16 Things: Steve Hawley traveled the world and outer space before returning to KU

Astronaut Steve Hawley, left, and fellow astronaut Michel Tognini are pictured during a 1999 flight aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. Below, Hawley poses during a flight with a T-shirt from his alma mater, Kansas University, where he now teaches.

1) Played tennis in high school in Salina. He lost to the person who went on to lose to the state champion, and Hawley figured that was pretty good. The champion was really good at tennis, Hawley remembered, but he never made it into professional ranks. Hawley said that taught him a life lesson.

“You have no idea how good you have to be” to get where you want to go, he said.

2) Applied to be an astronaut after spotting a flier on a bulletin board in graduate school at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Though he was a huge follower of the space program growing up, Hawley said he always figured he’d have to be a pilot. He chose a career in astronomy instead, getting an undergraduate degree at KU in the department where he now teaches. It just so happened NASA began recruiting scientists to become astronauts at just the right time, Hawley said.

3) Worked in a postdoctoral job in Chile at an observatory before getting the call to be an astronaut. He was able to do his own research there and helped visiting astronomers use the equipment.

4) Got that call from NASA informing him he’d been picked as an astronaut. He remembers the precise details: The call came around noon local Chile time on Jan. 16, 1978. NASA asked him whether he was still interested. (He was.) They next told him that he’d probably be wanting to know how much he’d be getting paid. (He said not really, but they told him anyway.)

“I’m pretty sure it was a Monday,” he said. (It was.)

He couldn’t tell anyone for 24 hours, NASA told him, as they’d be announcing the new astronauts the next day. He did go out to lunch with his roommate and friend in Chile but didn’t tell his parents.

5) Turned down an offer that came from another postdoctoral post at Cal Tech, even though he would have preferred that one to his post in Chile, and they wanted him. A budgetary issue held up the decision, and by the time Cal Tech offered him the position, he’d already said yes to the people in Chile. Hawley felt he owed it to them to honor his commitment and turned down the job at Cal Tech.

6)Served later on the board that vetted applications for new astronauts. He asked someone later what made his own application stand out (NASA received about 10,000 applications for 35 positions in Hawley’s class). A colleague told him they were particularly impressed with the fact that he went to Chile.

“They thought this showed a profound sense of adventure and exploration,” Hawley said.

7) Trained with fellow classmates — pilots, doctors and scientists — to become an astronaut. He recalled the sense of camaraderie in his class. The pilots all showed an interest in learning astronomy, and the astronomers all wanted to learn how to be pilots.

“I was worried about whether I’d fit in, and frankly whether I was qualified to be there at all,” Hawley said. His classmates quickly put him at ease.

8) Jogged once with President Bill Clinton. Guests were frequently invited to jog with the president at the time, Hawley said.

“He was actually a good jogger,” Hawley said.

9) Had his first shuttle mission aborted two seconds before launch because a computer detected a failure in a valve. The engines, which had been rumbling along, shut down. It turned out not to be a serious issue, but Hawley said something to his launch commander shortly after the aborted launch that was often repeated later.

“I know I’m the rookie here, but I thought we’d be a lot higher than this,” after the engines were cut off, Hawley remembered telling his commander.

10) Lost several members of his class of astronauts in the explosion of the shuttle Challenger, including some good friends, he said.

“I was in the VIP lounge at Forbes Field,” watching it on TV. He soon got a call from NASA asking him to come back. He would go on to serve on a board that reviewed what led to the disaster.

11) Watched his father, a minister in Salina, deliver the invocation at the Challenger memorial ceremony.

12) Appeared as himself on an episode of “Home Improvement.” The episode was about a tool that would be going on a shuttle mission, and the show’s main characters were jostling for an opportunity to go along for the ride. He got a signed copy of the script.

13) Got a highway sign (actually four of them, at the various entrances to the city) in his hometown of Salina after flying his first shuttle mission. He used to chide fellow astronaut Joe Engle of Chapman, telling him that he had four signs while Engle only had two.

“Now, my sign is kind of behind (former Kansas Gov.) Bill Graves’ sign,” Hawley said.

14) Launched the Hubble space telescope and went on another mission to work on it. He said that as an astronomer, it gave him a great thrill to be directly involved with the science that the telescope helped to uncover. The telescope also became popular with many people outside the scientific culture, too.

“I’ve been on airplanes with people that think the shuttle lands in Houston and flies to the moon, but they’ve heard of Hubble,” he said.

15) Attended professional umpiring school and is friends with several Major League Baseball umpires. He played catch with Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser and umpired a fantasy camp game for the Dodgers, too.

16) Received a letter from then-KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway asking him if he would be interested in joining the faculty at KU after he retired from NASA. He did so in 2008, after retiring from NASA at age 56.

“The way I said it was KU gave me a great start, and I wanted to give a great start for the students of today,” Hawley said.