Karol Bobko, an Air Force pilot who joined NASA as an astronaut in 1969 and then waited 14 years before going into space, piloting the first voyage of the shuttle Challenger nearly three years before it exploded soon after liftoff, died on Aug. 17 at his home in Half Moon Bay, Calif., south of San Francisco. He was 85.
His son, Paul, said the cause was complications of an unspecified degenerative disease of the nervous system.
In 1966, with NASA’s early Gemini missions nearing their end and the Apollo program’s start-up in sight, Colonel Bobko joined a Defense Department project to explore the military uses of space. The Air Force’s Manned Operating Laboratory planned to shoot astronauts into orbit in a modified Gemini capsule that would have been connected to a 50-foot-long lab and powered by a Titan booster rocket.
But in June 1969 — a month before Apollo 11 made the first moon landing — the government canceled the laboratory, citing its cost. Colonel Bobko, who was known as Bo, was one of the seven laboratory astronauts transferred to NASA.
While he waited for a space mission, he earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1970 at the University of Southern California and provided support and testing for three forthcoming projects: Skylab, an orbiting laboratory that was launched in 1973; the joint U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz mission, in 1975; and the shuttle, which got off the ground in 1981.
Asked how it felt to wait so long to be chosen for a space mission, he told a NASA oral history interviewer in 2002, “There were times when I felt I was a cosine wave in a sine-wave world.”
The Challenger made its inaugural flight on April 4, 1983. For five days in space, its four-man crew deployed a communications satellite, and two astronauts, Story Musgrave and Donald Peterson, performed the shuttle program’s first spacewalk.
“My responsibility was getting them into the suits” for the spacewalk, Colonel Bobko said in the oral history. “You know, it provides power and atmosphere and communications and meteoroid protection. It does everything. So it’s kind of like launching a small satellite, except it’s got a man in it.”
Colonel Bobko was celebrated soon after, in a proclamation, as the first New York City native to orbit the earth.
He flew on two more shuttle missions, the first as commander of the Discovery in 1985. On that mission the crew deployed one communications satellite, but a second one didn’t turn on, despite an attempt to fix it in an unplanned spacewalk by the astronauts Jeffrey Hoffman and S. David Griggs. (Two spacewalking members of another Discovery mission that year made the repairs.)
“Bo was a commander who could lead without ever getting angry with people or raising his voice,” Dr. Hoffman, now a professor of aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said by phone. “He didn’t have to prove he was the boss to get our respect.”
Colonel Bobko went on to command the shuttle Atlantis on its first flight, in October 1985.
Karol Joseph Bobko was born on Dec. 23, 1937, in Manhattan and lived with his family in Queens before moving, at 13, to Seaford, on the South Shore of Long Island. His parents, Charles and Veronica (Sagatis) Bobko, owned a beer and soda distributorship.
Karol studied aerospace and engineering at Brooklyn Technical High School, commuting from Seaford, and graduated in 1955. Four years later, he was in the first graduating class of the United States Air Force Academy.
He trained as a test and fighter pilot before joining the Defense Department’s Manned Operating Laboratory program, then suffered the disappointment of seeing it scrapped. Any hope of being assigned to an Apollo flight ended when the program was shut down after the last moon landing, by Apollo 17, in 1972.
During his long wait to go into space, Colonel Bobko and two other astronauts spent eight weeks in a Skylab simulator in Houston, where the impact of food and exercise on their bodies was measured. He later joined the support crew for the Apollo-Soyuz project, working with Soviet cosmonauts.
He recognized the irony of cooperating with the Soviets on a space project in the 1970s with Cold War tensions still high. He recalled walking one day in Red Square in Moscow with Robert F. Overmyer, another former Mobile Operating Laboratory astronaut who was in the support crew.
Colonel Bobko had thought that if he ever visited the Soviet Union, it would be under combat conditions and not in a cooperative venture. “I never doubted I’d be here,” he recalled saying to Colonel Overmyer. “I always thought it would be at 200 feet and a full afterburner.”
He edged closer into space as part of the support crew for the shuttle’s approach and landing tests, and he was the lead astronaut in a test group for the Columbia, the first shuttle to fly in space, in 1981.
Colonel Bobko was still in the space program when the Challenger exploded 73 seconds into liftoff in 1986, killing its seven crew members.
“That was pretty hard,” he told The Half Moon Bay Review in 2011. “I knew them all well.”
(The Columbia later met disaster as well; it disintegrated as it re-entered the atmosphere in 2003, killing all seven aboard.)
In addition to his son, Colonel Bobko is survived by his wife, Dianne (Welsh) Bobko; his daughter, Michelle Bobko; a grandson; and his brother, Peter.
Colonel Bobko retired from NASA and the Air Force in 1988 and worked at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, which had contracts with the space agency. In 2000, he was hired as a vice president of Spacehab, which provided microgravity experimentation equipment for the space shuttle. In 2005, he became program manager for the technology company SAIC’s contract with NASA’s Ames Research Center Simulation Labs. He stayed in that position until 2014 and had been a consultant through last year.
Colonel Bobko traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2011 to watch the 135th and final launch of the shuttle program: that of the Atlantis, which he had commanded 26 years earlier. In an interview with The Half Moon Bay Review soon after, he recalled going through the prelaunch checklist, the engines firing, and being thrust into orbit.
“Those things I participated in many years ago … and now there won’t be any more shuttle launches,” he said. “Now it’s come full circle.”