Adventures in Flight – Ron Franco ’87

 Ron Franco in the cockpit

August 23, 2017

“I was born in 1964, and grew up during the Apollo moon landing days. It was a very exciting time for the nation’s space program. The early astronauts were often on Life Magazine and were household names. Many people, and especially young boys, were inspired by the program. I remember many of my friends started building model planes and launching model rockets, received space-themed toys for Christmas, and began dreaming of flying in space themselves one day.”—Ron Franco

Ron Franco ’87 has been flying for American Airlines since 1999 and is a retired Air Force pilot. In May 2016, he took a step toward realizing a long-standing dream of becoming an astronaut. He and three other crew members spent 30 days in HERA, NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog, a three-story habitat with an airlock that is located in the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Franco, who earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the College of Engineering and Computer Science, says it’s not that dissimilar from the chamber in which Matt Damon dwelled on Mars in the movie  The Martian.

Franco, who lives in Lockport, New York, when he’s not up in the air, spoke to Syracuse University Magazine contributing writer John Martin about his simulated space flight, his career, and his lifelong passion for flight.

Why do you like to be up in the air?
“Since my first ride in a Cessna at 12 years old, I’ve lived a lifetime of flight. The thrill of leaving the Earth for the first time as a boy still exists, in a small way, every time I fly.”

Why was HERA so important?
“As we begin reaching out farther into the solar system, it’s important to identify and solve as many challenges as possible prior to actual missions. While participating in HERA Mission X, we were involved in 27 national and international research programs. Most of the data that we collected will not be presented for some time, but we’re already beginning to learn from the HERA analog.”

What was it like to spend 30 days in a space simulation habitat?
“NASA is very good at simulation. From launch to splashdown, we often felt like we were on an actual mission to intercept an asteroid. We prepared and ate the same food as on the International Space Station, lived on a similar schedule, and responded to simulations of what could occur in-flight. We used high-definition Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles to simulate our EVAs (extra-vehicular activities), including asteroid exploration and spacecraft inspections. Just like the astronauts on-station, we had weekly personal, medical, and psychological private conferences via Mission Control communication. As we simulated getting farther from Earth, our comm delay with Mission Control increased until it took about 10 minutes to send a message. This added an enhanced level of reality, as it forced our crew to act autonomously to solve time-critical problems.”

A little tight in there?
“I remember when we were close to completing our mission, my wife, Deborah, asked, ‘So, are the walls starting to close in on you at all?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not… We are so busy that we don’t have much time to even think about that.’ I emailed astronaut Bob Crippen of the Skylab analog (a 56-day simulation in the 1970s) prior to our mission and he agreed: ‘Keep busy. That’s the secret to success.’

We were very fortunate as a crew—we melded together almost immediately, and recognized and utilized the unique skills that each team member brought to the mission. We used to joke that we would make for a lousy reality television show, because we were virtually devoid of any real interpersonal conflict for the entire mission. If a problem arose, we worked as a team to identify and correct it as rapidly as possible.”

So you had the “Right Stuff?”
“The early astronauts were mostly test pilots—individuals used to flying solo, making split-second decisions, and accustomed to dangerous situations. For future long-duration space flights, NASA is looking to combine those qualities with extensive scientific backgrounds, plus the ability to work well as a team in a confined environment for missions that could last several years. For HERA, NASA tries to recruit people who are as much like the current astronaut group as possible. My time in the aerospace engineering department at Syracuse prepared me intellectually; and perhaps, the time I spent at Phi Delta Theta fraternity prepared me for the human interaction.”

What’s it like being a pilot?
“I love flying for American Airlines. I think that being paid to do something that you’ve had a lifelong passion for is the very definition of a great job. I’m also able to explore and learn about places I might not otherwise visit. My son Alex lives in Los Angeles, and I happened to have a layover there recently on his birthday, so my wife used her flying privileges and joined us for dinner. The United States and the world are beginning to see a pilot shortage. Now is a very good time for young people to begin a career in aviation.”

Tell us about your time in the Air Force.
“As an Air Force pilot, I trained in the supersonic, highly aerobatic T-38 Talon jet trainer. Closer to home, most of my career was spent flying the C-130 Hercules with the 328th Airlift Squadron out of Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station. The Hercules is a very versatile tactical battlefield transport, so we were often called upon to fly missions all over the world. During my Air Force career, I flew low-level and night-vision combat operations during Desert Storm and the Gulf War; humanitarian support in places like Bosnia and Somalia; and international cooperation missions in Egypt, Germany, and Japan. Ask any veteran—service to your nation is one of the most rewarding things you will ever do.”

What do you think about America’s next step in the space program, exploring deep space?
“NASA is very actively looking at a manned mission to Mars; using the space station and the moon to support this is also being seriously considered. While robots can and do collect great scientific data, our species yearns to explore space through the eyes and experiences of other humans. It fascinates and inspires us in a way that is unparalleled. I wholeheartedly support the direction that the space program is heading in today.”

Can NASA regain the spirit and drive of its early days and greatest successes?
“The environment at NASA across the nation is finally beginning to feel very exciting again. Private corporations like SpaceX and Blue Origin are making rapid advances in aerospace. At the same time, NASA is developing the massive Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft for long-duration flights to the moon and Mars.”

I would never trade growing up during the first moon landings, but I’m very excited for what the next generation will achieve on Mars and beyond.

Would you be willing to share with SU alumni readers a little known fact about yourself?
“Hmmm… Here’s one: Lots of pilots—including this one—have a bit of a fear of unsupported heights! Like looking off a tall building, or walking over a really high footbridge…. It’s not like being secure in a cockpit.”

—John Martin, Syracuse Magazine Contributor