A Remarkable Visit
On January 12, 1986, the crew of STS 61C suited up and headed for the Space Shuttle launch pad. They had been trying get into orbit since December 18…with many grueling attempts that had worn them (and their families) out. But this day was the right day: no malfunctioning equipment, no boats in the restricted area off the coast, no weather problems in Florida or at the overseas emergency landing sites. The countdown proceeded, and soon they were in orbit.
Since crewmember Franklin Chang was the first astronaut from Costa Rica, there was a live down-linked press conference with the crew from space with then-President Monge. Franklin promised to bring his crew for a visit after the flight. The flight landed on January 18, 1986. Ten days later, the Challenger exploded, and all post flight celebrations were cancelled.
It wasn’t until 2016 that Franklin was able to coordinate a crew visit to his country. Only four members of the crew could attend.
All Shuttle crews were unique, and this one was no exception.
My husband, Hoot Gibson, was a first-time commander and had made the past year of training fun. He would go on to command three more flights and become chief of the Astronaut Office, but this was his first opportunity to land the vehicle and mold the crew into a successful team.
Charlie Bolden was the pilot. He had grown up in South Carolina in the 1960s. While he had the credentials to attend the United States Naval Academy, no one in his state’s congressional delegation would nominate him. He wrote to President Johnson who managed to get a Chicago congressman’s recommendation. He went on to graduate from the academy, becoming a pilot and then an astronaut. Eventually, he became a two-star Marine Corps General and finally the NASA Administrator.
Franklin Chang Diaz grew up in Costa Rica and watched the early United States space flights at the U.S. Embassy as a little boy. It was then that he decided to become an astronaut. At 17 he went to live with a relative in Connecticut. In the next ten years, he learned to speak English, became a U.S. citizen, and earned a Ph.D. in plasma physics from MIT.
Bill Nelson’s life followed a different path. A fifth-generation Floridian, his family owned land along Florida’s Space Coast, and he represented his home district—first in the state legislature and then in the United States Congress. In 1985, he was offered a seat aboard the Shuttle. Later, he became a U.S. senator and has been invaluable in being a knowledgeable and strong supporter of the nation’s space program.
With Franklin’s superstar status in Costa Rica, the crew was treated like royalty in his beautiful country. They met with government dignitaries, including the American ambassador, and they visited EARTH University, a premier institution working toward an ecologically better world. It is here where Franklin is designing a plasma rocket to make the trip to Mars faster.
The highlight of the trip was s visit with former president Monge. Ninety years old, frail and infirm—yet mentally clear, he graciously agreed to meet with Franklin’s crew. After introductions of the crew and their spouses and cordial remembrances of by-gone times, Franklin told the old gentleman that he was fulfilling his promise to bring his crew back to see him to celebrate their flight…thirty years later. The old man smiled in satisfaction and said poignantly, “And I waited for you.”
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Of all the posts, this is my favorite – the fulfillment of a promise made. Hopefully the president got at least a flown flag and patch from 61C!
The saying goes that “the commander sets the tone”. Hoot’s impeccable leadership skills combined with his talented and personable crewmates make this a crew and mission to remember. It’s worth noting that three decades later each of them continue to make valuable and significant contributions to science and society as a whole.
Excellent story, this is the type of behind the scenes story I like to read about and know. “Go For Orbit” is a very good book. Physically, I like the heavy pages and many photos. A full collection of your articles at some point may make a very nice book idea. Cheers, Happy Easter.
really great story!!! So inspiring!!