Оrbital Commando: The Story Of Bill Shepherd – The First Navy SEAL In Space23rd Apr 2023
Every year, NASA registers thousands of applicants for space flights, but only a handful get selected. The hero of our story ─ Bill Shepherd, who did not immediately manage to get into the astronaut corps, was no exception. Despite this, the aspiring applicant managed to prove that he is a worthy candidate for this profession. Intelligence, will, character, diligence and psychological stability made William Shepherd one of the most famous space explorers.
From underwater into space
Who is Bill Shepherd? The future Navy SEAL, engineer, and astronaut was born on July 26, 1949, in Oak Ridge (Tennessee, USA). His childhood passed in the town of Babylon, New York, and his school years were in Scottsdale, Arizona. Bill was very eager to follow in his father’s footsteps, who served in naval aviation, but vision problems interfered with this plan. However, the young man still got enlisted into the Navy.
In 1971, Shepherd graduated from the US Naval Academy with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, and after seven years, he received a master’s degree in mechanics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Shepherd also served in the Navy’s special forces units, and rumour has it that he answered the NASA question, “What do you do best?” with “Kill people with knives.” Shepherd has refused to confirm or deny that answer, but with that attitude, we do know for sure who was the first Navy SEAL in space.
Shepherd applied for NASA Astronaut Group 9 candidates in 1984, but despite his temerity, he passed the selection only on the second attempt. The decisive factor was his SEAL training skills during the rescue operation after the Challenger shuttle disaster. Shepherd became an astronaut at the age of 35, and over the next 16 years, he made four flights, spending 159 days, 1 hour 50 minutes 49 seconds in space.
Shepherd went on his first space mission in 1988 on the shuttle Atlantis as a flight specialist. It was a top-secret Pentagon mission that lasted four days. The main goal was to launch an advanced radar reconnaissance satellite ONYX (Lacrosse) into low Earth orbit.
No one can say for sure whether this mission would have been a success if not for the experience and perseverance of the astronauts. During takeoff, the shuttle was damaged. The ablative insulation material of the nose cover of the right solid booster broke off and impacted the orbiter after about 85 seconds of flight, damaging its thermal protection. This created problems during the landing. The shuttle’s coating might not have withstood the heat of re-entry, but fortunately, everything went well. However, the problems didn’t stop there. After the satellite’s launch, one of its antennas did not deploy, and William Shepherd and his colleague Jerry Ross had to make an unscheduled spacewalk to make repairs.
The next flight took place quite soon, just two years later. This time, the mission goal was to launch the Ulysses spacecraft to the Sun (via Jupiter) from the Discovery.
This time, the task went off without a hitch. The shuttle circled the Earth 66 times and successfully landed at Edwards base. Ulysses went on a four-year journey to the Sun and subsequently orbited it for the next 18 years.
The third flight also took place another two years later, but this time on the shuttle Columbia. The mission included payload experiments in microgravity and mapping of the Earth using laser beams from the geodynamic satellite LAGEOS-II, deployed by the astronauts. This was the astronaut’s final flight as a shuttle mission specialist, but not the last in Bill Shepherd’s career as an astronaut.
In October 2000, Shepherd took part in the first expedition of the Soyuz spacecraft to the newly commissioned International Space Station. The crew under his command, which included two Russian cosmonauts, successfully prepared the station to welcome future “guests.” The mission was notable for its high complexity because it was necessary to carry out several dockings of the station with shuttles and supply ships, as well as transfer crews, so NASA chose William Shepherd ─ an astronaut with extensive experience in emergencies.
It was the first long-term mission on the ISS and the longest one in Bill’s career. The station became his home for 136 days, and he even celebrated the change of a millennium there. On March 21, 2001, Shepard returned to Earth, taking the final chord in his space odyssey, which lasted 16 years. He never flew into space again.
Bill left the Navy in early 2002 to become a civil engineer. From 2008 to 2011, he served as the first scientific adviser to the US Special Operations Command, and since 2014, he has been working for Wilcox Industries Corporation (special materials manufacturer) as Vice President of Advanced Development and Limited Programs.
So far, only three. In addition to Shepard, they were Captain Chris Cassidy (three missions) and Lieutenant Jonny Kim. Their achievements have garnered them many awards. For example, Bill Shepherd is included in the Astronaut Hall of Fame, has received several honorary medals and prestigious awards, and is a member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He is a worthy role model and inspiration for thousands of young people who dream of becoming astronauts!