Being an “Auburn Astronaut”: The Apollo 16 Launch Trip

I got an e-mail inquiry this week asking if I had been one of the three Auburn students who launched some model rockets in honor of Apollo 16 carrying Auburn-grad Ken Mattingly to the moon. Indeed, I had; in fact, I had put the whole thing together. Here’s the response I wrote back to the person sending the inquiry. My response and the accompanying pictures tell the tale. (The inquiry was made to support building this great website on Apollo 16 you can see at:

Hi Rob,

Well, sometimes it takes someone else to make you go back and have you look closer at what you’ve got.  When I checked out the launch breakfast video and saw the front page of the paper, I immediately recognized it.  I had brought a copy home as a launch day souvenir.

A close up of a newspaper

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Had to dig it out and find the article you sent me.  Not sure if I hadn’t seen it or had forgotten it was there.  I think I do remember that I had seen the coverage but apparently forgot about it.  Obviously, the video hints that Mattingly had seen the article before he launched, something I had never suspected might have happened before now.  Which makes me wonder if when he got my resume from an Auburn classmate (Fred Martin) decades later if he realized it was the same guy who’d been at his launch.  Mattingly forwarded it down to Frank Hughes who was the Training Division Control/Propulsion Branch Chief.  Frank and I talked for a year and a half or 2 years while I finished out my hitch in the Navy (jet engine mechanic at first but finished as an F-14 RIO…which helped me get the training job).  So, I’m not sure where you saw a bio but I worked as a crew trainer from 84-94 teaching shuttle flight control and propulsions systems with a specialty in ascent, ascent abort, and contingency abort (2 and 3 engine out) at the end.  (I got to work quite a bit with John Young doing the contingency abort work, and again some when I returned to NASA in 97 and went to a space shuttle flight operations safety job.  John used to drop by my console in the Mission Engineering Room and as “Are we safe?” which I took as his point that spaceflight was not a “safe” business, of which we were very aware.  Our job was just to ensure everyone understood what the risks were and to yell when we thought the risks were getting out of bounds. I helped him devise what was termed “TAL delay” late in the program. i.e., how to do it was my idea.  There’s more on this and the abort stuff on my You Tube channel, “Shuttle T-Zero”:

To get back to the launch trip, I have attached a couple of private photos for you. These were taken out on the KSC causeway where we got using a car pass for the launch.  I lost touch with my partners in crime after this event.  I think that’s Ronnie Baldwin standing next to me and Jack Gentle is the blond curly haired guy in the background.  Believe Ronnie had a career with Alabama DOT from what I can see on the ‘Net but have no idea about Jack and where he went after.  I have also attached a photo of Mattingly with the Saturn V I built and flew (not too well, I might add…had an engine not ignite) and the plaque I got from the NROTC unit.  The whole trip came about because I saw nothing happening with the school to make hay of what I thought was a great thing, so I put together our little group and the idea of a model rocket launch as our form of fireworks and talked to the Commanding Officer of the NROTC unit to get something from them.  Both of those items were given to Mattingly when he got home; copy of the letter attached.

I got busy with getting my feet on the ground when I got to NASA and never introduced myself to Mattingly, something I wished I’d done (along with seeing Armstrong several times and not introducing myself as a fellow VF-51 member).  And I was always so busy and having so much fun with John that I never mentioned I had been at his launch or seen if he knew anything about our Auburn gang.  It’s only been in the last few years where I recognized how much my Auburn University connections had played a role in my spaceflight career (and I worked with Jan Davis and Jim Voss…both Auburn grads…and Jim went to the same high school I did…Opelika…but moved on before I got there and so I didn’t know it until after we had worked together).  I put together a presentation on that which I gave to the AIAA student chapter last year.

There’s another interesting connection at play here attached to the newspaper article I noticed this morning.  There’s a quote from Henry F.J. Cooper who would later write a book detailing the training of a shuttle crew. He covered STS-41G which was my first mission as a solo Control Prop instructor in a book titled “Before Liftoff: The Making of a Shuttle Crew”.  I’m in there, of course, though I have a few choice words about a caption he put into one photo that was a bit off base from several aspects.   The book is out of print but you can find some used copies stil floating around on Amazon if you’re interested.  Other than my complaint about the caption, I consider it an accurate and highly perceptive account of the actual events.

I need to get on to work this morning (remotely for the JSC Flight Safety Office), so this is all I have time for today; but if you have any more questions or want to tag up on the phone, let me know.