George Hoggard (dark overalls), astronaut rescue team leader, and the last crew of the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia pose in front of one of two armored personnel carriers used to retrieve astronauts and ground crew in the event of a launch pad emergency.
George Hoggard, astronaut rescue team leader, describes himself as "one of the most fortunate people in the world." The reason, he explains, as he pulls on protective clothing prior to a training exercise, is because "I truly love my job. I should have retired a long time ago but I enjoy what I do. I've reported to 12 fire chiefs in my time."
Born in Norfolk, VA, the son of a policeman, George Hoggard joined the local fire department and served it for 10 years before moving to a warmer climate. In 1968 after a short time with the City of Titusville fire department George came to work for the Wackenhut fire department protecting the new Space Center. At that time Wackenhut was a sub-contractor with TWA for fire protection and security at the Space Center.
"I'm a captain in the Training Division and I direct the training of the Astronaut Rescue Team as well as training the astronauts. A lot of people working in the space program never get to see a launch. I'm really lucky; I get to see all of the launches and get an opportunity to meet the people who are being launched.
"The Shuttle flight crews have to be trained prior to a launch on how to get out of the Shuttle and exit the launch pad during an emergency and how to get down to the ground to the bunker or APC. Each Shuttle crew normally spends four days, three to four weeks prior to their launch, on this training at the Kennedy Space Center, with two days of this training period being very intense.
"When I meet the young astronauts they'll often say 'You've got to be George. We've heard about you!" That's exactly what Willie McCool, the pilot on the Space Shuttle Columbia, said.
"Usually, their last words to me are 'Hey George, we don't want to see you anymore,' because they know, if the do, then something has gone wrong with the launch.
"We've completed 111 Shuttle missions and prior to that 15 Apollo missions. The first Shuttles accommodated two astronauts then grew to seven per mission. The Apollo crews consisted of three astronauts. So, around 600 astronauts have gone through this training over the years. Not all were Americans. It's been really fun for me, because there have also been Russians, Italians, Belgians, French and an Israeli, among others."
If a Shuttle experiences a problem in mid-mission, it may need to make an emergency landing back on Earth at a different landing site. To support this requirement George Hoggard has taken teams to abort landing sites in Morocco and Gambia in preparation for such events.
"The saddest thing for me is that we've had two accidents -- Challenger and Columbia -- despite all the years spent training the astronauts and protecting them when they're on the launch pad or coming back home from space. Sadly, no matter how great a rescue team I've got, there was nothing we could do to affect the outcome. It's very frustrating for us as we all feel the loss intensely."
On a much happier note, Captain George Hoggard's knowledge of the U.S. space program and its rescue work has led to roles in a number of major films, sometimes playing himself. The movies include "Apollo 13" starring Tom Hanks; "Armageddon" starring Bruce Willis and an HBO mini-series, "From Earth to Moon."