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‘King of the Sands’ Relinquishes His Crown
wstf0807e05750 -- NASA Astronaut Danny Olivas pins the Silver Snoopy on Robert Mitchell

In August 2007, NASA Astronaut Danny Olivas pins the Silver Snoopy on Robert “Bob” Mitchell. The Silver Snoopy Award is the Astronaut Office’s highest and only award. Photo Credit: NASA

After 34 years of government service, 25 of that with NASA and 20 years as manager of the White Sands Space Harbor (WSSH), Robert “Bob” Mitchell recently 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 said about his tenure as manager of WSSH, which ceased 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.”

At WSSH, Mitchell and his “family” enjoyed one of the most incredibly beautiful workplaces 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 more than 100,000 training runway approaches.

“The WSSH crew took personal responsibility for their jobs, and as for me--it was not a case of having to police them. My duty as manager was to support them,” Mitchell reflected.

S82-28840 -- Space shuttle Columbia

Seconds from touchdown, the Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-3), with astronauts Jack R. Lousma and C. Gordon Fullerton aboard, comes into view of a large crowd on hand to greet it at the Northrup Strip on White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The successful eight-day mission was the first to end on New Mexico soil. Photo credit: NASA

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,” Mitchell laughed. “It wasn’t about me being ‘King for a Day’ as much as (it was about) the others simply disappearing.”

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 until 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 Jan. 26 as the Frequency Spectrum manager and project engineer at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility.

By Cheerie R. Patneaude
NASA’s White Sands Test Facility