Heflin Looks Back as the Shuttle Program Ends

A million people are expected around Kennedy Space Center in Florida this coming Friday, for the launch of the last-ever shuttle in the 30-year program. Among the attendees, a man who's been associated with the shuttle program since the beginning. Pat Hernandez has more.

Milt Heflin was quick to tell me that he had no intention of being in the space business.

"I had a friend who came down here after we graduated from college, a small college in Oklahoma. He came down during Spring Break of our last semester, and they were staffing up here for Apollo program. He was hired on the spot, so he came back and told me. I was headed to Oklahoma State University to get my masters degree. So he came back and said they're looking for people. So about two weeks after that, I went down and interviewed and sure enough, I got hired as well."

During the course of his 45-years with NASA, he cut his teeth as a flight controller during the shuttle approach and landing tests in 1977 when Enterprise bolted on a 747, was released to see how well it glided to the ground. From there, he went
into Mission Control for the very first shuttle flight. Heflin worked nine shuttle flights as a flight controller and was selected as a flight director after that in 1983:

"Went on to work 20 space shuttle flights as a flight director, seven of those as the lead flight director. Most fun I had as a lead flight director I will tell you Pat, was in 1993 when we went back to the Hubble space telescope and fixed it. And I was the lead flight director for that, so that was probably the most fun I've had in this business."

But with triumph, came tragedy. He was a flight controller when he saw the Challenger break apart less than two minutes after launch, and served as chief of the flight director office during the Columbia disaster. He eventually followed former Gemini and Apollo astronaut John Young as the associate director-technical at Johnson Space Center.

"So today, what I do is I serve as a dedicated set of eyes and ears for our center director Mike Coats, and just kind of represent the center director at these various forums."

Heflin says the shuttle program established the capability to do things for long periods of time, but the biggest legacy might be the global effort to build the International Space Station.

"We in the shuttle program, found a way to bring together 16 nations and develop this wonderful laboratory we have right now, and that's not easy. But we found a way to make all that happen." 

A handful of U.S. astronauts will still go into space to work at the ISS, but will rely on America's former space rival Russia to get them there. Heflin says the task will be to figure out how to take politics and budget problems and make that all fit.

"We're not gonna go away. I just don't think the American people would let this program go away. I don't think Congress would let this program go away, or any administration for that matter. So it's gonna be there, we just need to get out of the ditch and back on the road, and keep going."

Bio photo of Pat Hernandez

Pat Hernandez


Pat Hernandez is a general assignments reporter who joined the KUHF news staff in February of 2008...