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Nine space stars who should have gone into orbit

Hundreds of astronauts went into orbit during the 30-year space shuttle program — and then there are those who should have but didn't. Commentary by NBC News space analyst James Oberg.
Christa McAuliffe gets a preview of microgravity on NASA's specially equipped KC-135 "zero gravity" aircraft on Jan. 13, 1986. McAuliffe and six crewmates died in the Challenger explosion two weeks later.
Christa McAuliffe gets a preview of microgravity on NASA's specially equipped KC-135 "zero gravity" aircraft on Jan. 13, 1986. McAuliffe and six crewmates died in the Challenger explosion two weeks later.

Now that the last shuttle has landed, the roster of space shuttle astronauts is complete — and it’s a good list of 355 people.

By my count, 299 of those shuttle riders were Americans, compared to the 43 Americans who were launched in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab programs. Seven of those fliers from the pre-shuttle space programs also made shuttle flights, so they count twice.

Roughly 90 percent of all Americans who have ever gone into orbit did so in the shuttle program. Despite the size and diversity of this group, there are some additional people I wish we could have seen go into space on the shuttle. There were people who almost got to fly, or should have gotten to fly, or were tragically lost before they could savor space — men and women who would have enhanced the space program's harvest of human experience.

From my personal point of view only — no authority or expertise claimed — here are the folks I’m sorry did not go into orbit aboard a space shuttle.

Christa McAuliffe, Space Teacher: I wish she had been able to complete her mission, cut tragically short in 1986 on the very brink of space when the shuttle Challenger was lost. Christa was a gifted and dedicated teacher with a flight plan of demonstrations that would have really connected with students, and she would have followed up actively for the rest of her life.

Even in death, she inspired the Challenger Learning Centers, which do a magnificent job of youth outreach — but if she had been able to make her mission, she’d have helped lead the development of such centers and other educational initiatives. American education is the poorer with her absence from the shuttle orbital list.

Robert Lawrence, Space Trailblazer: In the mid-1960s, Lawrence was with a team of military astronauts who later transferred to NASA and were to play leading roles in the space shuttle program and beyond. Some became top NASA officials. Lawrence, who would have been the first African-American spaceman, was at the top of this class, had a Ph.D. in chemistry, was fluent in German and was a crackerjack pilot. He died in a plane crash in 1967 when he was instructing another test pilot (who was flying the plane) in "hot" dead-stick landings, like the procedures later used on the space shuttle.

Had he lived to transfer to NASA and fly aboard an early shuttle mission, there’s no telling how far he would have risen in the space program and in the nation’s esteem.

Robert Stevenson, Firstborn Spacer: Stevenson was a respected oceanographer specializing in studying the seas from space, and in the early 1980s he helped train many of the first shuttle astronauts. After a few years of flights by professional astronauts, the opportunity for more specialized crew members became clearer, and Stevenson was picked to fly aboard STS-41G in the summer of 1984. However, his wife fell seriously ill, and he chose to remain with her, passing his seat to an understudy and counting on a NASA promise to schedule him again in a year or two. After his wife died, Stevenson was assigned a new seat in late 1986 — but then Challenger was lost, and all missions were delayed. Stevenson, already 65 years old, soon afterward developed his own medical issues that removed him from flight status.

Had he made it into orbit, he would have been the finest eye-brain visual perceiver ever to fly so high and see so far. He also would have gone into the history books as the world's firstborn spaceman, since his birthdate (Jan. 15, 1921) preceded that of the two other "earliest borns," Georgi Beregovoi (April 15, 1921) and John Glenn (July 18, 1921).

Doug Morrow, Oldest to Fly: In 1985, NASA officials were confronted with an unusual proposal from a Hollywood friend of President Reagan. Oscar-winning screenwriter Douglas Morrow proposed that NASA fly a medical subject to compare effects of space travel and of aging. Morrow, who was 72 at the time but fit from his avid mountain hiking, suggested himself. Not willing to anger the White House, officials in Houston let Morrow undergo a number of tests, training sessions and preliminary planning meetings, all the while stalling him in the hope he’d lose interest. "The reaction was not just 'No', it was 'Hell, no,'" recalled one NASA doctor who escorted Morrow around the space center. The idea of flying a medical test subject in his 70s was deemed preposterous by NASA scientists, who could see no scientific basis for it. Faced with delays after the Challenger disaster, Morrow gave up on his quest. He died in 1994 at the age of 81, of an aneurysm.

In 1998, Democratic Sen. John Glenn, who had even better White House connections and was aided by a NASA administrator who was eager to please, proposed a similar research program. This time, politically savvy NASA doctors were enthusiastic about the "science value" of such an experiment. After the flight, on which Glenn performed creditably and cooperatively, it became clear the doctors had been right the first time — nothing useful was learned about aging. But at least Morrow would have brought his cinematic sense into space and created a much more popular-oriented account than typical astronauts.

