Frederick D. Gregory follows two rules for his life and career: have fun and make a contribution.
It’s safe to say, he has accomplished both.
When the University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC) Spring 2022 Commencement speaker takes the stage on May 22 to impart his wisdom on the graduates, Frederick Gregory will likely draw parallels between space exploration and life, reflecting on his experience as a former NASA astronaut, NASA deputy, Retired United States Air Force colonel and pilot, military engineer, and test pilot.
What may surprise the attendees, however, is that Gregory does not have a romanticized view of his career. Contrary to many children who dream of one day becoming an astronaut, he never imagined himself launching into interplanetary space.
A lover of military history, Gregory originally envisioned a life as a college professor teaching at the United States Air Force Academy, where he earned his Bachelor of Science. After all, he hails from a long line of educators that dates to at least 1872, when his great-grandfather was among the first class to graduate from Howard University. His great-grandfather also remained there as a professor and dean of the college. His grandfather and grandmother also were teachers, and his parents followed in their footsteps.
Nevertheless, Gregory was destined for something different.
“My sense of adventure and discovery started when I was 5 years old, when my parents, my dad, never told me ‘no,’” he recalls. “He always waited until I could prove to myself that he should have said, ‘no,’ but he would never discourage me from doing anything.”
This curious nature and drive to always explore eventually led Gregory down a path so unique that only 574 other people in the world have shared in his experience. It would be that itch to discover something new that continued to propel his career in new and exciting directions for more than three decades.
While pursuing his master’s degree in military history, it became evident Gregory would not earn his PhD or have a career teaching at the academy. By that time, he had already completed helicopter school and flew 550 combat rescue missions in Vietnam, and his contributions to aerospace and military engineering could not be overlooked. However, he had hit a ceiling in his helicopter career and was ready for a new challenge. That’s when he discovered test pilot school.
All told, Gregory logged nearly 7,000 hours in more than 50 types of aircraft as a helicopter, fighter, and test pilot. Even then, he encountered a ceiling in his career, and before long, he was ready for yet another path.
That change would come in 1978. And it would be inspired by an unexpected source. Gregory had already been considering applying his unique skills at NASA but wasn’t certain he wanted to go through the lengthy application process.
Then something, or someone spoke to him. While flipping through an issue of Aviation Week, he came across an ad featuring none other than actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Nyota Uhura on “Star Trek.”
“She pointed at me, and she said, ‘I want you to apply for the astronaut program,’ and she was talking to me,” he recalls. It worked.
“She was the reason why a lot of people applied for the program.”
In three months, Nichols recruited a record number of diverse applicants, including Gregory, who, along with two others, would become the first three Black men to travel into space.
On November 22, 1989, Gregory was the first African-American to command a space flight. He served on three shuttle missions during his career, logging 456 hours in space.
But even space travel can lose its thrill, and Gregory admits that his time exploring beyond the Earth’s atmosphere eventually became monotonous.
“It is very much like any exploration or discovery that you have that you've never seen before, and in our particular case, very few have seen before,” he explains. “But you then say, ‘What else can I go see?’ You absorb as much as you can of it, but then you want to know what the next challenge is.”
That isn’t to say Gregory didn’t enjoy space travel.
“It's an amazing experience,” he marvels. “It was eye-opening because other than reading books and hearing first-person accounts of what it was like, I was only maybe 90% prepared for what I was going to see and experience.”
After 189 orbits around Earth, scientific experiments ranging from space physics to the suitability of animal-holding facilities, and serving as the on-the-ground capsule communicator (CAPCOM) during the space shuttle Challenger disaster, Gregory eventually would shift direction again. This time, he would spend the remainder of his career on land as associate administrator for the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance at NASA Headquarters, followed by associate administrator for the Office of Space Flight, and eventually, NASA Deputy Administrator. After a brief stint as NASA Acting Administrator, he returned to his previous post and later resigned from an honorable career in 2005.
Despite a life full of accomplishments and history-making moments, Gregory says his greatest achievement was his family.
“I look at my kids and my grandkids and I see that they are contributors,” he says. “It's the continuation of our family legacy.”
A Discussion with Frederick D. Gregory
In advance of his commencement speech, we talked more in-depth to Gregory to get a glimpse into his career and advice for those who wish to explore life’s many unknowns. Read on to discover his thoughts on space travel, failure, education, and overcoming challenges.
UAGC: What was it like to go to space for the first time?
Gregory: “When you get to space the weightlessness, you can talk about it, but we've never really experienced anything like that on Earth. It occurs, and it just stays. After about an hour, you forget that you are in space, and that you are living in space. The body so quickly adapts to this new environment of weightlessness. And actually, it’s more difficult to readjust to the Earth, when you come back.”
UAGC: How did your education prepare you for your future?
Gregory: “The education that I had at the academy really prepared me for life, even though I didn't realize it at the time. When I look back, it's one of those things you don't recognize until later in your career, when you are offered an opportunity to do something, you will already have those skills because you already have taken management courses, leadership courses. To be able to understand economics, all the diplomacy, or being able to write a good technical paper, understanding history. That is the stuff that breaks you apart from just an engineer or just an English major. All of these things in an accumulation better defines what a successful career will be based on, and you don't recognize it until there's a job offer, and they say it would be desirable if you had these additional skills and you can say, ‘shoot,’ I've done that or been that.”
UAGC: Why did you continuously seek out change in your career?
Gregory: “I decided that my career, my goals would be to have fun and make a contribution. With those goals, I could wander and do anything I wanted. I thought to myself, ‘What else can I do to expand and have more fun?’ The helicopter world was not that great. And there are only certain levels that you can achieve. And so that's when I decided that I would look to see what else I could do. And that's when I found test pilot school. But then, you know, I looked at the test pilot world and it seemed to me to have a ceiling. I left the astronaut program because I got bored. You keep doing it over and over again. And then you say, ‘Gee whiz, there is something else.’ Have you ever been in a job that you got bored doing? It's exactly the same thing except one is in space.”
UAGC: How do you perceive challenge?
Gregory: “I like the word challenge because just about everything you do is a challenge.
My dad always said, ‘Do tomorrow something you thought was impossible yesterday,’ and we never looked at anything that would stop us from progressing. We never thought of anything as an obstacle. We always thought of it as something positive and that there will be a contribution that results from it. Sometimes we might have to go around the corner to get there, but that's why ‘have fun and make a contribution’ works for me.”
UAGC: How do you face uncertainty?
Gregory: “I think a lot of people don't really understand what they're going to do next. And that's okay that they don't understand. What’s important is that you keep your mind open and that you're always looking around and that you are fully prepared.”
UAGC: Why is a college education so important?
Gregory: “You have got to be prepared for anything that you do in the future.
You need to be a person who people can depend on to solve problems. The best way to prepare yourself is really education.”
UAGC: What advice do you have for the graduates?
Gregory: “You have this diploma. Now, what is it that you're going to do with it? And how are you going to use it? And do you need any other skills with that diploma to achieve things? You are individually very important because you've got this multi-potential that you're talented, you prepared yourself to do great things in the future, and you have a degree. Now your challenge begins. And so, even though you may have been an all-A student or an all-C student, your grade point average really doesn't begin until right now.
An awful lot of people are going to be counting on you to do great things. Since you have now just achieved this milestone, whether it's a bachelor's, master’s or a doctorate, the important thing is the outcome. What are you going to do now?”
Written by Erin Ansley, UAGC Content Manager