Robert J. Cenker

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Robert J. Cenker
Robert Cenker.jpg
RCA Astro-Electronics Payload Specialist
Nationality American
Status Retired
Born Robert Joseph Cenker
November 5, 1948 (age 67)
Uniontown, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Other occupation
Penn State, B.S. 1970, M.S. 1973
Rutgers, M.S. 1977
Time in space
6d 02h 03m
Missions STS-61-C
Mission insignia
Retirement January 18, 1986

Robert Joseph "Bob" Cenker (born November 5, 1948) is an American aerospace and electrical engineer, and aerospace systems consultant. In January 1986 Cenker was a crew member on the twenty-fourth mission of NASA's Space Shuttle program, the seventh flight of Space Shuttle Columbia, designated as mission STS-61-C. Cenker served as Payload Specialist[a] representing RCA Astro-Electronics.[1][2][3][4][5]

This mission was the final Shuttle launch prior to the in-flight loss of Challenger which resulted in the death of all seven astronauts, the first in-flight deaths in the American space program.[6] This caused the suspension of the Space Shuttle program until 1988,[7] and the suspension of the Payload Specialist program until 1990.[8] Consequently, Cenker's mission has been called "The End of Innocence" for the Shuttle Program.[9]

Following the completion of his Shuttle mission, Cenker returned to work in the commercial aerospace field, and makes public appearances representing NASA and the Shuttle astronaut program.[10]

Early life and education[edit]

Cenker was born on November 5, 1948, and was raised near Uniontown, Pennsylvania.[11][12] He attended St. Fidelis College and Seminary in Herman, Pennsylvania, leaving in 1962,[13] and then attended Uniontown Joint Senior High School, graduating in 1966.[14]

Cenker matriculated at Penn State University where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree and a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering.[10][11] Cenker also earned a Master of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Rutgers University.[10][11]

Pre-spaceflight career[edit]

During his 18 years at RCA and its successor company, GE Astro Space, Cenker worked on both hardware design and systems design concerning satellite attitude control and in-orbit operations, and spacecraft assembly, test, and pre-launch operations. He worked for two years on the Navy navigation satellite program, but spent most of his career working on various commercial communications satellite efforts.[11]

Cenker's positions included Integration and Test Manager for the Satcom D and E spacecraft, where he was responsible for implementation of all launch site activities. He also served as Spacecraft Bus Manager on the Spacenet/GStar programs, responsible for ensuring that the spacecraft bus design met the design requirements for multiple launch vehicle interfaces including Delta, Space Shuttle and Ariane.[11]

Spaceflight experience[edit]

STS-61-C crew

As an incentive for a spacecraft owner to contract with NASA to use a Shuttle launch instead of an unmanned, commercial launch system, NASA permitted contracting companies to apply for a Payload Specialist seat on the same mission. When RCA contracted with NASA to launch Satcom Ku-1, RCA Astro-Electronics' manager of systems engineering for the Satcom-K program,[15] Bob Cenker, and his co-worker Gerard Magilton were selected to train as Payload Specialists.[16]

Cenker and Magilton trained with career astronauts as well as other Payload and Mission Specialists, including those scheduled for the next scheduled flight, that of the ill-fated Challenger mission, STS-51-L.[16][17]

This flight of Columbia was originally scheduled to occur in August 1985, but the timeline slipped. In July of 1986 the payload was finalized to include the RCA satellite, and Cenker was assigned to the mission, now designated as STS-61-C. Magilton was assigned as the back-up.[15]

STS-61-C launch

Prior to its successful launch, Columbia had several aborted launch attempts, including one on January 6 which was "one of the most hazardous in the shuttle’s operational history" to that point, as well as a near catastrophic abort three days later. Referring to the January 9 abort, pilot Charlie Bolden later stated it “...would have been catastrophic, because the engine would have exploded had we launched.” [9]

Columbia finally launched and achieved orbit on January 12, 1986, with a full complement of seven crew members. Along with Cenker, the crew consisted of Robert L. "Hoot" Gibson, Charles F. Bolden, George D. Nelson, Steven A. Hawley, Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, and US Representative Bill Nelson.[2][18][19]

RCA SATCOM Ku-1 deployment

During the six-day mission, January 12–18, Cenker performed a variety of physiological tests, operated a primary experiment - an infrared imaging camera - and assisted with the deployment of RCA Americom's Satcom Ku-1 satellite.[2][3][20] The deployment of Satcom K-1 was the mission's primary objective; it occurred a little under 10 hours into the mission and Satcom later reached its geostationary “slot” at 85 degrees West longitude where it remained operational until April 1997.[b] Aboard Columbia, Cenker traveled over 2.1 million miles in 96 orbits and logged over 146 hours in space.[3][12]

In a 2014 video of the "Tell Me a Story" series titled "Close My Eyes & Drift Away" posted to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex YouTube channel, Cenker tells a humorous story regarding a zero-g sleeping problem that he faced on his mission.[21]

The next Shuttle launch, ten days after the return of Columbia, resulted in the destruction of Challenger with the loss of all aboard, including Cenker's counterpart from Hughes Aircraft, civilian crew member and Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis.[6] Accordingly, commander Gibson later called the STS-61-C mission "The End of Innocence" for the Shuttle Program.[15][9]

Due to the newly perceived danger of the Shuttle flights, civilian Payload Specialists were excluded from flying Shuttle missions until the Payload Specialist program was reinstated beginning with mission STS-35 on December 2, 1990.[8] By that time, RCA had been purchased by General Electric, and RCA Astro-Electronics became part of GE.[22] Following two additional ownership transitions, the facility was closed in 1998. As as a result, Cenker was the only RCA Astro-Electronics employee, and only employee in the history of the facility under all of its subsequent names, to ever fly in space.[22]

NASA's Payload Specialist program has been criticized for giving limited Shuttle flight positions to civilian aerospace engineers such as Cenker and Greg Jarvis (killed aboard Challenger), politicians such as Bill Nelson, and others civilians such as Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe (also killed aboard Challenger). Even the flight of former Mercury astronaut and US Senator John Glenn was questioned.[23] The concern was that these people had replaced career astronauts in very limited flight opportunities, and some may have flown without fully understanding the level of danger involved in a Shuttle mission.[a][c]


RCA Astro newsletter congratulating Cenker

Following the completion of his shuttle mission, Cenker returned to work in the civilian aerospace field. Cenker's last two years with RCA Astro-Electronics and it's successor, GE Astro Space, were spent as Manager of Payload Accommodations on an EOS spacecraft program. After leaving GE, Cenker served as a consultant for various aerospace companies regarding micro-gravity research, and spacecraft design, assembly and flight operations. Cenker supported systems engineering and systems architecture studies for various spacecraft projects, including smallsats, military communications satellites, and large, assembled-in-orbit platforms. His contributions included launch vehicle evaluation and systems engineering support for Motorola on Iridium, and launch readiness for the Globalstar constellation. Other efforts include systems engineering and operations support for INTELSAT on Intelsat K and Intelsat VIII, for AT&T on Telstar 401 and 402, for Fairchild-Matra on SPAS III, for Martin Marietta on Astra 1B, BS-3N, ACTS, and the Lockheed Martin Series 7000 communications satellites.[11]

Cenker continues to make periodic public appearances representing NASA and the shuttle astronaut program,[25][26][27][28] including one at the Kennedy Space Center in March 2017.[10]

In 2017, Cenker's STS-61C crewmate, former US Senator Bill Nelson spoke at a session of the US House of Representatives. In an address titled "Mission to Mars and Space Shuttle Flight 30th Anniversary" he read into the Congressional Record the details of the mission of STS-61C as well as the names and function of each crew member, including Cenker.[29]:page S45

Personal life[edit]

Bob Cenker is married to Barbara Ann Cenker and they have two sons and a daughter.[11]

Professional societies[edit]

Additional Photos
Gag crew photo 
STS-61-C insignia 
RCA magazine cover, welcoming Cenker back 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b There was another Space Shuttle astronaut category sometimes confused with that of Payload Specialist: While Payload Specialists were non-NASA personnel selected for a single specific mission, Mission Specialists were selected as astronauts first, and then subsequently assigned to flights as mission needs dictated.
  2. ^ Due to the Challenger accident on the next mission, Satcom Ku-1 was the last major commercial satellite to be launched by a space shuttle.
  3. ^ A 1986 post-Challenger article in The Washington Post reviewed the issue, reporting that as far back as 1982, NASA was concerned with finding reasonable justifications for flying civilians on the Shuttle as was directed by the Reagan administration. The Post article says that "A review of records and interviews with past and present NASA and government officials shows the civilian program's controversial background, with different groups pushing for different approaches." The article continues: "Author Tom Wolfe, who chronicled the early days of the space program in The Right Stuff, wrote after the Challenger explosion that support for the citizen program, and therefore McAuliffe's place aboard the ill-fated shuttle, was part of an insiders' battle. NASA civilians, pitting themselves against the professional astronauts, used the program for the 'dismantling of Astropower,' which Wolfe described as 'the political grip the original breed of fighter-pilot test-pilot astronauts had on NASA.' "[24]


  1. ^ "Mission Archives: STS-61-C". NASA. Retrieved 3 March 2017. 
  2. ^ a b c "STS-61C Press Kit: DECEMBER 1985" (PDF). NASA. Retrieved 13 February 2017. 
  3. ^ a b c "61-C (24)". NASA. Retrieved 20 February 2017. 
  4. ^ "ROBERT J. CENKER: AEROSPACE SYSTEMS CONSULTANT". NASA. Retrieved 25 February 2017. 
  5. ^ Hitt, David; Smith, Heather R. "Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986". Univ of Nebraska Press. Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  6. ^ a b "NASA - STS-51L Mission Profile". NASA. Retrieved 20 February 2017. 
  7. ^ "Mission Archives: STS-26". NASA. Retrieved 19 February 2017. 
  8. ^ a b "STS-35 (38)". NASA. Retrieved 20 February 2017. 
  9. ^ a b c Evans, Ben. "Mission 61C: The Original 'Mission Impossible' (Part 2)". Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  10. ^ a b c d "Meet Astronaut Bob Cenker". NASA. Retrieved 20 May 2017. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "Biographical Data: ROBERT J. CENKER". NASA. Retrieved 13 February 2017. 
  12. ^ a b "Biographies of U.S. Astronauts: Cenker, Robert Joseph, Jr.". Retrieved 13 February 2017. 
  13. ^ Saint Fidelis Alumni Directory, 4th ed. Saint Fidelis. April 1980. p. 49. 
  14. ^ "ROBERT CENKER: CLASS OF 1966". Retrieved 20 May 2017. 
  15. ^ a b c Evans, Ben. "Mission 61C: The Original 'Mission Impossible' (Part 1)". Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  16. ^ a b "Training Photo: S85-44834 (20 Nov. 1985)". NASA. Retrieved 20 May 2017. 
  17. ^ Burgess, Colin. "Teacher In Space". Univ of Nebraska Press. Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  18. ^ Evans, Ben. "The Real Mission Impossible: 30 Years Since Mission 61C (Part 1)". AmericaSpace. Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  19. ^ Evans, Ben. "The Real Mission Impossible: 30 Years Since Mission 61C (Part 2)". Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  20. ^ "SATCOM KU-1". Retrieved 13 February 2017. 
  21. ^ "Tell Me a Story: Close My Eyes & Drift Away". Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. NASA. 
  22. ^ a b "Encyclopedia Astronautica: East Windsor". Retrieved 3 March 2017. 
  23. ^ Oberg, James. "NASA hypes "Glenn Mission" Science". Retrieved 4 March 2017. 
  24. ^ Pincus, Walter. "NASA's Push to Put Citizen in Space Overtook Fully 'Operational' Shuttle". The Washington Post. Retrieved 4 March 2017. 
  25. ^ Lennox, Joe. "Vision for Space". iUniverse. Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  26. ^ Gillett, Rachel. "East Windsor Retired Astronaut Visits Peddie School". Retrieved 20 May 2017. 
  27. ^ "Astronaut Visits Flemington Woman's Club". Retrieved 20 May 2017. 
  28. ^ "Retired NASA Astronaut to Speak on OCC Campus". Retrieved 28 February 2017. 
  29. ^ "US Congressional Record: 1/12/2016" (PDF). US Congress. Retrieved 3 March 2017 – via Wikimedia. 

External links[edit]