This past week the space community lost one of its most respected leaders with the passing of retired Air Force Lt. General Forrest McCartney after a tragic but mercifully brief battle with cancer.
It was Gen. McCartney who led the Kennedy Space Center through the dark days following the Challenger disaster, serving as KSC director from 1987 to 1991, and in doing so cemented his place as one of the great giants in space history.
Before coming to Florida’s Space Coast, the General had spent just about his entire career working in the military space program, with experiences that ranged from working on the original spy satellite program called CORONA, to overseeing the construction of the never-used Shuttle launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California — a fact that I know gnawed at the General.
“We were that close to launching when Challenger happened,” he told me on more than one occasion.
To say that the thousands of people who knew him and called him friend were shocked and saddened by the news of his sudden death would be an understatement. Devastated would perhaps be a better sentiment.
Just as quickly as the well wishes and condolences poured in, inevitably the stories followed right behind because it seems that everyone who either met or worked with General McCartney had a story to tell, such was the commanding, charismatic and caring person he was.
In announcing his passing to the KSC workforce, our current center director Bob Cabana told of the time when the Space Shuttle launch team had gathered for a Flight Readiness Review, which is the big management meeting held before every launch to look over everything and make sure everyone is ready to fly.
Discovery was on the pad and “go fever” was percolating, when there came a report that the external tank doors on the orbiter’s belly may not have been rigged properly, with the concern being they wouldn’t be able to close tight when the shuttle had reached orbit. If that were to happen the crew wouldn’t be able to safely return to Earth.
There was some discussion about the report and some reluctance expressed about the delay that would result if they had to roll the shuttle back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for repairs.
When the launch readiness poll was being taken and it got to General McCartney, he said, “You can vote all you want, but Discovery’s rolling back to the VAB to be checked out.” It turned out that the doors were, in fact, rigged incorrectly.
I have my own stories to tell about the General.
I remember the first time I interviewed him in the privacy of his office on the fourth floor of the KSC headquarters building. We were talking about a particularly persistent problem the Shuttle team was having with hydrogen leaks during the summer of 1990, and I asked him something about schedule pressure. He looked at me and said turn the tape recorder off.
I did, and then he lit into me with a barrage of language that I can’t repeat here, but was intimidating enough, powerful enough and profound enough that it shook me to my core, taught me some important lessons about launch processing and encouraged me to do a better job of understanding what I was writing about so I could ask smarter questions.
It’s probably not even worth a footnote in the space history books, but I was the last journalist to officially interview the General as KSC director. It was his last day on the job, we were back up in his office and instead of the tense, business-like environment we had during the first interview there this time around it was warm and friendly, and a little bit sad.
The two things I remember most about that day were that I had him sign a return to flight poster, which I still proudly have hung on my living room wall; and the other is that his all office stuff had been packed up and only the bare furniture was left, with the exception of a small cardboard tray on his desk that was stamped “KSC recycles.”
These little trays were on desks all over the space center and we had our share of them at the press site too. Anyway, one still sat on General McCartney’s desk and I thought it was poignant that inside the recycle tray sat a bunch of NASA business cards that said “Forrest McCartney, Center Director.”
I told the General that story for the first time just this past April and he smiled at the memory with that big grin of his. He remembered the interview but not that bit about the recycle box. It was the last time I spoke with him, although of course I didn’t know it at the time.
That final opportunity came when we had all gathered for the annual National Space Club Florida Committee Debus Dinner and I was the emcee. I was in the main dining room where it was quiet and I was reviewing my notes, while a couple hundred people were having a reception in another room nearby.
Then out of the blue in walks the General and Miss Ruth — you know, even the General called his wife Miss Ruth. They were looking to get away from the crowd for some peace and quiet as well, and for about 20 minutes the two of them, with me and my wife Dawn, told stories about the good old days, and laughed as we reminisced.
I reminded him that I was still hoping he would write a book about his career and get down on paper all the stories about the people and experiences he had so that future generations could learn by his example. I also reminded him I had yet been able to convince him to be a guest on this radio program.
He said he was reluctant to do any of those things because he basically didn’t want to overstay his welcome. He had seen some leaders that he had admired do that and watched as they went from respected contributors to doddering old fools.
I told him that I would let him know when he had reached that age and become an old fool. We laughed, he said he would think about it, and then he warned me that he and Miss Ruth might have to leave early so that he wouldn’t be too tired for the drive home.
Later on in the evening, during our break for dessert, he and Miss Ruth slipped out through the doors next to where I was sitting. He reached out to shake my hand, we said goodbye, and he was gone.
The greatest and unexpected blessing I have had in my career associated with space program is to be able to work and become friends with some remarkable people. A very few stand out in particular and I can honestly say that with the exception of my own father, I have never known a man I admired, respected and learned more from than Forrest McCartney, a genuine American hero.
In what is classic General McCartney, he requested that no fuss be made about him, that no memorial service be held. So allow me to take this opportunity to publicly offer my condolences and love to Miss Ruth, daughters Maggi and Worthy, and the rest of the McCartney family.