Paul Weitz, a retired NASA astronaut who commanded the first flight of the space shuttle Challenger and also piloted the Skylab in the early 1970s, has died at the age of 85.
Weitz was among the class of 19 astronauts who were chosen in April 1966. He served as command module pilot on the first crew of the orbiting space laboratory known as Skylab during a 28-day mission in 1973.
Weitz also commanded the first launch of the shuttle Challenger in April 1983. The Challenger was destroyed and seven crew members killed during its 10th launch on 28 January, 1986.
In all, he logged 793 hours in space and retired as deputy director of the Johnson Space Center in May 1994.
Weitz was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, on 25 July, 1932, and graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1954. He then joined the Navy, serving on a destroyer before being chosen for flight training and earning his wings as a Naval Aviator in September 1956. He served in various naval squadrons, including service in Vietnam, before joining the Astronaut Corps.
According to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, Weitz returned to the Navy after his mission on Skylab and retired as a captain in July 1976 after serving 22 years. He then came out of retirement to re-join NASA.
“Paul Weitz’s name will always be synonymous with the space shuttle Challenger. But he also will be remembered for defying the laws of gravity – and age,” said Curtis Brown, board chairman of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and an astronaut and veteran of six space flights. “Before it became commonplace to come out of retirement, Paul was a pioneer. He proved 51 was just a number.”