Indonesia's Pratiwi Sudarmono holds up fellow trainee Taufik Akbar during a zero-gravity exercise on a NASA training aircraft in 1986.

Pratiwi Sudarmono, Space Dancer: In 1985, Indonesia contracted with NASA to launch its Palapa B-3 telecommunications satellite on a shuttle the following year. The 33-year-old Sudarmono, a biochemistry Ph.D., was named as one of the candidates to fly into space with the payload. Her announced goal for her spare time in space was to demonstrate traditional Balinese dance routines in zero gravity.

The mission was canceled after the Challenger disaster, but had she flown, the world would have seen the marriage of humankind’s newest environment with one of its oldest and most beautiful art forms, dance.

Walter Cronkite, Space Emoter: One unintended consequence of NASA’s "space journalist" program, announced in 1985, was to weaken interest in examining signs of NASA's decaying "safety culture" at a time when the agency badly needed a watchdog. Perhaps the space journalists who should have been doing it were leery, consciously or not, of upsetting NASA's selection boards.

Had the program continued, a respected TV personality such as Cronkite would have been the proper choice. It wasn’t because of his detailed reportage, which was in hindsight a lot less accurate than the CBS hype claimed, but it would have been due to what he did very well: connecting with the public and making his own experiences real to them. Somehow the personalities of astronauts, who were first-rate role models for courage and competence, didn’t resonate with ordinary people. Cronkite's personality would have.

David Vidrine, Space Warrior: As NASA prepared for its first space shuttle rendezvous mission in 1983, the Pentagon was very interested in using the same techniques for its own shuttle missions, both to repair military satellites and possibly to inspect military spacecraft of other countries. They even helped fund the NASA mission to repair the SolarMax spacecraft, and part of the deal was that they could send one of their own officers along as an observer and mission specialist. Navy officer David Vidrine, then 40, was the designated crewman, and all it would have taken to formalize the deal was a letter of intent from the Defense Department to NASA, formally requesting his participation in the flight. But Pentagon higher-ups balked at what they saw as excessive overreach by military "space cadets" and never sent that letter. The mission launched with an empty slot, and Vidrine remained on the ground.

Had he flown, he might have helped provide the Defense Department with a more informed perspective on space operations, leading to better decision-making as the military dove into the massive Star Wars program. Vidrine didn’t get his flight, and the Pentagon didn’t get the advice it needed and might have heeded.

Max Faget, Space Inventor: This little-known space engineer contributed to the development of all U.S. manned space vehicles from Mercury to the space shuttle, and his name is on the patents for those inventions. Although he was offended by one newsman’s phrase that he was "a cross between Tom Swift and Yoda," the description wasn’t far off. After leaving NASA, his inventive mind stayed in high gear, and in the mid-1980s he developed the concept for a shuttle-tended automated space factory called the "Industrial Space Facility." But because the vehicle would perform many of the functions NASA already intended to monopolize on its Freedom space station, and do so both earlier and a lot less expensively, NASA officials in Washington played every bureaucratic trick to scuttle the project.

In a saner world, several shuttle missions in the late 1980s would have been dedicated to such a program, and Faget — then in his mid-60s — would have been the perfect "payload specialist" to be in on the project in orbit. In his spare time he would have delighted himself and the rest of us with some zero-G gymnastics that he would have invented.

Greg Jarvis, Space Tinkerer: Jarvis was a space engineer for Hughes, which built a communications satellite that NASA launched in April 1985. As part of the launch contract, Jarvis was assigned to accompany that payload into orbit — an assignment whose importance was underscored by the satellite’s failure to deploy properly. Jarvis, a specialist in that particular vehicle, wasn’t aboard that shuttle because his seat had been commandeered by a politician whose personal schedule couldn’t allow any delays. So when the Syncom IV-3 malfunctioned, the one man who might have been able to fix it (or at least accurately diagnose the problem) was stuck on the ground, while the man who had taken his seat was a space-sickness basket case.

Jarvis, a sweet, highly competent man who also planned on running some experiments in zero-G propellant flow using transparent pipes and colored water, was placed on a later flight — without any payload he knew anything about. He was bumped once more, by another schedule-driven politician, and wound up dying on Challenger in January 1986. He ought to have flown the previous April. Somebody else would have been in that seat on Challenger.

And the list goes on: There are lots of other people whose names come to mind, such as Mike Smith, Challenger's rookie pilot, and a number of trainee astronauts who were killed before their first flights. A U.S. Air Force officer was bumped from a military shuttle mission by a three-star general who wanted his seat — but that entire mission was later canceled. Other foreign payload specialists, including a team of British pilots, lost their chances after the Challenger catastrophe.

I also have a short list of people who did fly the shuttle into orbit and should not have — but I think I’ll keep that list to myself for a long time!

NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer.