Astronaut is landing in Maryland


What on earth do astronauts do when they give up their space wings?

Some chase book contracts or hit the lecture circuit. Others retire and head for the golf links. A few, moved by their adventures in space, have turned to God. Most, however, find earthbound jobs and join the rat race.

The most recent case in point: Richard J. Hieb, who served on three space shuttle missions, including the dramatic 1992 spacewalk to recover the stranded communications satellite, Intelsat VI.

Mr. Hieb (pronounced "Heeb"), who joined NASA in 1979 and was selected as an astronaut in 1985, has been hired by Columbia-based AlliedSignal Technical Services Corp. as a senior engineering adviser.

He will work out of AlliedSignal's Columbia and Greenbelt offices developing and managing the company's new effort to capture a piece of the emerging commercial space business.

AlliedSignal is a key National Aeronautics and Space Administration contractor for space missions. Nary a rocket or space shuttle has flown without some piece of its hardware or the ground networks that control them having been designed, tested or operated by the company.

Mr. Hieb, an affable, articulate man with ruddy features who grew up in rural North Dakota, says he gave up the adventure and relative glamour of an astronaut's career because he felt the tug of family responsibilities and the need for personal and professional growth.

"I felt like my personal growth was leveling off in NASA. I'd done everything I could do as an astronaut. I didn't want to grow stale," he said in an interview earlier this week at AlliedSignal's Columbia headquarters.

The 39-year-old father also wanted his two young children to grow up in a place that offered more social and educational opportunities than those found in Clear Lake, Texas, a Houston suburb, where many NASA's astronauts live.

Mr. Hieb could have found a desk job inside NASA. That was his main option after he decided to step down as a spaceman after his last shuttle mission in July 1994 aboard the Columbia.

But a telephone call from a friend who worked for AlliedSignal and ensuing meetings with several of the company's top executives, including Lawrence A. Bossidy, chairman and chief executive officer of AlliedSignal Inc., put him on a different career track.

Going to work with an aerospace company or becoming consultants to such businesses is a career path pursued by a majority of the astronauts who have left NASA, said Pat Malpass, a spokeswoman at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"Most simply go to work," said Ms. Malpass.

"I like to work and I'm really looking forward to what I'll be doing here at AlliedSignal," said Mr. Hieb. He said he believes that the commercial space business is perched on the edge of becoming a huge growth industry.

"The big expansion in aerospace will be in the commercial space business," he said.

And that expansion he believes should offer him ample opportunity to, in the parlance of astronauts, "ramp up" his engineering talents, he said.

Since officially hanging up his blue astronaut jumpsuit Friday at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Mr. Hieb has been caught up in the earthly concerns of planning his family's move from Texas to Maryland, setting up an apartment for himself in Columbia, and missing his wife, Jeannie, and their two children, Lindsey, 8, and Jonathan, 5. They are to join him later.

While he's excited about his future, Mr. Hieb hasn't had much time to reflect on the end of his astronaut career and his departure from one of the world's most exclusive jobs.

There are only 93 NASA astronauts and just 214 since the U.S. space program was launched 35 years ago.

It's clear, though, that he relished his space career, right down to visiting grade schools to field even the most predictable of questions.

(The most common ones: Did he see any aliens while in orbit? And, how does one go to the bathroom in space?)

Reminiscing about his chats with schoolchildren, Mr. Hieb laughs and smiles a lot.

But get him talking about his adventures spacewalking, and he beams like a full moon.

"The first time you step out of the payload bay is almost overwhelming," says Mr. Hieb. "We really don't have any words to describe what it's really like."

Mr. Hieb's most dramatic shuttle mission was his second. It involved the rescue and repair of Intelsat, which a Titan rocket had failed to jettison high enough to reach orbit.

Mr. Hieb and astronaut Pierre Thuot attempted several times to attach a capture bar to the satellite so it could be maneuvered into the shuttle bay.

But on one occasion the satellite suddenly spun away.

Astronaut Thomas Akers joined Mr. Hieb and Mr. Thuot on a final, successful attempt to rescue the satellite.

His first mission in late April and early May of 1991 holds strong sentimental value because "the first flight is the first flight" and because Mr. Hieb believes it to have been "the perfect match" for his engineering background and expertise.

But it was his final mission last July that Mr. Hieb believes will prove to be the most important. During that mission aboard the Columbia, astronauts conducted numerous life science and material science experiments, some of which ultimately could lead to the development of new medicines.

Despite his move from astronaut-rich Clear Lake, Mr. Hieb won't be completely cut off from hobnobing with his former colleagues. Several other former astronauts live and work in the Baltimore-Washington area.

They include Navy Capt. Thomas Mattingly, who heads the Space & Naval Warfare Systems Command in Washington, D.C., and Marine Col. Charles Bolden, who serves as the deputy commandant at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

"I haven't really had a chance to get teary-eyed about moving on," said Mr. Hieb.

"Maybe once things settle down or I run into another astronaut, I will."

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