“Who, me?” Day and the TFNGs

 

TFNG Patch

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.

The TFNG Class of ’35

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.

TFNG Classroom

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.

TFNG Logo

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?”

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3 Comments

  1. If you haven’t read Colin Burgess and David Shayler’s book – NASA’s First Space Shuttle Astronaut Selection: Redefining the Right Stuff – I highly recommend that you get a copy right away. The authors do a great job of telling the story of the TFNGs; a very impressive group of people who played a huge role in the success of the space shuttle program.

  2. Another good read is Riding Rockets by Astronaut Mike Mullane. He was a TFNG and describes the selection process in pretty good detail. He also describes the feelings leading up to and including launch day. I really enjoyed the book.

  3. Thanks for the book suggestions. I read Mullane’s book, but not the other. I will check it out. But up next for me is Rhea Seddon’s book Go For Orbit.

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