Mobile native Clifton C. Williams, known to friends as “C.C.,” was selected as an astronaut by NASA in 1963, making him the first Alabamian scheduled to go into outer space.
After attending Murphy High School, Williams enrolled at Spring Hill College where he majored in pre-med. He changed courses, however, and graduated from Auburn University with a degree in mechanical engineering. After joining the Marines, he graduated in 1961 from the Navy Test Pilot School.
The Great “Space Race”
The year 1961 also marked the start of the great Space Race, which began with the Soviets successfully sending the first cosmonaut into space. The West had been surprised when Russia launched the first satellite into space in 1957, but the United States had no idea the Eastern European country would soon have the technology to send a human there.
In response, President John F. Kennedy boldly announced that the U.S. would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, thereby starting the race. In 1962, NASA began accepting applications for a group of astronauts to participate in flying missions. Applicant requirements included a height of six feet or less, an engineering degree, experience as a test pilot and a recommendation from a commanding officer. Williams met them all.
The Lone “Bachelor Astronaut”
In May 1963, NASA announced plans for no less than four manned Earth orbit missions to be launched by Saturn 1 rockets. In October, Williams was selected to be in a group of 14 astronauts. At the time, he was the only unmarried one in the group, and the newspapers enjoyed referring to him as the “bachelor astronaut.”
A little over a year later, he lost that title when he married Beth Lansche in North Carolina. The first of two daughters arrived in January 1967.
At some point that year, Williams’ father, still in Mobile, was diagnosed with cancer. On October 5, he decided to stop in Mobile, en route from Cape Canaveral to Houston, to see his dad. As his T-38 Talon approached Tallahassee, a mechanical failure caused the aircraft to roll uncontrollably. Williams’ seat ejected, but because of the tremendous speed of the jet and relatively low altitude, it was too late.
Williams was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Sadly, he did not live to see the birth of his second daughter born the following May.
To the Moon
Williams’ position as an astronaut was taken by his previous commander, Alan Bean, who would ultimately be the fourth man to walk on the moon. In tribute to the Mobile native, Bean placed Williams’ aviator pin on the moon’s surface.
Williams was not the only casualty among the group of astronauts, however. Three more would die in T-38 crashes, and a fourth died during the testing of the Apollo I spacecraft when the cabin caught fire.
While north Alabama is known for space programs, Mobile can still boast having one of the first astronauts chosen to help win the Space Race. And, in 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface, he made Kennedy’s prediction come true.