Henry “Hank” Hartsfield Jr.

UT Knoxville, ’71


For NASA astronaut Henry “Hank” Hartsfield Jr., his shuttle missions proved anything but clear skies.

Seconds before the maiden voyage of the Discovery shuttle in 1984, computers detected a problem in an engine room. With the launch paused to investigate, a fire erupted on the launch pad 10 minutes later. Hartsfield, as commander, decided to keep the crew in the shuttle’s capsule—a decision that saved their lives. Without Hartsfield’s action, they would have emerged into unseen hydrogen flames.

Two months later, the Discovery took off. During its six-day orbit, an ice buildup threatened to damage the shuttle upon reentry. Hartsfield navigated the robotic arm to dislodge the icicle, earning him and his crew the nickname “Icebusters.”

Hartsfield earned a bachelor’s degree from Auburn University and a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee. He joined the U.S. Air Force and became the first Alabama native to become an astronaut through the U.S. Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory program before being assigned to NASA.

He flew on a test flight of the Columbia shuttle and commanded the Challenger shuttle before its tragic last flight.

“I’ve never had so much fun,” Hartsfield says of the Columbia flight.

Hartsfield logged 20 days in orbit before retiring in 1985 and was inducted into the U.S. Astronauts Hall of Fame in 2006. He died in 2014 at the age of 80.

Fellow Discovery astronaut Mike Mullane calls Hartsfield “an empowering commander and a fierce patriot.”

Part of the Tennessee Alumnus’ 100 Distinguished Alumni feature.