From ND To NASA: North Dakota’s Space Flight Legacy
Astronaut & Jamestown native Rick Hieb Shares His Journey From North Dakota To NASA
People first walked on the moon 50 years ago this Saturday.
Here in North Dakota, our relationship with NASA and space flight goes back more than 60 years.
We’ve had quite a few astronauts with North Dakota connections.
We’re telling you about those brave men and women.
KVRR’s Adam Ladwig had the huge honor of talking with North Dakota native and former astronaut Rick Hieb about his journey from North Dakota to outer space.
He remembers, “That evening when we walked out to look at the sky, to look at the moon and say ‘There are people there now’.”
Rick Hieb’s memories of watching the Apollo 11 landing as a teenager in Jamestown left a mark.
He says, “I was lucky to grow up then and have that kind of influence because I’m certain that profoundly impacted my interest in the space program.”
One day, Hieb would join Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins as one of the few people to reach beyond the bonds of the Earth. But in the 1960’s he didn’t think it was possible. Early astronauts were fighter pilots with 20/20 vision. Hieb needed glasses in grade school.
He claims, “My thoughts of being an astronaut stopped maybe when I was 7 years old.”
But his passion carried through. He studied physics and math, then aerospace engineering. He got a job with NASA in 1979, on the ground floor of the Space Shuttle program.
“I got a position in that area, and I loved what I was doing,” he says. “Great people, great work, and the shuttle program was exciting.”
He wasn’t an astronaut. But eventually the shuttle program gave him a new opportunity he didn’t need perfect vision to see.
“There were always the pilots and now there were mission specialists. Mission Specialists didn’t have to be pilots,” Hieb explains. “What goes in a space shuttle is a crew up to seven. You really don’t need seven pilots.”
So he applied in 1983, even though he wasn’t that confident he’d get in.
He thought if, “I don’t apply, I can’t be selected.”
He didn’t make it at first, but NASA chose him the second time he applied. He joined the astronaut ranks in 1985. That decision led to the opportunity to blast off into space three times in his career.
Few people can truly relate to the indescribable experience of being in space. But North Dakota is well represented among those who can. The state’s ties to NASA go back to the very beginning. The first NASA administrator, T. Keith Glennan, was born in Enderlin. From 1958 to 1961, he made helped turn NASA into the group that would be responsible for America’s space exploration.
West Fargo graduate Tony England joined NASA in 1967, working on missions from Apollo 13 all the way through to the Space Shuttle era.
Fargo Central graduate and New Rockford native James Buchli joined in 1979. He was inducted into the astronaut hall of fame in April 2019
For a while in the 80’s, there were three North Dakotans at once in the astronaut corps.
“I used to joke with my friends from other states say ‘Hey, you know what? North Dakota is the only state with the same number of astronauts as it has Senators and Representatives’.”
The ND/NASA connection continues today.
UND Grad and Vining, Minnesota native Karen Nyberg spent nearly half a year in space in 2013, where she taught us all how to wash our hair in zero gravity.
Although North Dakota is well-represented, Hieb says it’s still a long-shot for anyone to make it to outer space. At one point he thought he never would. But he says blasting off isn’t the most important part of the journey.
Hieb says, “To know that as you’re going through life and to grab onto relationships that can be long lasting, that’s where the value really is the greatest.”
Hieb says he doesn’t know why North Dakota is so good at producing astronauts.
He did say that most of the astronauts from his era were from rural areas, so there might be a connection there.
Monday morning on KVRR Local News we’ll hear more from Hieb about his incredible experiences during his three space shuttle missions.