WASHINGTON -- Retired U.S. astronaut Henry "Hank" Hartsfield Jr., who flew on three shuttle missions including as commander of the Discovery's maiden flight, died after an illness at age 80, NASA said Saturday.
Hartsfield piloted Columbia on the orbiter program's final test flight in 1982, spending a week in space as part of a two-person crew. The landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California was met by President Ronald Reagan and a crowd of 1 million spectators.
Hartsfield commanded Discovery's first mission in 1984 and the last successful mission of the Challenger in 1985, less than three months before the same spacecraft exploded after liftoff on January 28, 1986.
He booked more than 20 days in space during his shuttle career.
A native of Alabama, Hartsfield studied physics, astronautics and engineering and served as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, eventually becoming a test pilot and instructor before winning a coveted astronaut assignment in 1966.
He joined NASA in 1969, serving on the support crews for Apollo 16 and several Skylab and shuttle missions. After retiring from the Air Force, Hartsfield remained a civilian astronaut at the space agency, where he helped develop the shuttle entry flight control system.
After retiring from space flight, Hartsfield held NASA administrative posts in Washington, Houston and Huntsville, Alabama. -- MCT