Charles Precourt has had a front row seat to much of the history of the second half of the Twentieth Century. First, as a top notch Air Force pilot stationed near the Berlin Wall, at the dividing line between the two super powers. And then, in the '90s, as an astronaut commanding the Space Shuttle Columbia on historic trips as international crews, including Russians, left behind the Cold War—along with its "space races"—and worked together. It was a dramatic turn of events, and a radical change in a career and mentality. He speaks on Saturday at TEDxBend.
Charles Precourt: There were some pretty dramatic changes when the wall came down. Our national program went to an international one. All kinds of foreign language were in the halls at NASA. It really dramatically changed the flavor of the programs. As a former fighter pilot in Germany, to be on alert, to go to the west-east border to respond to any encroachment by Russian MIGs, to then find myself living with folks who had become cosmonauts in a parallel universe to mine, and to be then working with them, was quite a turn of events.
Source Weekly: You really have had a front-row seat on a lot of changes in history. Do you remember how you shifted your mind, how you made that transition from 'this is the Ruskie enemy' to 'this is my comrade'?
CP: The best way to explain it is, ah...the first Russian I ever met face-to-face was a former MIG pilot, and I couldn't say a word to him, because I didn't speak a word of Russian. Fast forward five or six years, I find myself at NASA learning Russian because I was not going to go to space with Russians without being able to share a moment with them and communicate and truly experience being in space together and sharing a moment looking at the Earth together. What you learn is that, without all the politics, they had the same degree of dreams and aspirations that we did.
SW: It is interesting. You started your career in the military and moved into a civilian and science-based career. Was there a conscious decision to make that switch.
CP: You know, the early astronauts were military test pilots and with the space shuttle, that need for an interchange with a complex machine did not disappear and the only reliable training came from military test pilots. As a student in the Air Force Academy, I was fascinated with air craft design. Those choices became the merger of my education.
SW: One of my favorite books as a kid was The Right Stuff. Is that book accurate?
CP: Well, in the early days of flight testing, the testing was learned mostly by being in the air. But today we have such good flight simulators that it has helped reduce the risk as described in that book. At the same time, the risk is not insignificant because along with the ability to better predict (dangers) they are far more demanding of machines. As one example, the F-16 has broader maneuverability, but that also puts them at higher risk of outcomes. It is still a challenge.
SW: And you built your own experimental airplane?
CP: Yes. A fiberglass structure, with a 100-horsepower engine in it. It was a recreation and educational experience to take from paper to flight.
SW: Were you nervous the first time you took it up?
CP: No, not too much. I knew more about the guts of the airplane than most I have flown. It was pretty uneventful.
SW: One of the other things I found interesting about your life and career is that you have three daughters, and each is very successful in her own way. Now, I imagine you came from a workplace that was very much a man's world—the Air Force, and NASA. Was it odd to come home to a household with, including your wife, four women?
CP: (Laughs.) That's great! (Laugh again) I consider that I lost the battle and the war there. (Laughs again.) No, I'm just really proud that they each chose their own way. There are a lot of families where the kids follow the footsteps of the parents, and there was a little talk about that, especially with the youngest daughter. I told her, "You do what you really want to do; you don't want to follow my footsteps just because I did, because if you're really not that into it, it won't go that well."