Veteran astronaut comes to Altamonte for talk

A life of flight

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  • | 5:23 a.m. August 6, 2015
Photo: Courtesy of NASA - Bob Springer flew to space twice after serving in 550 combat missions in Vietnam.
Photo: Courtesy of NASA - Bob Springer flew to space twice after serving in 550 combat missions in Vietnam.
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There are nearly 35,000 pounds of thrust hurtling an F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber forward at beyond 1,600 mph. Somewhere over Vietnam in 1966, Bob Springer lost all of that power at once.

The bombing run had just ended in a blast of shrapnel and debris that sucked right into his twin engines. At 1,500 feet, he pulled back on the control stick to gain some altitude before it was too late, trying to relight the engines before the ground came rushing up.

There are long moments of boredom in his 6,700 hours in the air, Springer, now a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, said. Then there are the moments of sheer terror. Incidentally, those also make for the best stories.

“It’s probably scarier in the aftermath, thinking about it,” he said of his hairier moments blasting through the skies. “In the moment, you focus and operate with all the training you get.”

On Aug. 14, Springer, fighter/bomber pilot, Top Gun aviator and NASA astronaut will speak at a special event for veterans at One Senior Place in Altamonte Springs.

Reliving a life filled with the kind of career that would strike envy at a party full of racecar drivers and rockstars gives Springer pause. It’s a lot to take in, speaking on the phone near his home just a few miles from the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, even for a man who’s lived it all.

He flew more than 500 combat missions in jets and helicopters in Southeast Asia. Ask him how the crazier ones went, and he’ll preface it with “there but before the grace of God…”

“A lot of planes were getting shot down,” he said, the kind of thought he had on his mind just before he took to the sky with a full load of bombs onboard, trying to end a conflict early, not knowing it would last until 1975.

But he’d make it out of the Vietnam War, adding to his resume test pilot of more jets and helicopters than most people could remember the names of, plus an operations analysis officer for the military and NATO all over the world.

By 1981, age 39, he was already an astronaut, preparing missions and helping develop the Space Shuttle program’s famous craning Canadarm that helped build a football-field-sized science research facility floating in space.

After the Space Shuttle disaster that claimed the Challenger and the seven crew members aboard, Springer helped rebuild the program, leading to that soaring moment in 1988 when Discovery blasted off the launch pad and into the heavens once more.

“Somewhere along the line, for everybody, no matter how steely eyed…it was a very emotional moment,” Springer said.

On March 13, 1989, he was strapped into seat three, a window into space just ahead of him, as Discovery’s engines roared to life.

Springer would return to space once more in 1990, fire lighting up the night below as Atlantis surged headlong into the darkness. Four days later, on Nov. 19, he stayed up all night. After four 18-hour days of work, trapped an extra day in space by bad weather 160 miles below, he could finally turn his eyes to the windows and stare.

“You try to place yourself,” he said, recalling those quiet moments bobbing in a fathomless black ocean of stars. “The immensity of what you see, it’s amazing.”

Looking back on his career in the skies and beyond, it still feels the same.

“It was a glorious adventure,” Springer said.

Now he teaches a passion for exploration to children and those who may have forgotten “the final frontier.” At Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., he hopes to motivate another generation to reach for the stars.

“You don’t want the public to fall asleep on that, and I think maybe they have,” he said. “If my stories inspire young people… then my mission is complete.”

One Senior Place and VITAS Healthcare will host the annual Every Day is Veterans Day event on Friday, Aug. 14, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at One Senior Place, located at 715 Douglas Ave. in Altamonte Springs. Bob Springer will be the headline speaker at the free event, which is open to the public. Call 407-949-6733 for more information.