Interview with Astronaut William Gregory
William G. Gregory is a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and former NASA Astronaut. In the Air Force, he served as a fighter pilot and test pilot. Having flown in excess of 40 types of aircraft, Gregory has accumulated more than 5,000 hours of flight time.
Selected by NASA in January 1990, Gregory became an astronaut in July 1991 and has logged 400 hours in space. He served as pilot on Space Shuttle Endeavour STS-67. Launching from the Kennedy Space Center on March 2, 1995, the STS-67 crew established a new mission duration record of 16 days, 15 hours, 8 minutes and 46 seconds, while completing 262 orbits and traveling nearly seven million miles.
Mr. Gregory has been awarded the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Air Force Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Force Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, the NASA Space Flight Medal, and the National Defense Service Medal.
Q. Tell me a little bit about your upbringing. Did you always know you wanted to be a pilot and an astronaut, or did you have other career aspirations?
A. I wanted to be a pilot because my dad and his two brothers were all military pilots, so that was something from the word go. What you have to realize is that the space program grew up with me. I was born the year that Sputnik was launched and Mercury and Gemini were when I was a little kid. I was 12 years old when Neil and Buzz stepped on the moon. All of that stuff was just hugely apparent and important to us back then. A lot of folks have difficulty comprehending a day when we didn’t have cell phones, video games, VCRs, DVDs, Blu-ray players, and we had a black and white TV and three channels. There weren’t as many diversions back then. Basically, you played Little League and that was it; there were no soccer leagues. It was really a huge, huge thing back then when we were entering the space race and trying to get to the moon. It got the attention of the entire world and the youth back then. It was something that I wanted to do, but the chances of actually doing it are pretty slim.
Q. When you went into the Air Force after graduating from the Air Force Academy, did you already have the goal to go from being a pilot to an astronaut?
A. Yes, but there are so many steps in between. I graduated from high school right after they stopped flying to the moon and they were starting work on the space shuttle. But, by the time they flew the space shuttle, I had already graduated from college and was in pilot training. The idea of being a shuttle pilot and actually flying the vehicle – that didn’t come along until later because it wasn’t until the ’80s when we started flying it. The way to get there was that I had to go to Test Pilot School, so that was the next thing I wanted to be – I wanted to be a fighter pilot and then I wanted to be a test pilot. I was hoping that I would actually have a chance to become an astronaut after that, but it’s a real slimming down process and not a lot of people make it from one step to the next. It was something I wanted to do, but it’s not something that you can expect to have happen.
Q. What traits or skills did you have that may have separated from you from your peers who were trying to achieve the same goal?
A. It’s funny – I always say I look really good on paper. I had graduated near the top of my class at the Air Force Academy – I was 15th of 900 – and then I had gotten selected for a Guggenheim Fellowship to get my masters, so those things all looked very good. I went to pilot training and did well flying in my early assignments in an F-111. All those things helped move me in the right direction.
Q. You talked about the changing technology and all the distractions that kids have today that you didn’t have growing up. Do you think that kids today who dream of being an astronaut can follow a career path like yours? With the privatization of space travel, do you think that NASA astronauts are going to play the same role in the future that they have up to now?
A. Yes, I think they will, because they’re working on CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle). You know, we used to go out in the open field behind our house and play in the dirt, or go climb trees, or go for a long hike. What we did, kids would never imagine today. They might download an app to pretend that they’re hiking (laughs). It’s an evolving process now because of the commercial companies – who’s actually going to be flying it? Is it going to be NASA astronauts or is it going to be company pilots? Eventually, if you’re going to go up and dock with the NASA Space Station and NASA is going to be relying on you, you have to do stuff that is going to make them happy. You’re going to have to fulfill their requirements and do it the way they’re used to doing it.
Q. Let’s talk about your experience as an astronaut. Do you think people underestimate how much work there is to do when you’re actually on orbit and how full your day is?
A. It is certainly true that the shuttle missions were scheduled very tightly and we were always quite, quite busy; whereas the Space Station – because they’re up there for such a long time – they don’t keep them energized to that level. They don’t have quite as packed a schedule because they’d go nuts over the course of six months.
Q. Were you ever afraid of anything that happened, either in a jet when you were a fighter pilot or a test pilot, or in space?
