Robert Mitchell Retires from NASA White Sands Space Harbor and White Sands Test Facility
After 34 years of government service, including 25 years with NASA of which he was Manager of the White Sands Space Harbor (WSSH) for 20 years, Robert “Bob” Mitchell spoke about the space harbor, his retirement from NASA, and the Space Shuttle Program.
“It was the sense of family that I will treasure the most,” Mitchell says about his tenure as Manager of the White Sands Space Harbor (WSSH), which ceased its operations in September of 2012, as did NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. “We had that close-knit caring for each other kind of employee closeness. I’ve been blessed to be around a lot of caring people during my career,” he said. At WSSH, Mitchell and his “family” enjoyed one of the most incredibly beautiful work places on earth.
In early 1975 the space harbor, known then as Northrup Strip, was selected by NASA as a shuttle astronaut training area. Training was accomplished using the specially designed Grumman Gulfstream jet that mimicked the flight characteristics of the space shuttle. After the Space Shuttle Columbia landed there in 1982, New Mexico Senator Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17 Astronaut), successfully petitioned Congress to change the name to White Sands Space Harbor.
Even though Columbia was the only shuttle that landed at WSSH, at the end of STS-3 mission on March 30, 1982, Mitchell and his crew kept WSSH prepared as a landing site for each and every mission throughout the entire Space Shuttle Program. More importantly, 85 percent of the Astronaut Approach and Landing Training Flights occurred at WSSH, and astronauts logged in over 100,000 training runway approaches.
“The WSSH crew took personal responsibility for their jobs. As for me, it was not a case of having to police them; my duty as manager was to support them,” Mitchell reflected.
During the years, Mitchell organized all kinds of events such as the Friends and Family Day in 2000 and the 25th Anniversary Celebration in 2001; however, Mitchell wanted to set the record straight on one public event. In 2001, WSSH was selected by NASA as a potential landing site for the Space Shuttle Atlantis. News media and other support personnel were on high alert, including astronaut representatives.
“Because Atlantis landed elsewhere, WSSH became a non-news event and the special shuttle personnel faded into the crowd until I was the only one the news reporters could speak to. As I answered the reporters’ ‘what happened?’ questions, I looked out over the crowd only to see those ‘missing persons’ waving and making faces at me,” laughed Mitchell. “It wasn’t about me being King for a Day as much as the others simply disappearing,” he stated. It was Elva K. Österreich, an Alamogordo Daily News reporter, who dubbed him “King of the Sands,” in her February 2001 article on the space harbor’s 25th anniversary and the potential landing site for Space Shuttle Atlantis. Mitchell lamented that the incorrect, but hilarious, reference lasted to the very last day of the Space Shuttle Program.
“The Space Shuttle Program was absolutely wonderful,” Mitchell said. “The exposure to the sharp and talented people within the program was the interest for me. I had an interest in helping NASA.”
Mitchell retired on January 26, 2013 as the Frequency Spectrum Manager and Project Engineer at the NASA White Sands Test Facility.
Cheerie R. Patneaude
NASA’s White Sands Test Facility