Henry Hartsfield Jr., who flew on three NASA space shuttles, including as the pilot of the final test flight of the Columbia and as the commander of the maiden mission of the Discovery, died on Thursday. He was 80.
His death was announced by the space agency, which did not say where he died or specify the cause.
Both courageous and fortunate, Mr. Hartsfield flew on the two shuttles — the Columbia and the Challenger — whose histories ended in calamity.
An Air Force pilot who became a NASA astronaut in 1969, Mr. Hartsfield was a member of the astronaut support team for Apollo 16 in 1972, the fifth mission to land men on the moon, and of three Skylab missions. But he did not make his first spaceflight until 1982, when he was part of the two-man crew (along with the commander, Thomas K. Mattingly II, a Navy captain) of the Columbia, the first of the reusable winged planes known as space shuttles, on its fourth and last test flight.
Over seven days, the two men orbited Earth 112 times and, among other things, studied the effects of long-term thermal extremes on elements of the ship and performed arcane genetic experiments involving fruit flies and brine shrimp. Gliding to a smooth landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California on July 4, they were greeted by an estimated 500,000 onlookers, including President Ronald Reagan.
The president praised the astronauts for proving that “Americans still have the know-how, and Americans still have the true grit that conquered a savage wilderness.” He declared the Columbia program “the historical equivalent to the driving of the golden spike which completed the first transcontinental railroad.”
The Columbia eventually flew more than two dozen operational missions, with its astronauts repairing satellites (and, in 2002, the Hubble Space Telescope) and conducting myriad scientific experiments. On a flight in 2003, it broke up during its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, and all seven crew members died.
In 1983, Mr. Hartsfield, who had left the Air Force in 1977 and was serving NASA as a civilian, became the commander of a six-person crew — the others had no spaceflight experience — for the third shuttle, the Discovery. (The second was the Challenger.) After 16 months of training, on June 26, 1984, just before 8:43 a.m., the six were awaiting liftoff as the countdown began at Cape Canaveral, Fla. But computers detected an apparent valve failure in one of the main engines, and the flight was aborted at T minus four seconds.
“I honestly had no concern,” Mr. Hartsfield said at a news conference. “There was a moment of being startled. I think I used an ‘expletive deleted’ and said, ‘We’re not going anywhere.’ ”
The Discovery finally took off at the end of August and successfully completed a six-day mission, circumnavigating Earth 96 times before landing at the Edwards base on Sept. 5.
In flight, the crew deployed three satellites and unfolded an experimentalsolar power array, extending it out into space from the ship in the first test of electricity-generating systems for space stations. Crew members conducted several scientific tests and photography experiments using the Imax motion picture camera. The crew earned the name Icebusters after Mr. Hartsfield used a robotic arm to dislodge a chunk of ice from the side of the craft that could have caused damage on re-entry.
“We’ve got a good bird there,” Mr. Hartsfield said about the Discovery after the landing.
Henry Warren Hartsfield Jr., known to friends as Hank, was born on Nov. 21, 1933, in Birmingham, Ala., where he graduated from high school. His father, a self-educated bookkeeper, was an office manager for a general contractor. Mr. Hartsfield received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Auburn University, where he was in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, and did graduate work at Duke and at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
Eventually, after joining NASA as an astronaut, he earned an advanced degree in engineering science from the University of Tennessee. He entered the Air Force in 1955, serving with the 53rd Tactical Fighter Squadron in Bitburg, Germany, and graduated from the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base.
Mr. Hartsfield’s survivors include his wife, the former Judy Frances Massey, and a daughter, also named Judy.
When Mr. Hartsfield’s career as an astronaut ended, he worked for NASA on the ground; he was part of the team that planned the deployment of the International Space Station. After retiring from the agency, he was an executive at the Raytheon Corporation.
Altogether, he logged 483 hours in space. He made his third and final spaceflight in October 1985, as the commander of an eight-person crew aboard the shuttle Challenger, which was carrying a German Spacelab and conducted experiments in the areas of physiological sciences, materials processing, biology and navigation. The flight, 111 Earth orbits in seven days, preceded a catastrophe. On Jan. 28, 1986, less than two minutes after liftoff on its next flight, the Challenger disintegrated in midair. In an eerie foreshadowing, a seven-member crew perished.