“Who, me?” Day and the TFNGs
On the morning of January 16, 1978, an invitation went out to thirty-five lucky individuals. I received a call as I entered the VA Hospital in Memphis where I was completing my surgery residency. My beeper indicated a call for me was waiting at the reception desk. “Hello?” “Hi, Rhea,” said the Johnson Space Center Director of Flight Operations, George Abbey. “Are you still interested in coming to work for us?” Stunned, I thought “Who, me?” as did the thirty-four others. It was the beginning of our journey into the unknown.
“Yes, sir! Very interested!” He let me know that I had been selected to join the Astronaut Class of 1978. It was a remarkable change in direction for my future. My new classmates and I were invited to meet each other and the press in Houston in late January.
All thirty-five of us, twenty-nine men, and six women, arrived and were lined up in alphabetical order to be seated on a stage in the Johnson Space Center auditorium. With the names printed on the seats I saw that I was seated between Dick Scobee and Brewster Shaw. We chatted a bit before we were each introduced. I glanced about at the others and noticed a nice-looking young man behind and above me. Years later I would marry him. His name was Robert Gibson. After pictures were taken, the members of the press were allowed to come to the stage and interview us. It was really awkward when they only talked to the women. That evening there was what the military guys called a “beer call” at a local bar. It was the beginning of getting to know each other; understanding that our lives would be intertwined in the years to come.
We reported for duty in July. As we sat in the meeting room on the fourth floor of the building that housed the Astronaut offices at the Johnson Space Center, the older Astronauts who had been around since the Apollo days, looked a little surprised to see academics with beards, two African-Americans, an Asian and women – including me (and “Pinky” Nelson) who didn’t look old enough to drink. Oh my!
Afterward we new folks met briefly and decided on a group name, as all former Astronaut classes had done. (There were the Mercury Seven, the New Nine and so on until the last Apollo class called the Excess Eleven). We settled on the Thirty-Five New Guys, or TFNGs. The women had no objection to being called guys, especially after considering oddball names like Astronettes that the press had suggested. And unlike former classes, we would not get the “Astronaut” title right away but would be called Astronaut Candidates or ASCANS, another weird name.
I knew I would get to know them all well. Would we all get to fly in space? Would we have to compete with each other? Would we all become good friends? Considering the danger of strapping ourselves to rockets, would some of us die?
We did become forever friends and we all flew. There was only friendly competition and four of us would be lost in the Challenger accident. All the TFNGs still consider January 16th the day we were given this amazing opportunity, asking ourselves, “Who, me?”
If you’d like to receive my blog to your inbox each month, we’d love to add you to our email list. If you have not yet signed up, please do so today by clicking here.