January 28, 2021

Stars in space

The Atlantis space shuttle flight STS-27R lifted off Dec. 2, 1988 with a crew of five astronauts: Commander Robert “Hoot” Gibson; pilot Guy Gardner; mission specialists Robert Mullane, Jerry Ross, and William Shepherd. Atlantis carried a classified military satellite aloft, and also carried stars to space.

STS-27R crew

Stars to space? Isn’t that a bit odd?


Yes, but unlike stars we see in the night sky. These stars were the five-star insignia was worn by Gen. George C. Marshall as General of the Army.

Gen. George Marshall’s five-star insignia

In late 1985, Lou Stuart of the George C. Marshall Foundation sent two sets of the five-star insignia to VMI graduate Maj. J. Brett Watterson, who was scheduled to be the payload specialist on a shuttle flight in March 1986. His mission was canceled after the Challenger tragedy in January 1986. Marshall’s stars had to wait two more years before they got their ride aboard Atlantis.

The STS-27R crew carried the insignia on a four-day flight which ended safely at Edwards Air Force Base, CA, on Dec. 6, 1988.

Landing in California.

Upon landing, it was discovered how severely damaged the Atlantis had been at launch, with heat shield tiles destroyed and even missing. NASA officials were frankly amazed that the shuttle had returned safely with the damage done to its underside.

The shuttle crew looks at the damaged tiles of the Atlantis.

After their trip to orbit, pilot Guy Gardner, who was born in Altavista, (Campbell County) VA, presented one set of the space-flown stars to Foundation staff on April 12, 1989.

Col. Guy Gardner speaking with Brig. Gen. Wallace C. Arnold when he returned the stars.

The stars, along with photos, a mission patch, and documentation of the flight are framed at the George C. Marshall Foundation in Lexington, VA.

The other set is on permanent loan to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.

Photos from the George C. Marshall Foundation. Photo of the shuttle tile damage from NASA.

Thanks to Mike Mullane and Jerry Ross for their efforts in answering my questions for this blog.


Melissa has been at GCMF since Fall 2019, and previously was an academic librarian specializing in history. She and her husband, John, have three grown children, and live in Rockbridge County with three large rescue dogs. Keep up with her @life_melissas.