By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Children wonder at the marvel of airplanes in flight, many dream of becoming pilots and soaring the wide expanses of sky. One young North Carolina farm boy, though, saw beyond the wild, blue yonder and sought the stars themselves.
Michael Smith was among those who dared to cut ties with Planet Earth. He grew up in bucolic Beaufort, N.C., during the 1950s and 60s, intrigued by watching the planes landing and taking off from the airstrip adjacent to his family’s farm. Even then he knew what he wanted, he wanted to fly.
Not one to wait, Michael started making that dream a reality even before graduating high school. In a letter written to his cousin, just before his 16th birthday, the teenager expressed his worries about the same things most boys worry about – his position on the basketball team and his social life – but he also admitted being anxious about his upcoming test for a pilot’s license and solo flying. He apparently failed to mail that letter right away, because in the letter’s post script, hurriedly scribbled letters spelled out, “I went flying, all right. I soloed!!!!”
Rather than considering a career as a commercial pilot, Smith decided he would challenge himself as a naval aviator. He was accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy where he graduated in 1967 with degree in Naval Science. His yearbook description mentioned him as a “Hard worker and gifted student,” concentrating on sports and exercise throughout the year.
In a 1987 interview with the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal, a friend, William Maready, said that if Smith had one gift, besides his drive and talent for flying, it was the ability to talk to and relate to others, no matter what their upbringing might be.
He was “…an extremely intelligent fellow… typically would be reading ‘War and Peace’ instead of a paperback,” Maready explained.
Smith went on to graduate with a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, Calif. In 1969, as astronaut Neil Armstrong made fame with his “…small step for man, giant leap for mankind” walk on the moon, Smith received his naval aviator wings of gold.
He spent two years as an instructor at Advanced Jet Training Command. Then he was assigned to Vietnam for a 2-year tour as an A-6 Intruder pilot with Attack Squadron 52 (VA 52) “Knightriders” on aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk (CV 63).
The challenge of day and night catapult-assisted take-offs and arrested landings on the varied-angled surface of a flight deck must not have been enough for the pilot. After two years of flying combat missions in the squadron, Smith applied to the year-long U.S. Navy Test Pilot School — the aviator equivalent to the SEALs Basic Underwater Demolition School – that accepts only a handful of the best pilots each year to become test pilots. The year Smith was selected, only nine other pilots made the grade. These pilots go from the school to one of the Navy’s “X” or experimental aircraft squadrons.
After four more years of Navy flying and teaching, Smith got his chance to pursue his ultimate dream. In May of 1980, he was selected as an astronaut candidate by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He completed his one year training and evaluation period in August 1981, qualifying him for assignment as a pilot on Space Shuttle flight crews.
During his time at NASA, he served in a variety of capacities including commander of the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory; Deputy Chief of Aircraft Operations Division; Technical Assistant to the Director, Flight Operations Directorate; and was also assigned to the Astronaut Office Development and Test Group. All impressive elements for a resume, but none as meaningful to him as astronaut.
Five years later, on a cold January day in Florida, Smith was ready for his first space flight onboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. The mission was to deploy a communications satellite intended to form part of the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System. After hours of waiting, finally everything was ready for liftoff and Challenger’s 10th flight.
As the shuttle rose from the earth, the explosive power of liftoff shook the astronauts as the G-force of acceleration plastered them to their seats.
“The shuttle’s acceleration is so great, the force is so tremendous – the raw acceleration is so hard to describe,” said John Grunsfeld, a veteran astronaut of five shuttle missions in an interview on ScienceBlogs.com. “At the very least, you know you are going somewhere, and that somewhere is up, very quickly. In the few seconds it takes us to clear the launch pad’s 200 foot tower, we are already going about 100 mph. With such acceleration at this point we have difficulty moving any part of our body because of the extra G-force we are experiencing at this point.”
But 73 seconds into Smith’s Jan. 28, 1986 flight something went terribly wrong. Smith only had the chance to utter, “Uh-oh,” as the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on live television before a shocked nation including school children across the country watching fellow Challenger astronaut, teacher Christa McAuliffe.
President Reagan was scheduled to deliver his state of the union address that night, but instead delivered a nationally televised message to the nation paying tribute to Smith and his six fellow astronauts who lost their lives.
“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives,” said Reagan. “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
Smith was awarded the Space Medal of Honor and the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, as well as promotion to the rank of captain, all posthumously. The honors joined a host of others earned as a naval aviator including the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, the Navy Commendation Medal with Valor, the Navy Unit Citation, the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star, among others.
And today, next to the Smith family farm in Beaufort, N.C. where a young boy first dreamed of flying, lays a little airstrip that bears his name: Michael J. Smith Field.