SMDC History: First Army astronaut earns his wings

By Sharon Watkins Lang, USASMDC/ARSTRAT Command HistorianMarch 2, 2017

SMDC History: First Army astronaut earns his wings
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SMDC History: First Army astronaut earns his wings
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SMDC History: First Army astronaut earns his wings
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WASHINGTON -- On this date in U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command / Army Forces Strategic Command history, March 2, 1984, then Col. Robert L. Stewart, the first Army astronaut, received his astronaut wings.

The ceremony, conducted at Fort Meyer, Virginia, the site of the first military airplane test flights in 1909, saw Gen. John A. Wickham, Jr., Army Chief of Staff, present Stewart with his wings. In the same ceremony, Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh Jr. decorated Stewart with the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Developed in May 1983 by The Institute of Heraldry, the Army Astronaut device has the same basic design as Army Aviation (aviator, flight surgeon, crewmember, etc.). To represent the astronaut's theater of operations, however, the device incorporates a shooting star passing through an elliptical orbit superimposed over the shield.

The Army Astronaut device is awarded by the Army chief of staff to personnel who complete a minimum of one operational mission in space (50 miles above Earth).

The Distinguished Flying Cross, meanwhile, was established by an Act of Congress on July 2, 1926. It is awarded to "any person who, while serving in any capacity with the Army of the United States, distinguished himself or herself by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight. The performance of the act of heroism must be evidenced by voluntary action above and beyond the call of duty."

Stewart learned to fly as a senior in high school. He soloed after nine hours in the cockpit and went on to earn both a commercial license and an instructor's license. After joining the Army in 1964, Stewart followed his love of aviation, becoming a helicopter pilot.

He logged 1,035 hours of combat flight in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967, primarily with the 101st Aviation Battalion. After Vietnam, he became a helicopter instructor and later, after graduating from the Navy's test pilot school, an Army test pilot.

In a 1984 interview, Stewart observed, "I seem to adapt quite well to aviation. And I thought that my career had peaked as an experimental test pilot."

Speaking on his transition to Army astronaut, Stewart explained, "I flew everything from the Goodyear Blimp to the F-104 Starfighter. NASA just gave me the opportunity to fly higher and faster."

This observation cannot be understated, for on this date Stewart was recognized not only for being the first Army astronaut, having flown aboard STS-41B Challenger, but also for his untethered flights with the Manned Maneuvering Unit, or MMU.

As historian Kevin Hymel wrote on the 25th anniversary in 2009:

"Colonel Robert L. Stewart floated through the space shuttle Challenger's cargo bay and over to his jetpack -- known in NASA terms as a manned maneuvering unit. He eased himself into it and swung the pack's armrests into position. After a quick systems check, he released his tether and, using buttons and joysticks, slowly rocketed away from the bay. With his legs dangling free, Stewart left the safety of the shuttle, becoming a one-man spaceship, a human satellite, a living, breathing moon to planet Earth."

Navy Capt. Bruce McCandless II and then Lt. Col. Stewart were the first and second astronauts to conduct these untethered space walks. Equipped with the 326-pound MMU, which shot jets of nitrogen from 24 thrusters to maneuver, the astronauts could operate freely in space.

During two days of test flights, McCandless and Stewart took turns flying with the jetpack away from the shuttle's cargo bay, reaching distances of 100 meters (more than 300 feet). Together, they accrued five hours and 10 minutes of flying time on the MMUs.

When discussing the events later, Stewart declared, "[The experience] was wonderful. I was perfectly comfortable with Johannes Kepler's laws [of planetary motion] that all things at the same altitude in orbit are going the same speed."

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