Robert J. Cenker

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Robert J. Cenker
Robert Cenker.jpg
Born (1948-11-05) November 5, 1948 (age 70)
StatusRetired
NationalityAmerican
OccupationEngineer
Space career
RCA Astro-Electronics Payload Specialist
Time in space
6d 02h 03m
MissionsSTS-61-C
Mission insignia
STS-61-c-patch.png
RetirementJanuary 18, 1986

Robert Joseph "Bob" Cenker (born November 5, 1948) is an American engineer, and former astronaut. In January 1986, Cenker was a crew member on the seventh flight of Space Shuttle Columbia. Cenker was a type of astronaut called a Payload Specialist[a].

This mission was the final flight before the Challenger explosion, which ended the Space Shuttle program until 1988. As a result, Cenker's mission was called "The End of Innocence" for the Shuttle.

Following the end of his space mission, Cenker returned to work as an engineer, and also makes appearances for NASA.

Early life and education[change | change source]

Cenker was born on November 5, 1948, and raised near Uniontown, Pennsylvania.[1][2] He started his education at St. Fidelis College Seminary in Herman, Pennsylvania, leaving in 1962.[3] He later attended Uniontown Joint Senior High School and graduated in 1966.[4]

Cenker enrolled at Penn State University in 1970 where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in aerospace engineering. He continued his studies at Penn State and earned a Master of Science degree in 1973, also in aerospace engineering. Cenker earned a second Master of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Rutgers University in 1977.[5]

Pre-spaceflight career[change | change source]

Cenker worked for 18 years at RCA Astro-Electronics and its successor company GE Astro Space. Cenker worked on hardware design and systems design concerning satellite attitude control. He also worked on in-orbit operations, as well as spacecraft assembly, test, and pre-launch operations. He spent two years on the Navy navigation satellite program, but spent most of his career working on commercial communications satellites.

Cenker's positions included integration and test manager for the Satcom D and E spacecraft, where he was responsible for all launch site activities. He also served as spacecraft bus manager on the Spacenet/GStar programs. He was responsible for ensuring the spacecraft bus could interface with multiple rockets, including the Delta, Space Shuttle, and Ariane launch vehicles.

Spaceflight experience[change | change source]

STS-61-C crew

As an incentive for a spacecraft owner to contract with NASA to use a Shuttle launch instead of an unmanned, commercial launch system, NASA permitted contracting companies to apply for a Payload Specialist seat on the same mission. When RCA contracted with NASA to launch Satcom Ku-1, RCA Astro-Electronics' manager of systems engineering for the Satcom-K program Bob Cenker, and his co-worker Gerard Magilton, were selected to train as Payload Specialists.[6][7][8]

Cenker and Magilton trained with career astronauts as well as other Payload and Mission Specialists, including those scheduled for the next scheduled flight, that of the Challenger mission, STS-51-L.[9]

This flight of Columbia was originally scheduled to occur in August 1985, but the timeline slipped. In July 1985 the payload was finalized to include the RCA satellite, and Cenker was assigned to the mission, now designated as STS-61-C. Magilton was assigned as the back-up.

STS-61-C launch

Prior to its successful launch, Columbia had several aborted launch attempts, including one on January 6 which was "one of the most hazardous in the shuttle’s operational history" to that point, as well as a near-catastrophic abort three days later. Referring to the January 9 abort, pilot Charlie Bolden later stated that it “...would have been catastrophic, because the engine would have exploded had we launched.” [10]

Columbia ultimately launched and achieved orbit on January 12, 1986, with a full crew of seven. Along with Cenker, the crew included Robert L. "Hoot" Gibson, future NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, George D. Nelson, Steven A. Hawley, Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, and US Representative Bill Nelson. [11][12][13] Cenker and his crewmates traveled over 2.1 million miles in 96 orbits aboard Columbia and logged over 146 hours in space.[14]

RCA SATCOM Ku-1 deployment

During the six-day mission, January 12–18, Cenker performed a variety of physiological tests, operated a primary experiment – an infrared imaging camera – and assisted with the deployment of RCA Americom's Satcom Ku-1 satellite, the primary mission objective.[15] Satcom K-1 was deployed nearly 10 hours into the mission, and Satcom later reached its geostationary “slot” at 85 degrees West longitude where it remained operational until April 1997, the last major commercial satellite deployed by the space shuttle program.

In a 2014 video of the "Tell Me a Story" series titled "Close My Eyes & Drift Away", posted to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex YouTube channel, Cenker tells a humorous story regarding a zero-g sleeping problem that he faced on his mission.[16]

The next Shuttle launch, ten days after the return of Columbia, resulted in the destruction of Challenger with the loss of all aboard, including Cenker's counterpart from Hughes Aircraft, civilian crew member and Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis.[17] Accordingly, commander Gibson later called the STS-61-C mission "The End of Innocence" for the Shuttle Program.[18]

Following the Challenger disaster, the shuttle fleet was grounded until 1988.[19] Even after Shuttle missions resumed, civilian Payload Specialists like Cenker were excluded until the Payload Specialist program was reinstated on December 2, 1990 when Samuel T. Durrance, an Applied Physics Laboratory astrophysicist and Ronald A. Parise, a Computer Sciences Corporation astronomer, flew aboard STS-35.[20] By that time, RCA had been purchased by General Electric, and RCA Astro-Electronics became part of GE. Following two additional ownership transitions, the facility was closed in 1998. As a result, Cenker was the only RCA Astro-Electronics employee, and only employee in the history of the facility under all of its subsequent names, to ever fly in space.[21]

NASA's Payload Specialist program has been criticized for giving limited Shuttle flight positions to civilian aerospace engineers such as Cenker and Greg Jarvis (killed aboard Challenger), politicians such as Bill Nelson, and others civilians such as Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe (also killed aboard Challenger). Even the flight of former Mercury astronaut and US Senator John Glenn was questioned.[22] The concern was that these people had replaced career astronauts in very limited flight opportunities, and some may have flown without fully understanding the level of danger involved in a Shuttle mission.[a][b]

Post-spaceflight[change | change source]

Following the completion of his shuttle mission, Cenker returned to work in the civilian aerospace field. Cenker's last two years with RCA Astro-Electronics and it's successor GE Astro Space were spent as Manager of Payload Accommodations on an EOS spacecraft program. After leaving GE, Cenker served as a consultant for various aerospace companies regarding micro-gravity research, and spacecraft design, assembly and flight operations. Cenker supported systems engineering and systems architecture studies for various spacecraft projects, including smallsats, military communications satellites, and large, assembled-in-orbit platforms. His contributions included launch vehicle evaluation and systems engineering support for Motorola on Iridium, and launch readiness for the Globalstar constellation. Other efforts include systems engineering and operations support for INTELSAT on Intelsat K and Intelsat VIII, for AT&T on Telstar 401 and 402, for Fairchild-Matra on SPAS III, for Martin Marietta on Astra 1B, BS-3N, ACTS, and for the Lockheed Martin Series 7000 communications satellites.

Cenker continues to make periodic public appearances representing NASA and the shuttle astronaut program,[24][25][26][27] including one at the Kennedy Space Center in March 2017.

In 2017, Cenker's STS-61C crewmate former US Senator Bill Nelson spoke at a session of the US House of Representatives. In an address, titled "Mission to Mars and Space Shuttle Flight 30th Anniversary", he read into the Congressional Record the details of the mission of STS-61C, as well as the names and function of each crew member including Cenker.[28]:page S45

Personal life[change | change source]

Bob Cenker is married to Barbara Ann Cenker; they have two sons and a daughter.

Professional societies[change | change source]

Additional photos
Gag crew photo  
STS-61-C insignia  

Notes[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 There was another Space Shuttle astronaut category sometimes confused with that of Payload Specialist: While Payload Specialists were non-NASA personnel selected for a single specific mission, Mission Specialists were selected as astronauts first, and then subsequently assigned to flights as mission needs dictated.
  2. A 1986 post-Challenger article in The Washington Post reviewed the issue, reporting that as far back as 1982, NASA was concerned with finding reasonable justifications for flying civilians on the Shuttle as was directed by the Reagan administration. The Post article says that "A review of records and interviews with past and present NASA and government officials shows the civilian program's controversial background, with different groups pushing for different approaches." The article continues: "Author Tom Wolfe, who chronicled the early days of the space program in The Right Stuff, wrote after the Challenger explosion that support for the citizen program, and therefore McAuliffe's place aboard the shuttle, was part of an insiders' battle. NASA civilians, pitting themselves against the professional astronauts, used the program for the 'dismantling of Astropower,' which Wolfe described as 'the political grip the original breed of fighter-pilot test-pilot astronauts had on NASA.' "[23]

