Roy Bridges calls himself an improbable astronaut. In fact, that’s the title of his autobiography, and he still views his rise as the son of a bankrupt Georgia farmer to the pilot of a 1985 space shuttle mission, and then director of two premier NASA facilities, one being its Langley Research Center in Hampton, as stunning.
Perhaps, but it’s probably persistence more than chance that took Bridges, now 79 and about to join the Astronaut Hall of Fame, into the heights of aviation. “We didn’t have indoor plumbing until I was a freshman in high school,” he recalls. “And I landed an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy, only because my father insisted I keep pestering our congressman every time he visited our small rural town.”
Once in Colorado Springs, however, Bridges showed his stuff in the classroom, eventually earning both a bachelor’s and then a master’s in a joint astronautics program with Purdue University. In the ’50s and ’60s, however, two climactic world events were unfolding that would impact the arc of Roy Bridges’ future.
“I will never forget listening to news reports about Sputnik,” says the now retired father of two and grandfather of five, who is living in Colorado Springs to be close to them. “I knew right then I wanted to be part of the U.S. space program.”
The second was the war in southeast Asia. “I got married in March of 1967 right after completing pilot training, and on New Year’s Day 1968, I was at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, preparing to travel to Vietnam and fly an F100 fighter jet in combat.”
And fly he did, 226 missions in a single year, about 70 over the North, those lasting up to four hours and requiring multiple refuelings. “On one flight, we were hit in the wing causing a massive fuel leak. We barely made it back to our base.” At home in Texas, his wife Benita was hearing little, other than her husband’s voice on mailed audio cassettes.
Given all the close calls, Bridges feels he is “truly lucky to be alive.” After his war service, he became a T-37 instructor in Oklahoma, a job the airman came to relish because of the flight hours he accumulated in a short period.
That should have appealed to NASA, but the agency turned down his 1978 application to become an astronaut. “I was not happy.” But an Air Force personnel officer convinced him to reapply, and in 1980, Roy Bridges began training for the ride of his life. That opportunity finally came in 1985 aboard the Challenger, which had already carried crews into space eight times.
“We had seven people onboard for our mission to perform a host of physics, astronomy and other experiments.” But 2.8 seconds before initial liftoff, all engines shut down. “Two weeks later, we did lift off, but we lost one engine and had other engine safety systems issues throughout. We made it into orbit, however, and had a successful flight and return.”
Bridges was supposed to be on Challenger again the following May, but we all recall what happened on January 28, 1986. “I was in a meeting in Houston,” Bridges remembers, “when we took a break to watch the Challenger launch. 73 seconds later, it blew up, killing all seven crew members.” It was a devastating blow to NASA and Bridges who lost his second mission, returning instead to the Air Force as commander of its largest test wing.
He retired in 1996 as a two-star general, then rejoined NASA to direct the Kennedy Space Center, where he was in February 2003, waiting to welcome home the crew of the Columbia. But just minutes before it landed, the shuttle disintegrated over Texas, taking the lives of seven more heroic aviators.
Later that year, Bridges arrived in Hampton to establish the NASA Engineering and Safety Center at Langley. “I was able to secure the funds needed to hire top-notch talent, and over the next decade, they performed some 500 in-depth studies of potential problems and made recommendations to avoid them. We must have done something right because there have been no more tragic accidents.”
What NASA, or the nation, hasn’t done is put anyone on the moon since the last of six manned missions in 1972. After the Cold War ended, attention shifted to the International Space Station (ISS) with the Russians, but NASA, says Bridges, has not been a top priority for the federal government. “The launch of Artemis last November though gives me hope that we are on our way back to the moon and eventually Mars.”
His next flight will be on May 6, when he joins fellow astronaut, and now Arizona U.S. Senator Mark Kelly, as the latest inductees into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame during a ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center.
“I was a bit surprised they picked me because I only flew in space once,” says the honoree. “But I guess it’s because of my other work for NASA.” Indeed. Beyond what Bridges accomplished at NASA Langley, his stint at Kennedy included oversight of the shuttle, ISS and expendable launch vehicle missions, heavy duties all.
Along with eight hairy days in space 37 summers ago (and more than 200 scary ones over North and South Vietnam 17 years earlier), that’s not a bad set of careers for an improbable astronaut.