b. 2023/10/31 – Rear Adm. Thomas Kenneth Mattingly II

Rear Adm. Thomas K. Mattingly II   March 12, 1936 – Oct. 31, 2023

Rear Admiral Thomas K. Mattingly II, USN on March 27, 1985. (National Archives, NAID: 6392498).

Rear Admiral Thomas Kenneth Mattingly contributed full commitment, unique knowledge, and exceptional courage to the Apollo and Space Shuttle spaceflight programs of the 1960 and 1970s. He was a major reason for much of their success. Known as “Ken” during Apollo and later as “T. K.”, Astronaut Mattingly never let a problem go unsolved or an opportunity go unrecognized.

One of my many great privileges in life has been to have Ken as both an astronaut colleague and as a friend. We shared experiences, personal histories, and ideas on many a geology field trip and during late, after work dinners.

Ken was part of the Group 5 selection of Apollo Astronauts with whom my own Group 4 Scientist Astronauts spent much of their spaceflight training prior to crew assignments. Two of Group 4, Flight Surgeon Joe Kerwin and Astrophysicist Curt Michel, were already trained as Navy and Air Force jet pilots and immediately integrated into the combined training with Group 5 while three of the other Group 4 astronauts, Garriott, Gibson and I completed jet pilot qualification. During the two-year period of joint training in spaceflight technology, science and operations, we could always count on Ken asking the tough, often not obvious questions of our instructors.

Pre-launch photo of the original Apollo 13 crew in front of the Saturn V on April 6, 1970. (left-to-right): Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise; Commander James Lovell; and Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly (NASA photo KSC-70PC-73).

Assigned in 1969 to be the Command Module Pilot for the Apollo 13 lunar landing mission, Ken Mattingly joined his crewmates Commander Jim Lovell Lunar Module Pilot and fellow rookie, Fred Haise, in implementing a new, aggressive geological training program that augmented their normal spacecraft and operational preparation. This training combined simulation and real-world field experience to replicate as nearly as feasible what the crew would encounter on and around the Moon. Ken embraced the concept with the commitment and vigor he had always shown for Apollo engineering and operational issues. In this effort, he enlisted my help in the study of available images of the lunar surface features he would see and photograph from orbit and in selecting areas in the West he could fly over in a T-38 to hone his observational skills.

After a few months of helping Ken and others, I was assigned to the Backup Crew for the Apollo 15 mission and had to hand over his orbital observation preparation to my former colleagues in the Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Branch out of Flagstaff. Ken’s commitment to remote study of lunar geology from orbit and to knowing more than anyone else about his spacecraft knew no bounds, enhanced by the fact that, as a Navy carrier pilot, Ken needed less sleep than most, an advantage that probably doubled his productivity versus his fellow astronauts.

As circumstance would have it, just days before the April 11, 1970, launch of Apollo 13, NASA doctors concluded that Ken had been exposed to German measles, and it was decided that his Backup CMP, Jack Swigert, would replace him on the mission as a precaution against any adverse effects from measles being contracted in the space environment. Ken, however, never became ill and served as a major, exceptionally knowledgeable participant in the rescue of the Apollo 13 crew after the explosion in the Service Module of their spacecraft put them in extreme jeopardy. His work on how to shutdown and save the Command Module and on how to power it back up for a safe return to Earth may have been the pinnacle of Ken’s many critical contributions to Apollo.

The Apollo 16 crew with the Earthbound 1-g rover (a.k.a. “Grover”) during a practice session on March 2, 1972. (left-to-right): Lunar Module pilot Charlie Duke; Commander John Young; and Command Module pilot Ken Mattingly. (NASA photo KSC-72PC-133).

Subsequently, Ken applied his many skills and vast experience to the Command Module Pilot position on Apollo 16. In doing so, he saved the lunar landing at the Descartes site for John Young and Charlie Duke by helping Mission Control diagnose and work around a problem with the backup system for controlling their spacecraft rocket’s gimble needed to return to Earth. Once the work-around was tested and approved in Houston, this remarkably important science mission to the previously unexplored lunar highlands continued as planned, only a few hours behind schedule.

Ken Mattingly being helped from the Apollo 16 Command Module after its return to the Earth on April 27, 1972. (NASA photo 72-HC-452).

After Apollo 17, Ken commanded Space Shuttle Columbia’s fourth test mission, STS-4 (the last of the 2-crew flights), and later the Department of Defense’s STS-51-C mission. Although he retired from NASA and the Navy in 1985, he did not retire from his life’s work of taking on new challenges. His subsequent aerospace career included problem-solving stints with Grumman (Space Station support), General Dynamics (Atlas Booster program), and Lockheed Martin (X-33 re-useable booster development).

Navy fighter pilot, Apollo 16 Command Module Pilot, and Shuttle Commander Rear Adm. Ken “T. K.” Mattingly lived an extraordinary life. As a remarkable engineer, pilot and friend, Ken never sought recognition for his contributions to his country and the achievements of others, but deserves such recognition and appreciation without hesitation.


Copyright © by Harrison H. Schmitt, 2023, All rights reserved.