He was famous, but Donald E. Williams was mostly a modest, down-to-earth Navy pilot, except when he was orbiting the planet in a space shuttle.
The former astronaut who was the command pilot for the 1989 space shuttle Atlantis mission that deployed spacecraft Galileo to explore Jupiter, will be remembered by family, friends and invited guests at a service March 26 in Sun City Anthem.
He died Feb. 23 in Henderson after a lengthy illness, his wife of four years, Ann Small-Williams, said. He was 74.
“I never knew a man who had more friends,” Small-Williams said Friday.
Although suffering from dementia in the last months of his life, Williams recalled details of his days aboard space shuttles Atlantis and Discovery, where he logged a combined 287 hours, 35 minutes in space, said Small-Williams.
“The last thing he talked about was a conversation about sending an astronaut to Mars. He said, ‘I’ll go. I’d love to go,’” she said.
“He thoroughly loved flying,” Small-Williams said. “He’s one of our country’s heroes. … This man did four tours in Vietnam.”
Donald Edward Williams was born Feb. 13, 1942, in Lafayette, Ind. He graduated from high school in Otterbein, Ind., then attended Purdue University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1964.
Commissioned in the Navy through Purdue’s ROTC program, he went on to fly 330 combat missions during the Vietnam War in A-4 and A-7 aircraft on four deployments aboard the USS Enterprise.
After a stint at the Navy’s test pilot school in Maryland, he was selected for service with NASA and became an astronaut in 1979.
He was a pilot on Discovery in April 1985 when it launched from and returned to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Among the crew’s accomplishments during 109 orbits were satellite deployments, medical experiments and filming experiments with toys in space.
Nine months later, the Challenger disaster occurred on Jan. 28, 1986. The space shuttle broke apart just more than a minute into flight, killing all seven crew members.
“When you see your friends go down, that’s not an easy thing,” Small-Williams said.
He was commander of the Atlantis shuttle mission that sent the Galileo probe on its way to Jupiter in 1989. Atlantis, or Space Transport System-34 as it was officially known, launched from Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 18, 1989, and landed five days later at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Williams retired from the Navy as a captain in 1990 and left NASA for a job with contractor SAIC in Mississippi. He retired in 2007 and moved to Henderson where he served on the board Sun City Anthem’s Veterans Club and became its vice president emeritus.
Besides Small-Williams, survivors include his first wife, Linda Jo Williams; a son, Jonathan Williams of Hanover, Germany, and his family; and a daughter, Barbara Corso of Houston, and her family.
Contact Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2