Before becoming the Army’s first astronaut, Bob Stewart became a Soldier.
Joining the Army was always the goal of this son of a World War II veteran. Maybe that originated when the then 1-year-old and his mother used to take train rides to see his father who joined the Army when the war broke out. His mother would hand the baby to the traveling troops who would entertain him before returning him an hour or two later. Times were different then.
“That’s probably where my blood started turning olive drab,” Stewart, a retired brigadier general, surmised while relaxing on his patio.
His maternal grandfather taught him how to shoot with a .22-caliber rifle when he was just 3 in his hometown Sheffield. “I was pretty good when I was 4,” Stewart said.
He would watch the planes flying overhead while playing sandlot baseball as a youngster. He built plastic model airplanes while growing up in Sheffield. When his father, who worked for the Civil Service Commission, was transferred to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, he asked Stewart if he wanted to learn to fly while driving past Columbus Air Force Base. Stewart started flying in 1960 as a senior at Hattiesburg High School and he earned his pilot’s license in early 1961.
Stewart worked his way through the University of Southern Mississippi as a commercial pilot flying forest fire patrols, powerline patrols, passenger charter and giving flight instruction. He graduated with a bachelor’s in mathematics in 1964 and earned his commission through Army ROTC. He entered the air defense artillery and transferred to aviation when it became a separate branch in April 1983.
He went to Vietnam in August 1966 as a 24-year-old first lieutenant with A Company, 101st Airborne Division, Aviation Battalion, which would be re-designated as the 336th Assault Helicopter Company. He was a fire team leader in an armed helicopter platoon flying UH-1B Huey helicopters. They were in the southern Soc Trang corridor.
As the pilot on a four-man gunship, Stewart flew 1,035 hours of combat time. The missions took place almost daily, at daytime and nighttime.
“This was the high point of my career,” Stewart said. “And the reason is because I was flying with people I could trust with my life, because we did it every day.”
During his yearlong tour, he earned two Purple Hearts. Once he was shot in the foot. On another occasion, his face was peppered with shrapnel.
“As far as being shot down, I was never shot down to where I lost the helicopter. I was shot up so badly twice that they just dumped the helicopter in the ocean. But it always brought me home,” he said.
At the start of each day in Soc Trang, he would think about his father and his uncles who all served in combat during World War II. “I thought if they did that I can do it,” he said. “Every morning I looked in the shaving mirror, I thought you’ve got to hold up your end of the bargain.
“Freedom isn’t free. You’ve got to pay for it. And I’m sure my grandson is going to pay for it, I just don’t know where.”
After his Vietnam tour, where he was promoted to captain, Stewart became an experimental test pilot. He was chief test pilot on the Apache helicopter in 1976. At the Aviation Engineering Flight Activity at Edwards Air Force Base, California, he saw a note on the bulletin board that said NASA was looking for Space Shuttle crews. He submitted his application through the Army in 1977 and he was announced as the Army’s first astronaut in June 1978 in Houston. From the initial 24,000 applicants, NASA selected 35 astronauts, including one Soldier.
Stewart became an astronaut in August 1979 and flew two Space Shuttle missions, STS-41-B in 1984 and STS-51-J in 1985. He and astronaut Bruce McCandless participated in two extravehicular activities with the STS-41-B Challenger in Feb. 3-11, 1984, representing man’s first untethered operations from a spacecraft in flight. He spent a total of 12 days and 49 minutes in space.
He retired from the Army in 1992. He served as director for advanced programs with Nichols Research Corporation, Colorado Springs, Colorado, until 1995 and moved to Huntsville in May 2014 from Woodland Park, Colorado. He left woodworking and snow skiing behind but he still enjoys photography.
He and his wife of 55 years, Mary, have a daughter, Jennifer Lee Cantrell of Huntsville, and four grandchildren. Their other daughter, Ragon Annette Shaw of Woodland Park, died in 2013 from cancer. “We are awaiting the birth of our first great-grandchild (due in December),” Stewart said.
At 76 he is a life member of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association and he works as a docent at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. Stewart will speak at the Huntsville/Madison County Public Library, Aug. 15 on the history of Redstone Arsenal and the history of the space program as part of NASA’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing man on the moon, July 20, 1969.
“It’s an event worth remembering,” Stewart said. “It’s a world-changing event, the first time humanity has left the planet and gone to another world.”
But the only reunions he attends are with his combat unit in Vietnam; he doesn’t go to astronaut reunions.
“Army’s my first love, always has been,” he said. “So when I get to talk about that, I’m really thrilled.”
Editor’s note: This is the 228th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.