Montpelier’s favorite son returned to northwest Ohio to talk about his experiences in the Space Shuttle program.
Scott Phillips spoke to several people at the Bryan Library March 29 for about 90 minutes about a life of serendipitous events that led him to be involved in all 135 shuttle missions. Now that the program has ended, Phillips has written a book about his life and new purpose.
“I had one heck of a ride,” Phillips said to an audience of about 30 people at the library. “We live in fantastic times.”
Phillips was born in Bryan and grew up in Montpelier through the eighth grade before his family moved to Huntsville, Alabama, when he was in high school. After his older brother got a job working with the shuttle program after leaving the military, Phillips asked if he could get a summer job.
His brother rebuffed him several times before Scott Phillips wore him down. He was called in for an interview and promptly got lost on the base in Huntsville.
A supervisor told him there was one spot to fill, and asked Phillips if he had integrity, could work hard and could learn. He cited his upbringing in Williams County for his integrity and work ethic.
The supervisor hired Phillips at age 19 and without military experience. Phillips had been accepted to Vanderbilt, but knew he would have to work to pay for school.
That led to two years of 12-hour days, seven days a week at the Huntsville plant. He survived layoffs and some near misses in tests on the external tanks for the shuttles.
Schooling was interspersed in the intervening years as he gained more experience.
“I got invited on to the flight program,” Phillips said. “It was a great adventure for a kid from Williams County.”
Phillips’ return to his home area caused him to choke up several times. He looked on the audience and spotted old friends, relatives and a former teacher. He constantly praised the life lessons he learned in Montpelier with helping him in his adult life.
Phillips recalled living at 405 W. Water St., in Montpelier, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. That caused him to pursue a career in engineering.
His upbringing caused him to be inspired and to be prepared to seize the moment when opportunity knocked.
His job was to remove the final red ribbon with the words “REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT,” from the external tank. Those words became the title of his book. A 3-year “labor of love.”
For Phillips and his colleagues, the ultimate goal was to see the fuel tanks jettisoned.
“Every mission we jettisoned the tanks we were happy,” Phillips said. That meant 133 out of 135 missions were successful. The only two failures were Challenger and Columbia.
Both tragedies still pain Phillips.
“I was 27 (years old) during Challenger (January 1986),” Phillips said about the shuttle that exploded shortly after liftoff killing all seven crew members. “It was my first real test; I took it personally. It almost wiped me out.”
It was during that dark time he returned to his passion for woodworking. It was a skill he had learned from making broomsticks for his mom when he was a kid.
He took that passion and made replicas of the shuttle to give to astronauts, administrators and other dignitaries. He gave one to local astronaut Tom Hendricks.
“I got to be known as the ‘Shuttleman,’” Phillips said. “I am now known more for my woodworking than my work.”
He has created 450 models, using wood from across the globe, to signify the lack of borders in space.
Of the 135 mission he participated in, he recalls with fondness the first and the last shuttle flights and STS-95, which saw 77-year-old John Glenn go back into space.
The last shuttle flight was in 2011 and with it a chapter in American exceptionalism closed. Philips, through promoting his book, wants to inspire the next generation of American youth to reach for the stars. He said the nation needs to rekindle its space program, which it still holds a slight edge.
The next step is a base on the moon and then establishing a permanent colony on Mars. He figures it will take five generations to establish a lasting foothold.
“It will be like Noah’s Ark,” Phillips said.
Joining him are his wife, Diane, who showed him what unconditional love was. They married when he was 35 and have since adopted two boys, Christian and Tyler. The foursome are touring together.
“My wife wrote the book,” Phillips said. “She found my voice.”
One theme Phillips preached was that of 5,000 years of recorded human history, man got around by walking or using a horse. It has only been in the last 113 years that man has gone from Kitty Hawk to moon and back.
The advances the world takes for granted that were developed by the space program are a testament to the level of commitment previous generations had in investing in the projects.
“America became a force in the world through the space program,” Phillips said.
A new resolve is required to return the nation to its premier spot as a technological leader.
As for the cost, he said the nation only spends seven-tenths of 1 percent of the Gross National Product on space.
“We can do better than (that),” Phillips said.
While the trip offers his sons a rare learning experience, his mission has a higher purpose.
“I am giving back to the American people,” Phillips said. “I am not doing this for me.”
James Pruitt may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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