There is always rivalry within the U.S. special operations community, as we here at SOFREP have documented on multiple occasions (see here and here). While the debate rages as to which of the various commando units is the baddest of the badass, this author thinks that we can all agree that the Navy SEALs own space, as far as SpecOps goes.
“How dare you, Fru!” is what you might be thinking to yourself if you are a Ranger aficionado or a green beanie groupie. Well, “pipe down,” is what I say back to you. The SEAL dominance of the off-Earth battlespace is unrivaled within the SOF world. Deal with it.
Let us start by examining the first Navy SEAL astronaut, Captain (Retired) William M. “Bill” Shepherd, USN.
Captain (ret.) William M. Shepherd
Picture, if you will, a young Captain Shepherd, then a lowly butterbar ensign, going through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training—in Class 64—performing the ever-treacherous rock portage evolution at BUD/S. In rock portage, SEAL trainees paddle their rubber boats over large rocks on the shore of Coronado beach, while praying to God that they avoid having their heads dashed upon the partially submerged obstructions in the turbulent surf zone. “Shep,” as his fellow SEALs referred to him, found himself in the water, going head-first into one such obstruction. Stumbling out of the surf, blood gushing from a laceration on his forehead, the young ensign immediately tried to rush back into the water to go out again with his boat crew.
There, in one short BUD/S vignette, you find the true Shep.
Bill Shepherd graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1971, with a bachelor’s of science degree in aerospace engineering. He then entered BUD/S training and graduated in 1972. One SEAL who went through BUD/S with Shep remembered him as an absolute animal on the infamous BUD/S O-course, and commented that he was considered one of the best marksmen many of the BUD/S instructors had ever seen up to that point.
Shepherd went on to serve in Underwater Demolition Team ELEVEN (UDT-11), back when the UDT teams still existed, as well as SEAL Teams ONE and TWO, and Special Boat Unit TWENTY (SBU-20). He also spent three years as a special projects officer at a “Navy field unit,” where he worked on classified developmental projects in the early 1980s. Moving on.
Not satisfied with just one degree, in 1978, Shepherd also earned a masters of science degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (not too shabby), as well as an engineering degree in ocean engineering. In a 2005 letter recommending Shep for a place in the National Museum of Aviation Hall of Honor, then-Deputy Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, SEAL Admiral Eric T. Olson, called Shepherd a “most extraordinary SEAL operator, engineer, intelligence professional, and astronaut.” That is quite a list of descriptors.
Shepherd entered the astronaut ranks in 1984, and soon after, in 1986, helped direct the underwater search and salvage operations in the wake of the space shuttle Challenger tragedy. He went on to be a mission specialist on three separate space shuttle missions, in 1988, 1990, and 1992.
The former SEAL reached the pinnacle of his NASA career in 2000, when he served as the first commander of the International Space Station (ISS), serving onboard the ISS from October 2000 until March 2001, after serving as the program manager to get the ISS off the ground in the first place (pun intended).
Shepherd logged approximately 160 days in space, which, as far as this author is concerned, is 160 more than any man should spend hovering above the Earth’s surface. He was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 2003. Only 28 men and women in U.S. history have earned that award, putting Shepherd in the same rarefied air as Neil Armstrong, John Glen, Gus Grissom, and James Lovell, among others.
As if these were not enough accolades, Shep is the only American to have received the Russian government’s Gagarin Gold Medal, named after the Russian cosmonaut of the same name, for his achievement in human spaceflight. It probably helped that the man speaks fluent Russian, having lived in the country while training for his ISS mission, and was known to ply his cosmonaut buddies with booze at “Shep’s Bar,” in the lower level of his apartment in Russia. Whatever you have to do, right?
Finally, Shepherd was also awarded the Defense Superior Service Medal, and returned to the SEAL community in July 2001, serving at the Naval Special Warfare Command. He retired from active military service in January 2002.
Captain Christopher J. Cassidy
Now, as if one galactic frogman was not enough, a second Navy SEAL can also be found at times floating high above the Earth, struggling to poop in space: Captain Christopher J. “Chris” Cassidy, USN.
Cassidy also graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1993 with a bachelor’s of science degree in mathematics. Not to be outdone by Shep, Chris also earned a master’s degree in ocean engineering, also from MIT, in 2000.
Cassidy’s parents were skeptical when he chose the SEAL teams coming out of the Naval Academy, fearful of the risks involved, no doubt, but he points out that the training and preparation that go into being a Navy SEAL, just like being a NASA astronaut, help to overcome the risks involved. Cassidy compares being a NASA astronaut to a SEAL in a video interview, pointing out, “You can do anything you want, if you set your mind to it.” He says he learned that lesson after successfully making it through BUD/S.
Cassidy graduated with BUD/S Class 192, and served at SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team TWO (SDVT-2), SEAL Team THREE, and Special Boat Team TWENTY (SBT-20). During his time at SEAL Team THREE, Cassidy deployed to Afghanistan immediately following 9/11 alongside our very own Brandon Webb. Some of Cassidy’s exploits from those deployments are detailed in Brandon’s book “The Red Circle,” some of which—no-doubt—included managing a wild and wooly young frogman like Webb.
After roughly 10 years in the SEAL teams, none other than Bill Shepherd himself inspired Cassidy to become an astronaut, following a talk between the two men. The idea had been floating around in Chris’s head since his mid-20s, and after his inspiration from Shepherd, Cassidy applied and was finally accepted into the astronaut program in 2004.
Cassidy would go on to see a highly successful decade at NASA, amassing over 180 days in space, including six space walks, and a “long-duration” ISS mission, from March to September of 2013. He most recently took command of the NASA Astronaut Office in July 2015. His duties include managing resources, operations, and safety programs, as well as making astronaut personnel assignments for future spaceflight operations.
Cassidy is currently a captain in the U.S. Navy, and has been awarded two Bronze Stars, one with “V,” a Presidential Unit Citation, as well as a Combat Action Ribbon, all for his service in Afghanistan post-9/11. He has also earned the NASA Exceptional Achievement Award.
As evidenced by the above hagiographies of the nation’s two SEAL astronauts—or “frognauts,” as I have deemed them (trademarked)—Navy commandos have clearly dominated the SOF space race. It is time for you Green Berets, Raiders, PJs, Rangers, and the rest, to get your act together and get into orbit. It’s sure to be a blast (wink).
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