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Vietnam War rescue pilot goes on to command space shuttle

  • Published
African Americans blazed trails even beyond the stratosphere, as seen in the achievements of retired Col. Frederick D. Gregory, a former Air Force combat rescue pilot and NASA astronaut.

After graduating from the Air Force Academy in 1964, Gregory entered pilot training and attended undergraduate helicopter training at Stead Air Force Base, Nev. He received his wings in 1965 and was assigned as an H-43 helicopter rescue pilot at Vance AFB, Okla., until May 1966.

In June 1966, he went to Danang Air Base, Vietnam, where he was an H-43 combat rescue pilot. When he returned to the United States in July 1967, he was assigned as a missile support helicopter pilot flying the UH-1F at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.

Over the next several years, Gregory expanded his skill set - from a fixed-wing pilot at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., as a student at the Patuxent River Air Naval Station, Md., and as an operational test pilot flying fighters and helicopters at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio.

But it was in June 1974 that Gregory would get a chance to make his already impressive repertoire even more distinctive. Gregory was detailed to the NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., where he served as a research test pilot until selected for the astronaut program in January 1978.

Having logged more than 6,976 hours flying time in over 50 types of aircraft, Gregory held various positions as astronaut office representative and lead spacecraft communicator as well as pilot and commander, respectively, of STS-51B and STS-33 spacecrafts. Gregory's missions included the deployment of the Northern Utah satellite in 1985, the STS-33 and STS-44 launches from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., in 1989 and 1991.

The Nov. 22, 1989 STS-33 launch from Kennedy Space Center made history, with Gregory becoming the first African-American to command a space flight.

His accomplishments continued. He and his crew worked on a variety of secondary payloads including the military man in space experiment designed to evaluate the ability of a space borne observer to gather information about ground troops, equipment and facilities. Gregory also took part in extensive studies evaluating medical countermeasures to long duration space flight.

He served as deputy administrator and briefly as acting administrator before his retirement from NASA in 2005.