Former astronaut lands in Montreat, reflects on career and experiences through new memoir

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
Col. John Casper led a distinguished career as a fighter and test pilot, but always dreamed of space. At age 41, he was accepted to NASA's astronaut program where he flew four missions on the space shuttle.

From the age of 10, John Casper dreamed of becoming an astronaut. But when he applied to NASA in the late 1970s, he was denied. 

"If you're trying to reach a goal, you can't just give up the first time," Casper said. "You have to keep at it. It takes a lot of persistence to bring goals to fruition."

At age 40, Casper applied again and made it. He was part of the incoming astronaut class of 1984. 

Casper released a book of his adventures, "The Sky Above," on April 15.

Tom Widmer, Montreat mayor pro tem and a friend of Casper, said Casper's calm demeanor is indicative of his skillful abilities as a pilot and astronaut.

"He's not like those 'Top Gun' guys," Widmer laughed. "John is just the opposite personality-wise. He's so mild-mannered."

Widmer praised the new book, saying how details of Casper's various exploits brought the imagery to life.

The book serves as a memoir for Casper, detailing his time in the Air Force, becoming a test pilot, his struggle to achieve his dream of becoming an astronaut and his experiences on the space shuttle in the face of tragedy and fear.

"The best thing about being in orbit is being able to look at the earth from a different perspective," Casper said. "The colors are just dramatic, just a complete color palette. The oceans are various shades of blue, from the turquoise of the Bahamas to the real dark blue of the ocean."

The book, motivation and perspective

Being above the earth gave Casper a unique perspective. He acknowledged the beauty of viewing the planet from such an angle, but also of how encompassing the world is.

"Every human being who's ever lived has lived and died on this one planet," Casper said. "Seeing the whole earth and being able to go around it in an hour and a half, what a great experience. I wish everyone could see it."

With the help of his wife, Casper compiled his experiences as an astronaut and throughout his career as a pilot into memoirs for his four children.

"I started off writing this for my kids, really," Casper said. "Get some of my experiences down."

Casper's new book, "The Sky Above," details his career as a pilot and then as an astronaut through memoirs of his exploits.

Early life and career

Born in Greeneville, South Carolina, Casper calls Gainesville, Georgia, his hometown.

Casper obtained his college education through the Air Force. He obtained a master of science degree in astronautics from Purdue University, the publisher of his book. 

From flight school, Casper went to Vietnam for a year, flying 229 combat missions and earning the distinguished flying cross. During the Cold War, he flew fighter planes in Europe before becoming a test pilot.

Though he always had his sights set on becoming an astronaut, Casper said it seemed as though he frequently became sidetracked as his career pulled him in different directions.

As a test pilot, Casper applied to NASA to become an astronaut but was rejected.

"I thought, well, this was the dream and I always wanted to do this but it's not going to work out," Casper said. "Looks like the Air Force is going to be my career and that's OK."

Six years later, Casper found himself working in the Pentagon as a staff officer. It was there that he found a network of professional staff and and friends that motivated him in his career. 

While in Washington, Casper found himself talking with friends about what he would do if he could do anything in the world. He told his friends he wanted to be an astronaut.

That day, in the Washington Post, Casper saw that NASA was recruiting a new class of astronauts. Though some of his friends pointed out it may be too late in life for him to pursue such an endeavor, others encouraged him and he decided to apply. 

"Long story short, I made it," Casper said. "I was the oldest guy at the time that NASA had ever taken in at 41."  

Life as an astronaut

Though he had some incredible experiences in space, Casper acknowledged it was a daunting and difficult task. The disastrous tragedies of the space shuttles Columbia and Challenger, resulting in the loss of two crews, significantly impacted his experience with his own missions.

However, Casper said his overall enjoyment of his time at NASA was made possible through the relationships he forged, the people he worked with and, of course, his time in space. 

"From space, you can see where the gulf stream is," Casper said. "It gives you an appreciation for just how beautiful the Earth is."

Casper's first mission in space was five days. He then flew for 10 days and eventually, just shy of three weeks. 

"Now, they're flying on the space station for over a year," Casper said. "The normal rotation is 180 days."

Casper flew four space shuttle missions with NASA from 1990 through 1996. Beginning his first mission as the pilot, he led the next three missions as crew commander.

The shuttle traveled around the earth in orbit at 17,500 mph, according to Casper. Essentially, the shuttle was falling, following the curve of the planet, giving the crew a sense of weightlessness while on board.

At the time, Casper said the space shuttle was primarily used as a precursor to the International Space Station. Crew members conducted experiments, held labs and launched satellites from the massive bay doors of the shuttle.

"It could hold a Greyhound bus," Casper said. "A lot of room for hundreds of experiments on board."

Conducting experiments while being weightless was unlike anything Casper had experienced. He said it took some getting used to, even a few days. 

Though accomplishing simple tasks should be easy, Casper said when everything floats through the spacecraft, it can be a strange experience.

"That's a whole new world," Casper said. "You're floating around inside the cabin and trying to move around from one handhold to another."

In addition to being in space, launching and landing to get there and return, according to Casper, was an entirely different beast. Though exhilarating and amazing, he said it was also terrifying.

The fear that came with space travel was unmatched to the experience of space itself, Casper said. From space, when he looked out over the auroras at the earth's poles, he said nothing could quite capture the beauty.

"You can't see the political boundaries on Earth very much," Casper said. "You realize we're all one human family, one human species, living on that Earth. We've got to get along together and we've got to figure out how to take care of it too."

"The Sky Above," written by Col. John H. Casper, USAF (Ret.) ,can be found online at Purdue University Press.

Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at 828-230-3324 or Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribing.