Biography of Ken Mattingly, Apollo and Shuttle Astronaut

Ken Mattingly II and Thomas Hartsfield in training.
Kenneth Mattingly II (left) and Thomas Hartsfield (right) training for their flight aboard the space shuttle Columbia. NASA

NASA Astronaut Thomas Kenneth Mattingly II was born in Illinois on March 17, 1936, and raised in Florida. He attended Auburn University, where he earned a degree in aeronautical engineering. Mattingly joined the United States Navy in 1958 and earned his aviator wings flying from aircraft carriers until 1963. He attended Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School and was selected as an astronaut in 1966.

Mattingly Goes to the Moon

Mattingly's first flight to space was aboard the Apollo 16 mission, on April 16, 1972, of which he served as commander. But this wasn't supposed to be his first Apollo mission. Mattingly was originally been scheduled to fly aboard the ill-fated Apollo 13 but was swapped out at the last minute with Jack Swigert after being exposed to measles. Later, when the mission was aborted due to an explosion in a fuel tank, Mattingly was one of the ground crew who worked around the clock to devise a fix that would save the Apollo 13 astronauts and bring them back safely to Earth.

Mattingly's lunar trip was the next-to-last crewed moon mission, and during that time, his crewmates John Young and Charles Duke landed in the lunar highlands for a geology expedition to extend our knowledge of the surface. One unexpected part of the mission became a legend among the astronauts. On the way to the Moon, Mattingly lost his wedding ring somewhere in the spacecraft. In the weightless environment, it simply floated away after he took it off. He spent most of the mission desperately searching for it, even during the hours that Duke and Young were on the surface. All to no avail, until, during a spacewalk on the way home, Mattingly caught sight of the ring floating out to space through the open capsule door. Eventually, it smacked into Charlie Duke's head (who was busy working on the experiment and didn't know it was there). Fortunately, it took a lucky bounce and rebounded back to the spacecraft, where Mattingly was able to catch it and safely return it to his finger. The mission lasted from April 16-27 and resulted in new mapping data of the Moon as well as information from 26 different experiments conducted, in addition to the ring rescue.

Career Highlights at NASA

Prior to his Apollo missions, Mattingly was part of the support crew for the Apollo 8 mission, which was a precursor to the Moon landings. He also trained as backup command pilot for Apollo 11 landing mission before being assigned to Apollo 13. When the explosion occurred on the spacecraft on its way to the Moon, Mattingly worked with all the teams to come up with solutions for the problems faced by the astronauts onboard. He and others drew on their experiences in simulators, where the training crews were confronted with different disaster scenarios. They improvised solutions based on that training to come up with a way to save the crew and develop a carbon dioxide filter to clear their atmosphere during the trip back home. (Many people know of this mission thanks to the movie of the same name.)

Once Apollo 13 was safely home, Mattingly stepped into a management role for the upcoming space shuttle program and began training for his flight aboard Apollo 16. After the Apollo era, Mattingly flew aboard the fourth flight of the first space shuttle, Columbia. It was launched on June 27, 1982, and he was the commander for the trip. He was joined by Henry W. Hartsfield, Jr. as the pilot. The two men studied the effects of temperature extremes on their orbiter and operated a number of science experiments installed in the cabin and payload bay. The mission was successful, despite the need for a quick in-flight repair of a so-called "Getaway Special" experiment, and landed on July 4, 1982. The next and last mission Mattingly flew for NASA was aboard Discovery in 1985. It was the first "classified" mission flown for the Department of Defense, from which a secret payload was launched. For his Apollo work, Mattingly was awarded a NASA Distinguished Service Medal in 1972. During his career at the agency, he logged 504 hours in space, which includes 73 minutes of extravehicular activity.


Ken Mattingly retired from the agency in 1985 and from the Navy the following year, with the rank of rear admiral. He began working at Grumman on the company's space station support programs before becoming Chairman of Universal Space Network. He next took a job with General Dynamics working on Atlas rockets. Eventually, he left that company to work for Lockheed Martin with a focus on the X-33 program. His latest job has been with Systems Planning and Analysis, a defense contractor in Virgina and San Diego. He has received multiple awards for his work, which range from NASA medals to Department of Defense-related service medals. He is honored with an entry at New Mexico's International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo.

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Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "Biography of Ken Mattingly, Apollo and Shuttle Astronaut." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Petersen, Carolyn Collins. (2020, August 27). Biography of Ken Mattingly, Apollo and Shuttle Astronaut. Retrieved from Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "Biography of Ken Mattingly, Apollo and Shuttle Astronaut." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).