Legendary Fire Trainer Retires After 42 Years
George Hoggard had an extraordinary career by most standards, so it wasn't easy for him to say goodbye to the fire department at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
"People who don't know anything about the space program cannot imagine how exciting it is to work out here," Hoggard said. "The very idea of it lasting 30 years never dawned on me and I never did have any retirement plans because working out here is so much fun. Quite frankly, I'm thinking, 'Why would I want to leave this?'"
As the chief of fire training, Hoggard and his crew worked closely with astronauts to teach them how to handle emergencies on the launch pad or on the ground following a problem. He showed them where to go once they left the shuttle cockpit, such as when to take the elevator and when to go straight to the slidewire basket. He and then-astronaut Charlie Bolden took a ride in one of the baskets in the late 1980s to prove they were safe.
It might look like it would be a thrill ride, sitting inside a basket riding a cable from 195 feet above the launch pad, but Hoggard said it was a very straightforward event.
"Back in those days," Hoggard said, "if you went to Disney World you had to pay a little bit more money for the e-tickets because they were the more exciting rides and when they asked me how the basket ride was, I said, 'If I went to Disney World with my granddaughter and took that ride and had to use an e-ticket, I'd ask for my money back because it wasn't that exciting, it was kind of dull."
Bolden, returning as NASA administrator, gave Hoggard a commemorative medallion during his retirement party the day before space shuttle Discovery lifted off on its final flight, the STS-133 mission.
Hoggard's skill and dedication came across to the astronauts very easily and made the firefighter a true legend at Kennedy, Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach said.
"The astronauts know they can trust him with their lives, and that says an enormous amount about his experience, heart and wisdom," Leinbach said.
It's a far different existence than Hoggard thought he would have. After getting out of the Marines, Hoggard thought he'd go into the family business: law enforcement. His father and brother were both policemen, and Hoggard joined the force. He was assigned to the vice squad and during the next year had some close calls, including getting stabbed and shot at.
"At the end of the year I told my dad, 'Hey, I know you wanted me to be a cop, but I've got to go find a safer job, I don't like being a cop,'" Hoggard said. "Luckily for me he was friends with a fire chief and got me a job on a really good department and he said, 'This is the safest job I can get you,' and I've been a fireman ever since."
Working as a firefighter in southeastern Virginia, Hoggard's career turned again after a friend of his told him about the construction under way on NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
"Quite frankly, I had been on the department up there for eight or nine years and I was tired of freezing on the tail board of a fire engine on Chesapeake Bay in the winter time with the sleet blowing in my face," Hoggard said. "I said, 'If I'm going to continue in this job, I'm going to a warmer climate.'"
Hoggard's firefighting career at Kennedy began with a level of excitement that would become the norm.
"I was really new out here and got to go out to the fire training area and they said three astronauts were going to show up and I didn't know who they were," Hoggard said. "They did everything we asked them to do with extinguishers and the hose and the masks and stuff, part of the training. And they left and I had no idea who they were and six months later they stepped on the moon . . . it was the Apollo 11 crew."
"When the shuttle started up we kind of had to sort of reinvent everything because there wasn't going to be just three astronauts, there were going to be as many as seven astronauts in there," Hoggard said. "It was going to be a completely different ball game so the preparation and planning and training for that was real exciting."
Hoggard and his team taught the astronauts before each launch how to drive the yellow M113 armored personnel carriers. The lessons would be critical if there was an emergency and the crew had to drive out of harm's way.
"I tell the astronauts the shuttle cockpit's got over 2,000 switches, this one's only got two, on and off, and it's easy as it can be," Hoggard said. "If you can drive a tractor and plow a field, you can drive an M113."
Hoggard still has a rule, though: "They said is there a pass/fail to this driving test and I said, 'Yeah, if you hurt the old guy, you're going to fail the test, that's the bottom line, don't hurt the old guy.' "
That approach also was on display when Hoggard was training Leinbach years ago when he and other NASA test directors were learning about rescue procedures.
"One day we went out to their fire training area for rappelling training," Leinbach said. "During my first rappel, George was on the belay line. About halfway down the side of the 50-foot building he cinched up on the rope and I slammed into the concrete wall and hung there until he let up on the rope. I’ll never forget it. I was hanging there and he was on the ground laughing. After what seemed like an eternity, he let me down and we just laughed and laughed until we almost cried."
Hoggard saw different perspectives of NASA when he conducted training classes at the agency's other field centers.
"They ask, 'Have you seen a launch?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, I don't close my eyes,'" he said. "Then they asked, 'Well, what's that like?' Then it dawned on me, there are thousands of people who work for NASA and NASA contractors who have never seen a launch and I've seen many of them and that's just kind of amazing. It's a shame that everybody can't be in the position that I am here at Kennedy."
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center