Today we remember John Hodge, NASA’s second flight director, and his significant contributions to space exploration. Hodge died on May 19 at his home in Northern Virginia at the age of 92.
Blue Flight Director
Hodge became NASA’s second flight director for the final solo flight of the Mercury Program, Mercury-Atlas 9, in which astronaut Gordon Cooper flew his Faith 7 spacecraft for 22 orbits of the Earth, setting the stage for the two-person crews of Gemini and the three-person crews of Apollo.
As “blue flight” director, Hodge also became the first lead flight director other than Christopher C. Kraft, Jr.
Through the 1960s, Hodge continued to serve as a flight director, managing the agency’s earliest human spaceflight missions in the Mercury and Gemini Programs, and leading flight control teams in the new Mission Control Center at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC), then named the Manned Spacecraft Center.
Hodge was on-shift during the Gemini 8 mission of astronauts Neil Armstrong and David Scott when a malfunctioning thruster put the crew into a dangerous spin and brought the mission to a premature conclusion.
“We had, like, about eight minutes over Hawaii to talk to them and tell them what we wanted to do,” Hodge said in his JSC oral history. “And feed all their retro information, when they should fire rockets, what angle they should be at, what time, all that kind of stuff. … The question was, would anybody find (Armstrong)? It turned out it was all very accurate, and he landed close, fairly close to the (U.S. Navy destroyer USS Leonard F. Mason), and they picked him up.”
Despite the inherit risks of space flight, crew safety was a top priority for Hodge.
“If anybody ever says, ‘What did I do in the space program?’” he said in the JSC oral history, “It was make sure that Neil Armstrong was around to fly on Apollo.”
His commitment to the astronauts’ wellbeing made the Apollo 1 fire all the more tragic for Hodge who was on duty during the pre-launch test that resulted in a fire that killed astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. They would have flown on the Apollo 1 mission.
Other NASA Experiences
Hodge joined NASA as a member of the Space Task Group at Langley Field, Virginia, in 1959, and migrated with the rest of that team to Houston.
He was chief of the Flight Control Branch in 1961, and chief of the Flight Control Division in 1963, retiring as a flight director in 1968.
He became head of JSC’s Advanced Program Office where he helped design the last three Apollo lunar landings and follow-on programs.
He left NASA in 1970, and worked on projects in the U.S. and Canada, and spent five years at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Hodge returned to NASA in 1982 to manage space station design studies, and was named NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Station in 1984, working on the Space Station Program, a precursor to the International Space Station. He left NASA in 1987, and formed J.D. Hodge and Co., an international management and aerospace consulting firm.
Hodge was born in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, in England in 1929. He studied at the Northampton Engineering College at the University of London, graduating in 1949 with a degree in engineering. He worked at several aviation companies before joining the Avro Arrow project in Canada, and later the Space Task Group.