Frederick Gregory is on a mission.
The task is dangerous and success is not guaranteed, but it’s a challenge the 82-year-old Annapolis resident is accustomed to. Since his retirement in 2005, Gregory has been searching for Maryland’s “ultimate crabcake.” It’s a blissfully lower-stakes mission than the ones he’s completed before.
Gregory spent nearly three decades at NASA, first as one of the agency’s first Black astronauts and later its first Black deputy administrator. He also served as acting NASA administrator and associate administrator for the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance.
Gregory’s 1978 astronaut class, known as “The New Guys,” included the first American women and people of color to travel to space. The story of the group is detailed in Meredith Bagby’s book, “The New Guys: The Historic Class of Astronauts That Broke Barriers and Changed the Face of Space,” which went on sale last month.
While Gregory’s career was filled with adventure and risk — traveling to space with monkeys, coming within moments of death because of an engineering issue that would ultimately be the undoing of the space shuttle Challenger and later watching from Mission Control as the shuttle caught fire and exploded — NASA wasn’t always his plan.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Gregory became interested in aviation after visiting Andrews Air Force Base as a teen in the mid-1950s and seeing the Air Force demonstration team, the Thunderbirds.
“I wandered up to one of the pilots and asked how I could become a Thunderbird pilot,” Gregory said from his Annapolis home early this month. “He said, ‘Well they are building a military academy at the base of Pike’s Peak in Colorado and it will be called the Air Force Academy and that’s where you should go.’ So probably at 13 or 14, I decided.”
Gregory’s childhood friend, J. Paul Reason, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and the Navy’s first Black four-star admiral, said Gregory was always highly inquisitive and wanted to understand why and how things worked.
After graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy, Gregory flew combat rescue missions during the Vietnam War. Soon after, he attended the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. A few years after graduating, he yearned for a new adventure.
“I saw an advertisement in a magazine about applying for the astronaut program and I thought, ‘Well that’s something to do,’ ” he said. “The space shuttle had wings. So, to me, it was just another aircraft.”
A family friend, Benjamin Davis, the first Black general in the U.S. Air Force and commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, called Gregory and further encouraged him to apply for the astronaut program. He taught Gregory about how people had doubted the capability of Black people to be pilots. Davis and his colleagues had proved them wrong and now he wanted Gregory to do the same for the space program.
Gregory also saw a TV ad featuring Lt. Nyota Uhura from Star Trek urging people of color and women to apply for NASA. Nichelle Nichols, the actor who played Uhura, had been reprimanding NASA for its lack of diversity, Gregory said, so she decided to step in.
Before her recruitment efforts, about 1,500 applied for the astronaut class of 1978, by the application deadline there were about 8,000 applicants, according to Bagby’s book.
When Gregory mentioned his plans to Reason, he wasn’t remotely surprised.
“It’s just his nature,” Reason said. “It’s another venture into things we didn’t know about that had to be learned.”
Davis and Nichols inspired Gregory to complete the arduous application process. They presented the work of an astronaut as a series of challenges. That spoke to Gregory.
“All my life was challenges. People say, ‘Did you struggle?’ No I didn’t struggle. Everything was a challenge to me,” he said. “My dad always told me, ‘Tomorrow you should do something you thought was impossible yesterday.’”
The 35 astronauts selected in 1978 included Gregory, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and Guion Bluford, the first Black person in space. It was the first year the astronaut class included non-military personnel, as well as women, people of color and Jewish people.
“Of those 35, 15 of them were stupid pilots like myself and 20 were brilliant scientists, engineers, doctors,” Gregory said.
Gregory, who eventually became NASA’s first Black shuttle pilot, often found himself at the onset of integration efforts including participating in one of the country’s first integrated Boy Scout troops and being the only Black student in his Air Force Academy class. He was also the only Black student in his ninth-grade class, which he said led to a schoolwide protest.
“He could always rise to the occasion,” Reason said. “Fred never came up short.”
In 1978, Gregory and the others in his class moved to Houston, where they took courses on astronomy, astrophysics, geography, geology, meteorology and orbital mechanics and studied the space shuttle systems.
“The simulation, I think, was superb,” Gregory said. “They gave you maybe 90%, maybe 95%, of what you were going to [experience] and what they didn’t or couldn’t train was that ‘wow.’ ”
Peering out the window and seeing a tiny blue marble as earth or a star close enough to touch were experiences no training could prepare him for. Gregory marveled at watching scientists conduct experiments in space that disproved hypotheses they had made down on Earth.
“I saw very arrogant scientists become very humble students,” he said.
Adjusting to zero gravity was not difficult, he said, but coming back was tough. Once, completing a mission, Gregory witnessed a colleague attempt to float a camera across the room to another as if still in zero gravity.
“It crashed and broke apart,” he said. “We’re all stunned for a moment and then we realize, ‘Dammit, we’re back in gravity again.’ ”
As Gregory traveled the skies, Reason traveled the seas. Even in the most remote parts of the solar system the friends remained in touch as Reason’s ships could track NASA’s launches.
“I was able to send a message up to the shuttle,” Reason said. “’We’re down here in the middle of the [Indian] Ocean. You will see a battleship with six ships behind it and we’re all looking up at you.’ That was a thrill for us both.”
Squirrel monkeys and rats joined for the ride when Gregory piloted his first shuttle mission, which was on Challenger, in 1985. Though he didn’t know it at the time, he came within a fraction of a second of dying because of malfunctions with the shuttle’s O-rings that would foreshadow and, if adequately dealt with could have prevented, the Challenger disaster the following year.
Gregory worked as lead CapCom, capsule communicator, for the Challenger’s deadly flight in 1986. He and partner Dick Covey were the voice of Houston back at Mission Control to the astronauts soon to launch into space.
“I was looking at the monitor and saw the explosion. Everybody else is looking at their console,” Gregory said. “I look back at the [other] monitors and they’re all still saying there’s good data and suddenly all that stuff went to zero.”
From then emanated a cascade of chaos and tragedy.
“I wanted to key my mic and say, ‘Godspeed, Challenger,’ but I did not and I regret that to this day,” he said.
Gregory became highly focused on safety after the disaster, said Reason, who worked with Gregory while serving on a NASA safety panel. He led the organization’s new safety office, created in the wake of the accident.
“Fred became one of the stalwarts in all of NASA when it came to safety,” Reason said. “Things like that must and they always will [change one’s perspective].”
Annette Gregory, Fred’s wife, said he has an exceptional skill for listening to those who might know more than him about certain issues.
“He didn’t just assert himself,” Annette Gregory said. “The type of career he had was asserting himself and making decisions and leading but he was really good at listening.”
Briefly, before Gregory retired, he met with Elon Musk at NASA headquarters. Musk told Gregory he wanted to build a rocket to carry supplies to the International Space Station.
“I said ‘Why don’t you carry humans,’ ” Gregory said.
Musk’s company, SpaceX has now sent more than 20 people into space.
In 1992, Gregory came to work at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. He moved to Annapolis and has been here since. It’s a place he partly chose because of the positive experiences he had boating with his family at Highland and Venice beaches growing up.
In a way, moving to Annapolis felt like coming home, Gregory said. He and Annette now enjoy fishing, taste-testing crabcakes and boating on waters near the ones he grew up visiting.
“When the weather warms up,” Annette Gregory said, “we start steering our eyes and hearts back towards the water.”
As for the future of space exploration, Gregory is enjoying watching it from the sidelines.