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Too Tall Heib, Astronaut


North Dakota has produced more astronauts per capita than any state in the Nation. One of them– Richard Hieb – was born on this date in 1955. He grew up in Jamestown, where he watched the first moon landing on his grandmother’s television at age 13. He was impressed, but saw no chance of someday going into space himself. He wore glasses, which meant he couldn’t become a fighter pilot, the number one source of astronauts in those days.

The space program needed more than astronauts with military backgrounds, however. They also needed people from the private sector, people who could become mission specialists. Hieb was getting his masters degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Colorado when he spotted an ad for a short-term position at NASA. He applied, was hired, and spent the rest of the summer helping design insulation for loads carried in a space shuttle’s payload bay. When he graduated in 1979, NASA rehired him as a procedures writer.

Meanwhile, requirements for being an astronaut had been changing, and in 1985, NASA selected Hieb to enter that aspect of the program. His first space mission was in 1991, but it was his second mission, the following year, that got the big headlines. He was aboard the maiden voyage of the Endeavour, the $2 billion dollar replacement for the Challenger.

One of their goals was to grab hold of the Intelstat VI, a communications satellite stranded in an orbit so low it was useless. With the shuttle and satellite hurtling at 17,500 miles per hour, Astronaut Pierre Thuot was to clamp a control bar to the bottom of the satellite, and then he and Hieb would wrestle it into the payload bay. They would then attach a 23,000-pound rocket booster, so ground controllers could maneuver it into its proper orbit.

The Syracuse Post Standard reported, “Astronauts Plan Tricky Space Ballet... All in all, it is a risky, last-ditch effort to salvage a $157 million satellite... If the rescue attempt fails, all is lost. The satellite is too large to be carried back to Earth in the shuttle. [Such rescue attempts have been tried before], but none have approached the ambition and intricacy of this one.”

On May 11th, 1992, the attempt did indeed fail. A light tap from the capture arm caused the satellite to wobble and almost collide with the ship, and a second attempt failed, as well.

On the ground, Americans were distracted by Rodney King and the L.A. riots. Up in the Endeavor, fuel was running low and time was short. The astronauts decided to take matters into their own hands, and in an unprecedented move, Thuot, Hieb and Tom Akers left the ship together. It was the first time three astronauts were in a space walk at the same time, and it was a long one. After many grueling hours, Thuot and Hieb finally grabbed the 17x12 foot craft with their gloved hands, and Akers helped them pull it into the payload bay. Headlines read, “Got It!”

Hieb’s final mission was aboard the Columbia in July 1994. This time the headlines read, “Astronaut Grows Too Tall for Orbit.” The Post Standard read, “Payload commander Richard Hieb is growing in orbit – ouch! – and he now exceeds NASA’s height limit for astronauts. Hieb started the two-week laboratory mission Friday at 6 feet 3 inches. By Monday, he topped 6 feet 4, the limit for someone on a space shuttle. ‘...So I’m now too tall to fly in space,’ Hieb [said] after measuring himself as part of a medical experiment. ‘And that’s without slipper socks.’”

“I just hope the flight director’s not listening,” replied a ground controller in Alabama. “We heard that,” came a voice from Houston Mission Control. Not to worry. NASA had known for years that astronauts grow taller in space.


National Aeronautics and Space Administration. <> Jan 1995.

The Forum. 25 Dec 1999.

The Post Standard (Syracuse). 6 May 1992; 14 May 1992; 13 July, 1994.

The Gettysburg Times. 11 May 1992.

The Chronicle Telegram (Elyira OH). 11 May 1992.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm