Former Astronauts’ Career Paths Collide in Space

With a shared passion for flight, service in the Navy, followed by appointments as astronauts, blasting off into space and careers with NASA where they worked together on the Orion project, Tony Antonelli and Steve Frick already had a lot in common. Then, a few roles and a few years later, the two retired astronauts bumped into one another again – on their first day of work at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company. Tony and Steve both joined Space in July, unbeknownst to one another that they were about to again embark on a similar journey “in space.”

Tony, a U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School graduate, and Steve, a U.S. Naval Test Pilot School alum, have both had distinguished careers with the U.S. Navy. Tony served a fleet naval aviator and landing signal officer aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz with the Blue Diamonds, Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-146, flying F/A-18C Hornets in support of Operation Southern Watch. Steve was a pilot and landing signal officer in the VFA-83 “Rampagers” onboard USS Saratoga during Desert Shield/Storm and supported the testing of the F/A-18 Hornet, among other missions.

 “As a little kid, I dreamed about being an astronaut with the fidelity of a little kid dream,” remarked Tony. “I didn’t put much thought into it until I was in Test Pilot School. From there, I could see that becoming an astronaut really could be a reality.”

Tony Antonelli seen here as the shuttle pilot of STS-132. Photo: NASA

Today, both retired astronauts are bringing facets of their experience in their new roles at Space Systems. Tony now supports Space Systems’ long-range exploration systems in Houston, and Steve is the director of operations for the Advanced Technology Center (ATC) in Palo Alto, managing program execution, university collaborations and day-to-day operations.

“How do we bring human exploration of Mars to a reality instead of a distant goal?” Tony asked. “I’m working on integrating plans with the directorates of NASA and talking specifics about how we’re going to get where we say we’re going to go. Someone at my age is starting to wonder whether we’ll see human exploration of Mars in our lifetime, and I want that to happen and help make that happen.”

Tony, who was selected by NASA in 2000, spent 18 months training as an astronaut candidate and supporting shuttle propulsion. He flew his first mission as the pilot of STS-119 aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in March 2009.

“The flight delivered the final set of solar array wings to the International Space Station, so when we left, the station looked ‘complete’,” he said.

He next served as pilot on STS-132 on Space Shuttle Atlantis in May 2010, delivering an Integrated Cargo Carrier and a Russian research module to the ISS. Following his flights to space, Tony transitioned to work for Steve at NASA on Orion entry, descent and landing propulsion, before working on the Space Launch System.

Antonelli’s second trip to orbit was as the pilot of the STS-132 mission to the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

Steve was selected by NASA in 1996 and joined a large class of astronauts for shuttle crew training. Serving as pilot of STS-110 on Space Shuttle Atlantis, Steve’s first trip into space was in April 2002. It was an ISS assembly mission, bringing up the first installation of the Truss segment.

“Being a shuttle pilot is an interesting job,” noted Steve. “As an astronaut, it is your first position as you learn about how the shuttle works. You manage the shuttle systems and back up the commander on lift off and landing. Once in orbit, I felt like my job was really to support our mission specialists –making sure the vehicle was working properly so they could carry out their mission successfully. Sometimes that even meant having their food ready when they came back in from a spacewalk!”

Following the tragic loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in January 2003, Steve worked on the return to flight team. He was the lead capsule communicator for the STS-114 return to flight mission and held various positions within the Astronaut Office before his assignment as STS-122 shuttle commander on Atlantis in February 2008. On this mission, an international crew delivered and installed the European Space Agency’s Columbus Laboratory.

After stints on Orion with NASA, Steve went back to the Astronaut Office to lead the Exploration Branch and help define the interface between astronauts and Orion training requirements. He left NASA in late 2011 to serve as a visiting professor at the Naval Post-Graduate School, teaching propulsion and spacecraft design.

He’s enjoying his new role at Lockheed Martin Space.

“It’s been really exciting to see the cutting-edge technology we’re creating at the ATC and how it’s enabling major innovations across Lockheed Martin and the industry,” Steve said. “Every time I see a program racing forward here, it’s cool. It’s amazing capability our teams are coming up with.”

Commander Stephen Frick guided space shuttle Atlantis to a flawless landing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 20, 2008, to end STS-122. Photo: NASA

Tony and Steve will never forget those initial moments in space. Their experience allowed each of them a perspective only a few are able to have.

“When you first get in space – it’s only eight-and-a-half minutes from the launch pad to orbit, and you’ve practiced a million times, usually with something going wrong. But then when you launch, you feel like you’re in the simulator, but then you realize it’s real. And you glance out of the window and see the Earth and not the computer and it’s surreal,” Steve said.

“I’ll spend the rest of my life talking about the memories from my spaceflight. I didn’t realize just how powerful it would be to see how small Earth is – it’s really a small spaceship,” Tony added. “It’s surprising we don’t all get along better than we do.”