References[change | change source]

  1. "Biographical Data: Robert J. Ceneker". jsc.nasa.gov. NASA. Retrieved 13 February 2017.
  2. "Biographies of U.S. Astronauts: Cenker, Robert Joseph, Jr". spacefacts.de. Retrieved 13 February 2017.
  3. Saint Fidelis Alumni Directory, 4th ed. Saint Fidelis. April 1980. p. 49.
  4. "Robert Cenker: Class of 1966". Classmates.com. Classmates.com. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  5. "Meet Astronaut Bob Cenker". Kennedyspacecenter.com. NASA. Retrieved 31 July 2017.
  6. "Mission Archives: STS-61-C". NASA.gov. NASA. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
  7. "Training Photo: S85-44834 (20 Nov. 1985)". Spaceflight.nasa.gov. NASA. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  8. Hitt, David; Smith, Heather R. Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972–1986. Univ of Nebraska Press. p. 271. Archived from the original on 1 August 2017. Retrieved 28 February 2017.
  9. Burgess, Colin. Teacher In Space. Univ of Nebraska Press. p. 52. Archived from the original on 1 August 2017. Retrieved 28 February 2017.
  10. Evans, Ben. "Mission 61C: The Original 'Mission Impossible' (Part 2)". Americaspace.com. Americaspace.com. Retrieved 28 February 2017.
  11. "STS-61C Press Kit: DECEMBER 1985" (PDF). jsc.nasa.gov. NASA. Retrieved 13 February 2017.
  12. Evans, Ben. "The Real Mission Impossible: 30 Years Since Mission 61C (Part 1)". Americaspace.com. AmericaSpace. Retrieved 28 February 2017.
  13. Evans, Ben. "The Real Mission Impossible: 30 Years Since Mission 61C (Part 2)". Americaspace.com. Americaspace.com. Retrieved 28 February 2017.
  14. "61-C (24)". Science.ksc.nasa.gov. NASA. Retrieved 20 February 2017.
  15. "SATCOM KU-1". nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov. Retrieved 13 February 2017.
  16. "Tell Me a Story: Close My Eyes & Drift Away". Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. NASA.
  17. "NASA – STS-51L Mission Profile". NASA.gov. NASA. Retrieved 20 February 2017.
  18. Evans, Ben. "Mission 61C: The Original 'Mission Impossible' (Part 1)". Americaspace.com. Americaspace.com. Retrieved 28 February 2017.
  19. "Mission Archives: STS-26". NASA.gov. NASA. Retrieved 19 February 2017.
  20. "STS-35 (38)". Science.ksc.nasa.gov. NASA. Retrieved 20 February 2017.
  21. "Encyclopedia Astronautica: East Windsor". Astronautix.com. Retrieved 3 March 2017.
  22. Oberg, James. "NASA hypes "Glenn Mission" Science". www.jamesoberg.com. Retrieved 4 March 2017.
  23. Pincus, Walter. "NASA's Push to Put Citizen in Space Overtook Fully 'Operational' Shuttle". Washingtonpost.com. The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 1 August 2017. Retrieved 4 March 2017.
  24. Lennox, Joe. Vision for Space. iUniverse. p. 241. Archived from the original on 1 August 2017. Retrieved 28 February 2017.
  25. Gillett, Rachel. "East Windsor Retired Astronaut Visits Peddie School". Patch.com. Patch.com. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  26. "Astronaut Visits Flemington Woman's Club". NJ.com. NJ.com. Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  27. "Retired NASA Astronaut to Speak on OCC Campus". Collectspace.com. Retrieved 28 February 2017.
  28. "US Congressional Record: 1/12/2016" (PDF). US Congress. Retrieved 3 March 2017.

Other websites[change | change source]