I believe that all of the people I have written about have led very interesting lives, but the person I am covering today, literally did things that were “out of this world.” Jim Buchli was “the first native North Dakotan to fly in space.”
He was a veteran of four space flights, orbited the earth 319 times, traveled 7.74 million miles and spent more than 20 days in space. Prior to becoming an astronaut for NASA in 1979, Buchli served as a naval marine pilot for a dozen years, flying 4,000 hours aboard the most sophisticated military jet aircrafts.
James Frederick Buchli was born June 20, 1945, in New Rockford, to Martin and Virginia (Williams) Buchli. Martin, who served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during the early years of World War II, was working for the Eddy County Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service in New Rockford at the time of James’ birth, and was later transferred to the federal office in Fargo.
James attended Fargo Central High School, where he wrestled, played football and was a member of the National Honor Society and the science club. He graduated in 1963 and was accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where he received a bachelor's of science degree in aeronautical engineering on June 7, 1967, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
After completing his Basic Infantry Officer’s Course on Sept. 7, 1968, Buchli was commissioned as a first lieutenant and sent to Vietnam for one year as a platoon commander for the 9th Marine Regiment. He was then transferred to the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion Quang Tri, Vietnam, to serve as commander of B Company where his company operated long-range small team patrols into enemy-held territories.
In 1969, Buchli returned to the U.S. to receive flight officer training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., and after earning his wings, he was stationed for two years at marine air stations in Hawaii and Japan.
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In 1973, Buchli was assigned to a marine fighter attack squadron and sent to Thailand and, after completing that assignment, participated in the Marine Advanced Degree Program at the University of West Florida, in Pensacola, receiving his master's of science degree in aeronautical engineering systems in 1975. Buchli was then assigned to a fighter attack squadron in Beaufort, S.C., before attending the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Md., in 1977.
While serving as a naval test pilot, Buchli submitted his application to become a NASA astronaut, having met all the basic requirements. He was a U.S. citizen, held a master’s degree in an engineering-related field, had flown over 1,000 hours in a jet aircraft and was in excellent physical condition. However, becoming an astronaut was still a long shot because for the 35 slots that were open, there were 8,000 applicants.
In August 1979, after two extensive interviews, Buchli was selected to become an astronaut in NASA’s first space shuttle class. During the next two years, Buchli was trained to perform tasks in a zero-gravity environment and “learn basic astronaut skills like spacewalking, operate the space station, fly T-38 jet planes, and control a robotic arm.”
In 1981, Buchli got in on the ground floor of the space shuttle program (STS), working as a member of the support crew for STS-1 and STS-2. After supporting other space flights, Buchli was notified that he was selected to be one of the five crew members aboard the Challenger spacecraft, scheduled for liftoff on Jan. 23, 1985. This flight (STS-51-C) would be the first mission for the Department of Defense (DOD) and much of what was to take place would be highly classified.
There was concern about the flight because it would be launched in the middle of winter, when very cold temperatures could affect how the spacecraft components would perform. Days before liftoff, it was discovered that they could not use the Challenger spacecraft because of flaws in the thermal protection tiles, and the Discovery spacecraft was substituted. Later, the scheduled flight on Jan. 23 was pushed back a day “because of freezing weather.”
On Jan. 24, Discovery lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with Buchli and his four other crew companions aboard. Buchli “sat in front of the spaceship between flight commander Ken Mattingly and pilot Loren Shriver,” and described liftoff as a feeling “absolutely like nothing you have experienced in your life.” Because it was a DOD mission, everything about it was sensitive, and NASA did not provide pre-launch commentary to the public until nine minutes before liftoff. “The Air Force only stated that the shuttle successfully launched its payload.”
After three days, one hour and 33 minutes in orbit, Discovery landed on Jan. 27. One finding after the mission was completed was that, because of the cold temperature at liftoff, the “O-rings were not sufficiently sealing the hot gases inside the combustion chambers.” Unfortunately, this flaw was never properly corrected.
Buchli’s next flight, STS-61A, was scheduled for the Challenger on Oct. 30, 1985 and was to be a joint venture with West Germany. It would contain the largest crew, eight people, and would be “the first in which payload activities were controlled from outside the U.S.”
The crew consisted of five Americans and three Germans, and West Germany monitored and controlled the payload operations. The launch also carried a Spacelab. The mission lasted 168 hours, 44 minutes and 51 seconds, and was a huge success, as the crew members carried out 75 scientific experiments.
Tragically, it would be the last successful mission of the Challenger. Two months later, on Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight, largely because of a malfunction of the O-rings in cold weather, and all seven crew members were killed. The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the space shuttle program.
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After that hiatus, when space flights resumed, Buchli was a crew member on two more shuttle missions. From March 13-18, 1989, he took part in the “highly successful” STS-29 mission, aboard Discovery, which deployed a tracking and data relay satellite into earth’s orbit.
From Sept. 12-18, 1991, Buchli was a crew member of STS-48 which deployed the “Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite designed to provide scientists with their first complete data set on the upper atmosphere’s chemistry, winds, and energy inputs.” On both missions, Buchli carried the University of North Dakota Aerospace banner, and he and the other crew members conducted numerous tests.
From March 1989 until 1992, Buchli served as deputy chief of the Astronaut Office, where he assisted the NASA administrator on astronaut training and operations. On Sept. 1, 1992, Buchli retired from the Marine Corps, as well as his position with the Astronaut Office and, for the next 25 years, managed or directed various divisions within the Boeing Defense Space Group in Huntsville, Ala., and Houston, Texas.
Buchli also returned to North Dakota on many occasions to talk with University of North Dakota faculty and students of the space studies program.
On April 6, 2019, Buchli was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.