Come Fly with Us: NASA’s Payload Specialist Program

  • Published

Come Fly with Us: NASA’s Payload Specialist Program by Melvin Croft and John Youskauskas. University of Nebraska Press, 2019, 457 pp. 

The Air Force ROTC Detachment 365 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that I joined in the fall of 1981 as a freshman cadet was filled with aspiring astronauts. Having been inspired by the Apollo missions during elementary school and with the first flight of the space shuttle completed a few months before, it seemed like we were in the perfect time and place to achieve our dreams. Not only was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) growing its ranks of pilot and mission specialist astronauts, but a new kind of crewmember—the payload specialist—appeared. Typically, these payload specialists would be researchers who personally would conduct their experiments in orbit. One of MIT’s own—Byron Lichtenberg—would be one of the first two payload specialists to fly on the inaugural Spacelab mission. And in the ranks of the cadets, a new acronym caught our imagination: MSE, which stood for manned spaceflight engineer. MSEs were USAF officers who would fly in space as payload specialists on military missions. 

Come Fly with Us fills an important gap in the growing literature on the space shuttle program, by telling the story of the payload specialists. Before the space shuttle, the American astronaut corps was staffed by a small number of pilots, all either active duty military or with a military background. Two classes of scientist-astronauts were chosen in 1965 and 1967, but only one scientist-astronaut flew on Apollo and three on Skylab. The space shuttle promised routine access to space with the need and ability to fly a broader of range of crewmembers. As well as pilots, NASA would employ mission specialists who would focus on tasks such as payload deployment, manipulator arm operation, and extravehicular activity (space walks). The space shuttle would be large enough to bring along payload specialists, who would come from organizations conducting research on missions but not be career NASA astronauts. Based on NASA archives, the authors trace the genesis and development of the payload specialist concept. Payload specialists were closely connected to the Spacelab research modules that flew in the payload bay of the space shuttle orbiter. Given that the NASA Johnson Space Center owned the astronauts, but Spacelab was a primarily European program with the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center with American responsibility for the Spacelab program, the concept of payload specialists became a major source of contention between the NASA centers. Many at the NASA Johnson Space Center questioned the need for payload specialists, arguing that mission specialists tended to have similar academic backgrounds and could do anything that a payload specialist could do. This was more than just a theoretical argument; payload specialists would occupy precious seats on flights that NASA’s new mission specialists coveted. 

Ultimately the payload specialist program moved forward and payload specialists would fly on missions between 1983 and 2003. Three would die on the two space shuttle tragedies. As well as researchers and two MSEs, the roster of flown payload specialists would include a teacher, politicians, and various foreign guests. The most famous payload specialist was John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit Earth. Later a senator, Glenn used the considerable influence of his position to obtain a seat on the space shuttle, and at 77, became the oldest person to fly in outer space. While NASA mission specialists may have generally resented payload specialists as a class, the individual crews welcomed their assigned payload specialists who contributed to the success of their missions. 

Come Fly with Us is a deeply-researched and well-written account of the payload specialist program and its origins, the individuals who served in that role, and the missions on which they flew. As well as making excellent use of NASA archives, the authors conducted extensive interviews, including many with payload specialists. NASA has no plans to fly payload specialists on its upcoming Orion spacecraft. The MSE program appears to have been the end of the military man-in-space aspirations previously seen on the aborted X-20 DynaSoar and Manned Orbital Laboratory programs. But with commercial space flight on the horizon, the payload specialists who flew on the space shuttle may come to be seen as the first of the nonprofessional space flyers. 

Kenneth P. Katz 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."