‘Godspeed and War Eagle’: Remembering the most Auburn space mission ever

Thursday, April 23, 2020

‘Godspeed and War Eagle’: Remembering the most Auburn space mission ever

Columbia Space Shuttle astronauts Commander Ken Mattingly, foreground, and Pilot Henry Hartsfield salute President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, upon safely landing the Space Shuttle Columbia at Edwards Air Force Base on July 4, 1982 after a week in orbit.

Auburn is basically Astronaut U. The school just can’t seem to stop producing space men. And space women. And NASA engineers. Even NASA historians.

That quasi-controversial “First Man” movie? Yep, it’s based on a Neil Armstrong biography penned by a retired, Auburn-hat wearing Auburn professor emeritus, a book that, save for a 1967 tragedy, easily could have been about an Auburn grad astronaut who–true story–wanted the first words on the moon to be “War Eagle.”

There have been Auburn shirts in space, Auburn pennantsAuburn satellites…  

However, the most Auburn of all the Auburn space missions was, hands down, the Space Shuttle Columbia’s fourth and final test flight on Sunday, June 27, 1982. It was only America’s fourth shuttle mission, and the first to include military experiments, something that took on a little extra significance when we learned the Soviets would have a few cosmonauts floating around up there at the same time.

But with T-minus a week, some of the biggest buzz wasn’t about the shuttle itself, but the two people who’d be inside: 1954 Auburn graduate Henry Hartsfield and 1958 Auburn graduate (and former SGA President) Ken “Played By Gary Sinise in ‘Apollo 13’” Mattingly.

That made it the first mission piloted by two graduates of the same university, a fact referenced in rare NASA footage of the launch in which cries of “War Eagle” can be heard from friends and family gathered to see the heroes off to the launchpad.

“When they reach the pad and go up into the white room prior to entering the orbiter, they’re going to greeted by a sign that was put up by the closeout crew, that for Auburn University War Eagles, containing those words plus a number of patches that are representative of the university,” an announcer says. “Both of the astronauts, as well as center director of Kennedy Space Center Dick Smith, are graduates of Auburn University.”

At least three other NASA scientists and contractors directly involved in the mission were also Auburn grads. All told, more than 800 Auburn alumni were employed by NASA in 1982.

Everyone hoped the flight would be the first to actually take off on time, but on Saturday, the day before the launch, chances seemed slim. A  Cape Canaveral hailstorm put 400 tiny dents into the shuttle’s heat-resistant tiles. The crew worked through the night to repair them. By morning, all systems were go.

Among the cargo? Two personalized Auburn jerseys and a fancy copy of the Auburn Creed.

“Godspeed and War Eagle,” Smith told Hartsfield and Mattingly minutes before what turned out to be a perfect liftoff (that was actually a split-second early.

At 10:59:59, half a million people along Florida’s highways and beaches pointed toward the sky as two Auburn men hurlted into orbit at 17,500 miles per hour.

Upon their return to earth a week later on July 4th, Pres. Ronald Reagan declared Columbia fully operational, compared the successful flight to the hammering of the golden spike that marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad, and introduced Mattingly and Hartsfield to the crowd of 30,000 gathered at Edwards Air Force Base in California as “two sons of Auburn.”

And if that weren’t war damn enough, the AP reported that mission control had beamed up a recording of “Hold That Tiger” by the Auburn University Marching Band for one of Columbia’s wake-up calls. 

“We love that tune,” Mattingly responded. “Found out something up here though–you can’t stomp your feet to it.”

from The War Eagle Reader

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