Whew! Are these guys for real? Are they approachable? This writer found them to be gentlemen in every sense of the word--quiet and rather unassuming. They were easy to talk to, were not boastful and only talked about their exploits and honors when asked about them. Colonel Henricks did, however, swell with pride when asked about his 1940 Stearman biplane which has been seen and heard laboring rather noisily over Blanco County. The antique open-cockpit plane was used during WWII to train American and British pilots. One of the things that enticed him to Blanco was the runway at The Landing on the edge of town.
Captain Brandenstein said that when he was a kid, there were no such things as astronauts to which to aspire. Flying looked fun. When he was a freshman in college there were only seven astronauts. He feels very fortunate to have been one of 35 selected for the first astronaut training class out of 8,500 applicants. He said there were a wide range of emotions among the astronauts after the Challenger explosion. Some left the program while others said, let’s get it fixed and get on with it. “You have to accept the risk just as we did flying sorties in Vietnam. That incident delayed my going into space five years.”
Colonel Henricks said, “In the fifty years we’ve been in space, there have only been 500 people who have gone there—what a privilege it is to be among them.” When asked about fear, Captain Brandenstein said that the most fear he encountered was on the highway. “We trained diligently for every contingency. I logged 1,000 hours practicing Space Shuttle approaches and landings in aircraft and many more hours in a simulator.
Colonel Henricks said he was a skydiver. “If you train enough, even though you may encounter a life-threatening situation, you’re prepared. My greatest fear was that I would be the one to screw something up. You put pressure on yourself to improve your own performance.”
“I used to ride with each Shuttle crew to the launch pad,” said Brandenstein. “The launch prayer was, ‘Lord, don’t let me screw up!’” Henricks said, “The Shuttle comes in at a descent of 20 degrees. That’s like a dive bomber making a run without an engine. There is no going around—you do it right the first time or you become a smoking hole in the ground!”
Henricks said that he took his wife to see the movie “Apollo 13” the night before he went into quarantine for his first Shuttle flight. “Big mistake,” he said. “By the way, that’s a pretty good movie, unlike ‘Space Cowboys.’”
Henricks went on to say that nobody in his farm family had ever been to college. “I found myself driving a dusty tractor and watching airplanes fly over. My first ride in a plane took place while I was hauling grain to an elevator. There was a little grass air strip where a guy was giving airplane rides for $3.00 a flight. My first time up was in a little Cessna 172. We flew over my grandfather’s farm. While I was in college the Vietnam War ended. You had to be in the right place when NASA needed you. The yellow brick road was always changing. Today there are not as many test pilots needed. I happened to be stationed in Iceland during the Cold War intercepting Russian bombers that were constantly probing our defenses. In 1981, I saw the tail gunner in one of the Russian bombers holding up a message for us to read. I was in the fourth astronaut class. You had to have 1,000 hours as a test pilot back then. I was selected out of 5,000 applicants. When I was a kid in Ohio, I kept a scrapbook of people like John Glen. I never dreamed that I could be an astronaut like those guys.”
“Susan Helms was in the first class to admit women at the Air Force Academy. She flew in space with me. She is now a three-star general.”
Captain Brandenstein said that if one wants be an astronaut nowadays, he or she must have the right background. To be selected you have to have experience working as a member of a team. “NASA wants people with broad experience who can adapt to any situation. I joined the Navy to be a pilot,” he said. “I was afraid of heights and couldn’t swim. I had never even been in a plane.”
“Most of the opportunities today are in commercial flight,” said Henricks. “There is a broad skill set needed now. You have to find your passion and pursue it.” “The bottom line now,” said Brandenstein “is that you have to be very good or extremely wealthy.” He went on to say that space launches are more stressful on one’s family than on the one being launched.
When asked how difficult it was to adjust to the corporate world after traveling in space, Brandenstein said that once he made the decision to retire, he made the switch and never looked back. “The thing I miss most,” he said, “was not having access to a plane whenever I wanted. What I really miss is maintaining flight proficiency. Learning to ride commercial airlines was the biggest adjustment for me.” He flies a home-built RV7 two-seater plane. “It flies at 160 miles per hour and gets great gas mileage!”
“I came to Blanco,” said Captain Brandenstein, “after experiencing two hurricanes in Galveston Bay. We had a daughter in Austin. It was just a coincidence that we ended up living near another Space Shuttle commander/pilot. A third former astronaut, Kevin Kregel, is a Southwest Airlines pilot. He has purchased property at Ranches of Brushy Top. He will probably move here when his wife retires from teaching school.”
The wives and families of these two men have to be extraordinary people in their own right. It must be downright frightening to watch a loved one launched into space atop a flaming column of very volatile propellant. Perhaps we will learn more of them at a later date.
“I would do it all over again in a heartbeat!” said Brandenstein. “But right now I’m home in Blanco. What more could I ask?”