Paton’s astronaut wouldn’t let retirement stand in the way of going to Mars
By ANDREW McGINN
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Jefferson Herald on March 6, 2014.
Loren Shriver couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
A veteran of three spaceflights, the astronaut from Paton could only watch in disbelief as space debris smashed into the Hubble Telescope, obliterating it right before his eyes.
It had been Shriver who commanded the space shuttle mission nearly 24 years ago that carried the giant telescope into orbit.
“Knowing you had a little bit to do with that instrument and getting it out in space has been a source of great pride for me personally, and I know the rest of the crew,” he said. “I’ve even referred to it as my telescope.”
And, now, in a blink, it was gone.
In real life, taxpayers would have been out about $10 billion.
But in this scenario, Shriver was only out the cost of a movie ticket.
Shriver, of course, is actually retired, which means he now has all the time in the world to watch movies like “Gravity.”
“Hollywood just can’t resist blowing everything to smithereens,” Shriver, 69, jokingly complained this week. “That was one of the least technically accurate portions of the movie.”
Everyone, it seems, has loved “Gravity” — the story of two astronauts marooned during a spacewalk after their shuttle is destroyed by space debris — which explains why it was among the top-grossing movies of 2013.
As for NASA, which has been reduced to bumming rides to space from Russia, the agency is presumably just happy to have had a movie made about American astronauts in the first place.
In fact, on Monday, the day after the Oscars, the main item on the NASA website had nothing to do with real-life space exploration.
“NASA congratulates ‘Gravity’ on Academy Award wins,” the headline read.
Shriver, the Greene County native who was selected by NASA in 1978 to be an astronaut at the dawn of the space shuttle era, can afford to be a little pickier.
“It’s nice entertainment for folks,” Shriver said, “but technically speaking, not very accurate.”
Shriver might now be retired from both civil service and private industry, but once you’ve spent more than 386 hours in space, it’s hard to suspend your disbelief even for 91 minutes.
“It’s impossible not to compare what you know about space with what you’re seeing,” he explained, “and that’s where it lost some credibility.”
For Shriver, the homegrown farm boy who quite literally went farther than any one else in Greene County history, it’s fitting that he’s finally chosen to settle down in a place known for its elevation.
His home in Estes Park, Colo., where he and wife Diane moved after his 2011 retirement as chief technology officer for United Space Alliance, is 8,300 feet above sea level.
A 2008 inductee of the Astronaut Hall of Fame, Shriver now spends several times a week hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.
“There are so many trails and so many things to see,” he said. “It’s always a challenge to get up to 10, 11, 12,000 feet.”
Despite being six months shy of his 70th birthday, Shriver is undoubtedly up to the challenge.
The former Air Force fighter pilot made a name for himself, after all, as a guy with the right stuff — that rare breed for whom fear never got in the way of going faster or higher than the man before.
As a test pilot in the mid-1970s at Edwards Air Force Base in California, Shriver helped develop the F-15 Eagle as the Air Force’s premier fighter over the dry lakebeds of the Mojave Desert — the same place Chuck Yeager, strapped into the Bell X-1, had become the first human to fly faster than the speed of sound on Oct. 14, 1947.
But as the pilot of space shuttle Discovery on Jan. 24, 1985, Shriver practically made the F-15 look like a Sopwith Camel.
The space shuttle was able to go from zero to 17,000 mph in just 8½ minutes.
“It’s a controlled explosion that gets you into space,” Shriver said.
“There’s no way you couldn’t be excited,” he said. “It’s exhilarating, but you’re trying to think about all the things you’ve been trained to do if necessary.”
If and when NASA ever decides to launch a manned mission to Mars, Shriver is still game.
When you have the right stuff, age is just a number, and not a particularly impressive one at that.
Remember that John Glenn, one of America’s first astronauts back in 1959, was 77 when he returned to space in 1998.
“I’m willing to go, anytime,” Shriver said.
“Diane might be a little upset with me,” he added.
A 1962 graduate of Paton High — Paton’s last graduating class — Shriver has been married to the former Diane Hane, a 1963 Jefferson grad, for 46 years.
The couple is expecting their seventh grandchild, a grandson, in mid-May.
Houston, we have a problem
Whether Shriver’s grandchildren will one day have the same opportunity to punch through the stratosphere remains to be seen.
The space shuttle program is no more.
