions.

On his last space mission in October 1988, Frederick Hauck was commander of the Space Shuttle Discovery, the first flight after the Challenger tragedy. He’s on the flight deck here with one of the many cameras carried onboard Discovery to photograph Earth. Photo: NASA[In 1983], I recall standing up on the launch platform, 190 feet above the ground, and it was pre-dawn, and there are these search lights illuminating the launchpad, and you and your crew are the only people on that launchpad, except for some security people and a couple of your colleagues to strap you in.

Meanwhile, the cryogenic tanks—liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen—are boiling off, and you are just standing there and thinking, “My God, am I going to be in this machine? Is this really going to happen?”

Because you never want to be late for your space launch, you’re there early, and so you’ve got time to contemplate all of this with your close friends standing next to you. So it’s really quite a—I don’t know, words escape me—an overwhelming sensation.

I have to ask you this: I read that “Tuftonia’s Day” was played as a wake-up song for you in space on that mission. Is that just a rumor?

That was true—it was terrific. I had also gotten a Tufts decal and put it on one of my checklists. I have a photograph of me [in the Space Shuttle] with the Tufts decal in the background.

You mentioned earlier that being a little bit older than average for an astronaut served you well. Did it help you when you commanded Space Shuttle missions in 1984 and 1988?

Well, it was an interesting situation. When the thirty-five of us [in the astronaut class of 1978] reported into Johnson Space Center, I was the oldest pilot in that class, and so I became sort of the class leader. One of my first jobs was to be sort of the right hand-person to the first flight crew for the Space Shuttle. As things turned out, I was the first of my class to be selected to be a pilot on a mission and first of my class to be selected to command a mission.

Funny how in your life, these little building blocks fall into place. If I had gone into the flying business immediately after graduation from Tufts, as opposed to delaying that a couple of years, it may have played out very differently.

In 1988, you commanded the first Shuttle mission after the Challenger tragedy. Did it feel essential to you that we return to space?

To me, to quit then would be the weak response. The strong response was [to continue]. President Reagan, in his memorial speech to the world—but specifically to Johnson Space Center, NASA, family down in Houston—was very clear: We will go forward.

Do you think we should keep sending American men and women into space today?

Absolutely. This is not a one-time endeavor. When someone says, “Why go back to the Moon? Been there, done that” it shows a gross misunderstanding of, number one, what we’ve done so far and, number two, what is yet to be done.

I think it is very important to go to the Moon again, to try out new systems, to actually live on the surface for a short period of time. I’m excited by what’s happening both commercially and in the NASA world. NASA is building a new system to enable us to take steps back to the Moon and, presumably when we have the confidence that we can do it, send humans out to Mars.

I may not live to see it, but I don’t think it’ll be too long before we’re sending humans to Mars. That’s going to be extraordinary.

Send comments to francis.storrs@tufts.edu.