A. When I flew the F-111, we would fly low level, in bad weather where you couldn’t see, or at night. I would say that we had a heightened sense of awareness. I won’t use the word ‘afraid,’ but I will say that we were certainly not bored and we were very much paying attention and sitting on the edge of our seats. We were flying through mountains 1,000 feet above the ground, in darkness, where we couldn’t see, and we didn’t have infrared goggles or infrared displays. We were very much relying on the technology of the vehicle and, if it didn’t do its job, then we were going to have a really, really bad day. The good news was, we wouldn’t know about it and it wouldn’t hurt for long. It would be a momentary glitch and then – boom – we’d be done.
Q. What do you think would surprise most people about the training or the actual experience of being an astronaut? What’s different about it from your perspective than the way the public sees it?
A. One of the interesting things is the fact that we spend almost all of our time in training doing what we don’t actually do on a flight, because we spend so much of the time practicing emergency procedures rather than doing everyday stuff. So, a lot of what you do on board, you learn by doing – kind of on-the-job training – because one of the things that complicates it is zero gravity and you can’t really simulate that, except for the space walkers who do that in the pool. But, just everyday stuff is a lot more complicated in zero-G. The only thing that’s easier is putting on your pants, because you can do both legs at once. Going to the bathroom takes longer, just about everything takes longer because it is more difficult to do with no gravity.
Q. Tell me about your role as a Board Member at Challenger Space Center Arizona. How does your background help an organization like Challenger that is trying to encourage kids to stay in school and study their science, technology, engineering and math subjects?
A. Again, today, there are so many more distractions for the kids and they also have a lot more requirements, like the community service requirement that we didn’t have to fulfill when we were in high school. The kids of today have such busy lives. They’re scheduled with so many activities. As far as the Challenger Center goes, I do feel a kinship. I was a guest speaker on Opening Night. It’s obviously a very worthwhile endeavor.
Q. You’ve now made the transition from your military life and NASA career to the private sector. Was it a hard transition getting back into civilian life?
A. There are aspects of both that are quite different. In the civilian world, you have a lot less guidance than you do in the military. The other thing that is really different is that, anytime you work for the United States Government, you’re doing a constant process of budget minimization. In other words, you get so much money, and it’s not going to change, and you have to try and squeeze as much activity as you can out of that money. On the civilian side, you’re trying to make a profit. You’re dealing with a profit motive. There are many cases where they’ll be willing to take a chance and spend that extra money if they see that there is a possible pot of gold at the end of it. It’s a totally different mindset. I think it would have been more difficult if I’d been at an actual base, but I spent almost half of my career at NASA wearing civilian clothes and dealing with civilians and not having a base around. I think that made the process of transition easier.
Q. That is a very good explanation. Overall, what do you think is the best career advice you ever got, either as a young person or perhaps going through your career, and who did it come from?
A. I probably heard this from a couple of different folks, but the advice was that you have to enjoy what you’re doing and, no matter what it is, you have to do your best at what your current job is and not worry about how you’re going to do at your next job when you move up. When I was at Edwards (AFB) as a test pilot, because I was young, I got this real bottom-of-the-barrel job, basically keeping the refrigerator stocked with drinks. What you have to do is, you have to look at it and say, ‘Okay, this isn’t very exciting, but I’m going to do the best job I can at it.’ I heard Bill Russell speak one time and his dad told him, ‘Whatever your job is, you need to do the best at that job as you can.’ Even if you’re a ditch digger, then you need to strive to be the best damn ditch digger there ever was. I think that is still some sound advice that – no matter how the workforce changes – is pretty close to a constant. No matter what you’re doing today, you need to concentrate on what your job is today and be the best at it that you can be, and not say, ‘Well, this is beneath me, so when I get to this level I’ll start trying.’ That’s not going to work.
Q. I totally agree and I think that’s great advice. Now, if you were giving advice to someone interested in a career as a pilot or an astronaut, do you have any advice specifically for that field?
A. When I was chasing the dream of being an astronaut, each step of the way – going to the Air Force Academy, going to pilot training, being a fighter pilot, being a test pilot, or being selected as an astronaut – I think the important thing is that each step of the way, I was happy where I was at. If I didn’t get to be an astronaut pilot, but I continued to be a test pilot, that was okay because I was enjoying doing that. I think the advice is that you need to find your joy at each level and not convince yourself that, ‘I’m just going to suffer through this and eventually I’m going to get to this point and then I’ll be happy.’ Because you may find that you’re not happy there either.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to mention that I haven’t asked you about?
A. When I talk to kids, I always tell them that flying beats working any day.