Discovery, which Shriver either flew or commanded on two of his three spaceflights, went on display in 2012 at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.
“The shuttle was designed to fly 100 missions,” he said. “We had issues, we worked through the issues.
“The shuttle was safer flying at the end than at the beginning.”
American astronauts now buy seat space on foreign spacecraft.
“I find that almost to be inexcusable,” Shriver said.
China, Russia and India, meanwhile, are all pressing ahead with manned space exploration.
“They recognize what it means to their status in the world,” he said.
A manned space program, Shriver said, not only advances technology, it motivates the citizenry.
“I didn’t go to the moon,” he said, “but I watched it, and that was a big motivation.”
A manned mission to Mars, he believes, would rekindle America’s interest, not just in space, but in math and science.
“Sending rovers to Mars is a neat thing to do. It should be a precursor to humans going,” Shriver said. “Sending a machine to a planet doesn’t mean anything to most people.”
Shriver himself came of age at a time when the space race was in full swing.
Just a year before Shriver’s graduation from Paton High, President Kennedy made his famous vow to put a man on the moon by decade’s end.
“Other than Buck Rogers and fictitious ones,” he said, “the idea of being an astronaut was brand new in those days.”
Admittedly, Shriver didn’t set out to join the ranks of the Mercury 7, the first seven astronauts.
“As a kid on the farm, that’s such a remote possibility that you didn’t waste much time thinking about it,” he confessed.
He did, however, look to the skies.
Ironically, though, Shriver’s very first plane ride was the one that took him from Des Moines to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for basic training before entering the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“Even though I had an intense desire to be a pilot,” he explained, “I had never been on an airplane.”
Graduating from the academy in 1967 as a fighter pilot — which he followed with graduate work at Purdue University — Shriver repeatedly volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam.
Instead, he was sent to Oklahoma to train pilots in the T-38.
“In order to keep the pipeline going, you had a job to do,” he said. “It’s just one of those things.”
Shriver finally got his orders to Southeast Asia in late 1973 as an F-4 pilot based from Thailand, but by then, America’s role in the war had ended.
It was there that he applied to test pilot school, eventually winning a slot in the F-15 program.
“The F-15 was the Cadillac of fighter airplanes in its day,” he said. “It was powerful. It was well-designed. Had a huge amount of combat capability.
“The F-4 was a workhorse fighter, but it had some characteristics that were less than optimum.”
Still, that’s not to say a Cadillac can’t have a mishap.
Once, during a vertical climb at 700 mph, the canopy of his two-seat F-15 literally blew off.
He averted disaster, but it occurred just a week before his astronaut interview with NASA.
“It gave me something to talk about when they asked if I’ve ever had any serious emergencies,” he quipped.
Then-Maj. Shriver shared the inaugural Bell Tower of Fame Award in 1980 with Jefferson native George Gallup, the famed pollster — yet, Shriver didn’t actually get to space until 1985.
His first shuttle mission — STS-51C, officially — also was the first shuttle mission for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Discovery’s launch weight for the mission is listed at 250,891 pounds, but its landing weight remains classified, 29 years after the fact.
It’s believed the crew, commanded by Thomas K. Mattingly II, a veteran of the Apollo 16 lunar landing, placed a secret satellite into orbit.
“I’m not sure if it will ever be declassified in my lifetime,” Shriver said. “That’s the most I can say about it.”
By comparison, STS-31, the shuttle mission in 1990 to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope, was well publicized.
As mission commander, it fell to Shriver to transport what he called a “national treasure” — one the length of a school bus and weighing the size of two adult elephants — into orbit.
Hubble has since beamed back spectacular images of the universe.
Shriver’s rural Greene County roots are presumably responsible to a huge degree for his soft-spoken, unassuming nature — but getting to see his home planet from the outside hasn’t hurt, either.
“The Earth is a dust speck, and that’s how we ought to view it,” he said. “It’s a small, fragile place in the scheme of the universe.”
The Shriver file
Name: Retired Air Force Col. Loren Shriver
Decorations: Distinguished Flying Cross, Defense Superior Service Medal
Honors: Inducted into Astronaut Hall of Fame, 2008
Space shuttle missions:
• STS-51C (Discovery), January 1985
Miles traveled: 1.3 million
• STS-31 (Discovery), April 1990
Miles traveled: 2.1 million
• STS-46 (Atlantis), July 1992
Miles traveled: 3.3 million