Friday's View of Space Shuttle 'Enterprise' Hearkens WC Alum's Space Program Work

John L. Fisher '51 Was AIr Force Fighter Pilot, NASA Engineer and Space Shuttle Developer

April 29, 2012

John L. Fisher poses in front of Space Shuttle Enterprise at the spacecraft's roll-out in 1976. (Photo courtesy of John L. Fisher)

John L. Fisher poses in front of Space Shuttle Enterprise at the spacecraft's roll-out in 1976. (Photo courtesy of John L. Fisher)

Wilmington College alumnus John L. Fisher (Class of 1951) felt tugs of nostalgia as he viewed television news reports Friday (April 27) showing the Space Shuttle Enterprise flying past landmarks in New York City.

No longer a flight-worthy aircraft, the Shuttle rode piggyback on a modified jumbo jet en route from Washington D.C. to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, its temporary new home before eventually being transported for exhibition at Manhattan’s Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.

A retired Air Force colonel, Fisher, now 83 and living with his wife in Las Vegas, enjoyed a stellar career in aviation that included serving as a fighter jet pilot, aeronautical engineer with the Mercury and Gemini space programs, and payload director with the Space Shuttle.

The Enterprise was the first shuttle orbiter and Fisher was there when it rolled out in summer 1976.
The sight of the vehicle nearly 36 years later evoked memories of his career and what he believes is an unfulfilled promise of what could have been with American space flight. He felt the United States was capable of literally anything after it first landed the Moon in July 1969.

“We could have continued on that path, but we didn’t. The country would be so much better if we involved our technologies and abilities in the space program,” he added. “If you would have asked me then (in 1969) where we would be in 2000, I would have said, ‘We’ll have colonies on Mars.’

“I believed we’d do so many wonderful things — just look at how much we accomplished in the 1960s! I think we lost our national resolve. It’s a terrible thing.”

In the waning days of the moon flights, it was determined that a reusable space vehicle would be required as the nation entered its post-Apollo phase of space exploration — and, as he had been with Mercury and Gemini’s Titan II rocket, Fisher was directly involved in its development.

“We were on Space Shuttle development from the time the vice president (Spiro Agnew) said, ‘What are we going to do after Apollo?’” Fisher said, noting he worked for 15 years on the Space Shuttle program.

Fisher represented the Department of Defense in defining national space policy and elements of the Space Shuttle, which was still on the drawing board.

“From 1969 to 1973, I got really involved in the Shuttle — I was dedicated to the Space Shuttle program,” he said. Fisher retired from the Air Force as a full colonel in 1973 and joined Rockwell International’s Space Division and served as its director of Space Shuttle Payloads and Kennedy Space Center Projects for the next 10 years.

He saw the Shuttle operational as the inaugural mission successfully launched in 1981 — 31 years ago. As he had with the Titan II, he saw the Space Shuttle from conception to operation.

“The Space Shuttle was very precious to me and those early Shuttle pilots were all my friends,” he said, noting many worked with him on the MOL. “At Rockwell, astronauts would drift through my office — we were a very close group of people.”

Soon after the early Space Shuttle launches, Fisher became somewhat disenchanted with the program as he felt the pressure to produce had occasionally compromised safety.

(LEFT) NASA photo

“I became frustrated because I thought the zeal we had for ensuring crew safety had become diminished,” he said. “I was really concerned about the Space Shuttle safety considerations — I felt the culture (of crew safety) was evaporating.

“I always believed I would never set somebody in a seat I wouldn’t sit in.”

Since he “couldn’t change” NASA’s philosophy or Rockwell’s management, Fisher retired in 1984 at 55 years of age.

“I walked away from the Space Shuttle completely,” he said. “I couldn’t see myself continuing to work in a system I felt was hazardous.”

Then on Jan. 28, 1986, came the “perfect storm” of circumstances: cold weather, possible cracking of the Shuttle’s O-rings and NASA’s intent that, “We have to launch.” The Challenger exploded shortly after lift-off.

“The Challenger blew up. The mission was a disaster and six brave astronauts and a school teacher perished,” he said.

As last summer’s final Space Shuttle mission evoked those memories, so too did last week’s sight of Enterprise in the skies over New York. Fisher recalled a day some 30 years ago, what he describes as one of the” proudest moments” of his life.

During the nascent period of the Space Shuttle flights, he and his wife, Nicole, posed for photos underneath the wing of a Shuttle with its crew, the senior staff and an entourage that featured Pres. Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

The unique occasion at Edwards Air Force Base featured a Space Shuttle viewed within minutes of landing, the Shuttle for the next mission attached for transport on a Boeing 747 and a third Shuttle on the ground, which was the site of the photo op.

“It’s a moment in my life I’ll never forget — the 4th of July, the Reagans and three Space Shuttles in sight, which represented the result of what I’d worked on for 13 years of my life,” he said.

Reagan, beaming with the excitement of the impending landing, panned his view across the three Shuttles — a sight that symbolized so much American accomplishment — and then fixed his gaze upon Fisher and those other NASA stalwarts, and said:

“Good job guys!”