ASHLAND -- Signs were erected and nearly every business in Ashland took out an ad in local newspapers to acknowledge the Ashland homecoming of Col. Robert (Bob) Clyde Springer in late May, 1989.
The welcome-home visit occurred after his first flight in space on the Discovery Space Shuttle on March 13, 1989. It provided a truly memorable Memorial Day celebration 31 years ago.
Springer was born May 21, 1942, in St. Louis, Missouri, but has always considered Ashland his home. He is the son of Walter and Elizabeth Springer, who moved here when he was 12.
I met the Springers in the early 1980’s. They were the nicest folks and were literally “over the moon” about their son’s career path and involvement in the space shuttle program.
Col. Springer graduated from Ashland High School in 1960 and received a commission in the U.S. Marine Corps following graduation from Annapolis in 1964. He attended the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico, Virginia before reporting to Navy Air Training Flight Command for flight training in Pensacola, Florida and Beeville, Texas.
He also received a Bachelor of Science degree in Naval Science from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1964.
Springer received his aviator wings in 1966 and was assigned to the VMFA-513 at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina, where he flew F-4 Phantom II fighters. He also earned a Master of Science degree in Operations Research and Systems Analysis from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 1971.
Col. Springer served two tours in Vietnam. He served with the VMFA-114 at Chu Lai where he flew F-4s and completed 300 combat missions. He flew over 250 combat missions in O1 “Bird Dogs” and UH1 “Huey” helicopters. In 1968 he served as an advisor to the Republic of Korea Marine Corps in Vietnam.
While in Vietnam, Col. Springer was the recipient of numerous medals and commendations. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross on Feb. 4, 1968 when his exceptional aeronautic skill allowed him to successfully assist with an air attack on a group of Vietnamese soldiers who had pinned down a platoon-size patrol unit on the ground. While operating his F-4 Phantom, he was able to accomplish this despite an extremely low cloud layer which caused poor visibility.
Springer also graduated from Navy Flight Weapons School, now referred to as Top Gun. The school was founded in the late 1960s. In 1975, he graduated from the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland. Springer then served as head of the ordnance systems branch and as a test pilot for more than 20 different types of fixed and rotary-winged aircraft.
Col. Springer graduated from Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia in 1978. He was assigned to Headquarters Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic, where he worked in joint operational planning for Marine Forces in NATO and the Mideast.
Needless to say, all of Col. Springer’s training, degrees, experience and success led to even greater things. He was selected by NASA to be an astronaut May 30, 1980. Springer survived competition from hundreds of candidates for 19 open positions which is an impressive accomplishment and would take years of training.
On Jan. 29, 1985 it was announced that Springer would serve as a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Discovery. The mission was originally scheduled to go up in December, 1986 but was set back due to the Space Shuttle Challenger accident on Jan. 28, 1986.
As a Mission Specialist on Discovery, Col. Springer would be responsible for launching a $100 million Tracking and Data Relay Satellite designed to improve communications between shuttle crews, ground control and other satellites.
Springer described the trip as a “bread-and-butter” mission because it also involved research to see how weightlessness affected healing of broken bones, cancer drug research, how plants grow in space, how zero gravity impacts embryo development in chickens, and a Space Station “heat pipe” radiator experiment.
On March 13, 1989 Discovery was finally launched. The mission covered 2 million miles in five days and lasted a total of 119 hours. It took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida and landed at Edwards Air Force Base. The crew traveled 165 miles into space to complete their tasks. Springer was also one of the first two Marines to ever serve on a space shuttle crew.
When Col. Springer and his wife, Molly, visited Ashland a few months after his space flight, they were the focus of all the activities in town. Col. Springer spoke at various locations to students, senior citizen groups, retailers, club members and business professionals. Mayor Don Richey presented Col. Springer with a key to the city. Commander John Walker from the Harry Higgins Post 88 of the American Legion, pronounced Springer as a lifetime member.
Col. Springer served as the Grand Marshal of the Memorial Day parade on May 29, 1989 and was the guest speaker at the cemetery service. Over 50 floats, vehicle escorts and walking units participated in the parade and the streets along the parade route were packed with people.
As Col. Springer shared his experiences in space, it helped us envision the view of Earth from up above. He often wore his royal blue NASA jumpsuit as he spoke and presented slides from his unique adventure.
He described it by stating, “As I looked out the window and saw the earth – no camera could reveal the majesty; the uniqueness and fascinating view. It put into prospective where I fit into God’s Universe.”
Col. Springer’s career in space continued when he served on the Space Shuttle Atlantis from Nov. 15 to 20, 1990. The four-day trip was a classified mission for the U.S. Department of Defense. When he retired, he had logged over 237 hours in space and 4,500 hours of flying time, including 3,500 hours in jet aircraft.
Springer currently advocates for education with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in support of the United States space program. He also serves on numerous boards and councils related to education. He also is the president of Springer Consulting, specializing in aerospace consultation and motivational speaking.