First space shuttle launch director passes away
Posted: February 26, 2002

George F. Page, the first space shuttle launch director, former deputy director of the Kennedy Space Center and a legendary missileman who played a key role in America's race to the moon, died Tuesday in Cocoa Beach after a long illness. He was 77.

George Page addresses reporters at the post-launch news conference for the maiden space shuttle mission in April 1981. Photo: NASA
A 1952 graduate of Penn State University and a diehard Nittany Lions fan, Page was the man in charge of the countdown on April 12, 1981, when the orbiter Columbia rocketed away from pad 39A on the first space shuttle flight.

It was a moment of high drama as the winged spaceship vaulted away from its seaside pad atop an incandescent stream of fire, shaking the ground for miles around as the unfamiliar roar of its twin solid-fuel boosters crackled across the Cape.

Years later and long retired from NASA, Page said he wasn't sure exactly what was going to happen when that first countdown hit zero. But he said he never doubted the end result of the skill and integrity of the thousands of men and women who designed and built the world's first reusable spacecraft.

Known for his strictly business, no-nonsense approach to management, Page was widely respected - and no doubt feared - by many of those same technicians and engineers. He was surprisingly modest about his own achievements, dismissing with a smile and perhaps a wisecrack any attempt to glorify his role in America's space program.

But anecdotes about Page's firm control over the launch team abound and he remains one of the most respected figures in the history of the Kennedy Space Center.

"George is a legend," said David King, director of shuttle operations at the Kennedy Space Center. "He was an incredible personality as well as just a brilliant person. In the early days of the shuttle, I recall lots of meetings with George. He was a very, very challenging person. He took you on and he expected a lot.

"He was the kind of guy who, I think, we stand on the shoulders of today, clearly. He got us to the point we're at today by working awfully hard, asking all the right questions and challenging people to do their best. It's a great loss for the space program."

Watching over the launch team from his glassed in office high above the firing room, Page seemed to have a sixth sense about the ebb and flow of shuttle processing, maintaining strict discipline and demanding the same from his team.

Observing some departure from that discipline, Page was famous for barking out a public command or query and heaven help the engineer who failed to have a good answer. Many of those engineers hold senior management positions today and to a man, they fondly recall Page's legendary persona.

"He ran the firing room with an iron hand and he expected everybody to demand the same of themselves as he did of himself. And he expected no less," said Tip Talone, now director of space station processing at the Florida spaceport.

"George was universally respected for the very fact that he didn't allow for failure and he didn't allow for anybody not to feel the same religious-like fervor for humans in space that he felt. And that helped everyone step up to the plate."

Said Gene Nurnberg, a long-time colleague and a close personal friend: "If there ever was a guy who led by example, it was George Page. He would ask you to do the impossible and then he'd be out there doing it himself. You really have to go back to Apollo, even before. He was the catalyst who made all that happen and set us up to do shuttle."

Commander John Young and pilot Robert Crippen, who made the first trip into orbit aboard Columbia and who, in a very real sense, entrusted their lives to Page, certainly agreed.

"It's a great honor for me to know George," Young said at Page's 1984 retirement from NASA. "We've been associated with a lot of programs. And in every one in which I've participated, he's always had a stake in my future. I was strapped to some vehicles and my whole future depended on it! He's the best."

Former KSC Director Dick Smith said Page had left his mark "on every major program we've had at the center. You've done a truly outstanding job on everything you've ever attempted and you leadership in preparing the orbiter Columbia on its first launch has to stand as one of the most significant contributions to a major national program every made by an individual at KSC."

Page ended his retirement dinner by remarking that he was "a fantastically lucky person to have had the career I've had, to have been in the right place at the right time."

"I realize more than anybody else that any measure of success I've had has been because of the hard work and dedication of an awful lot of people, mostly the types right here in this room," he told a throng of colleagues and well wishers.

"I want to thank you all for the wonderful day I've had today. I had a great career and I may have a couple of good years left in me yet."

Page was born May 29, 1924, in Pittsburgh, Penn., and attended school in the Harrisburg area. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and then enrolled at Penn Sate University, where he earned a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1952. He was given the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1982 following launch of the first shuttle mission.

Following graduation, Page spent five years as a launch operations engineer with General Dynamics and six years as a flight test engineer with Westinghouse. While serving as an assistant test conductor for General Dynamics, Page participated in all seven Mercury missions, helping American astronauts make their first tentative steps into low-Earth orbit.

In June 1963, Page joined NASA as a spacecraft test conductor for the two-man Gemini vehicles that played a central role in perfecting the techniques that later would be used to reach the moon.

He quickly moved up through the NASA hierarchy, serving as chief spacecraft test conductor for Gemini and Apollo launch operations and chief of the spacecraft operations division for Apollo, the Skylab space station project and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program.

Other titles included director of expendable vehicles operations, director of cargo operations and director of shuttle operations. In that position, Page served as the launch director for the first three shuttle flights.

"He was a perfectionist and he wanted everybody who worked with him to be a perfectionist also," recalled Hugh Harris, former director of public affairs at the Kennedy Space Center. "And as a result, he really cracked the whip and told people 'here's what you've gotta be doing.' But he cared tremendously about the program and he was probably the ideal choice as the first launch director for the shuttle."

In 1982, Page was named deputy director of the Kennedy Space Center. Following his retirement in 1984, he worked for Lockheed Martin in Florida and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and later served as a consultant for Analex Corp. He retired in the early 1990s to spend more time with his family and friends, taking great delight in golfing and talking his companions into giving up more strokes on the first tee than relative talents might merit.

Page was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal in 1975 for his role in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and again in 1981 in recognition of his service as the first shuttle launch director. He also held two NASA Exceptional Service Medals for his contributions to the Apollo 8 mission and the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. In 1982, he was awarded the Presidential rank of Distinguished Senior Executive.

Page is survived by his wife Lois of Cocoa Beach; his sister Jane Hassler of Beaufort, N.C.,; and his first wife, Dorothy, and their three children: Steven George Page of Palmdale, Calif., and his children Matthew and Diana; Janet Page Jones of Wilmington, N.C., and her children Andrew and Allison; and Viki Page Atkinson of Suntree, Fla., and her children Page and Scott.