Local author Joanne Guilfoil’s book, “Afterglow: The Ted Freeman Story” is now available in paperback from Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, Biblion in Lewes and Bethany Beach Books in Bethany Beach.
Many know Theodore Freeman was the first American astronaut to die in the line of duty, in October 1964, while on a routine training mission near Houston, Texas. However, there is much more to his story as a local hero and a pioneer pilot.
Visitors and locals traveling the road between the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal and Kings Highway see the sign marking the Theodore C. Freeman Highway in his honor. A historic marker describing his life greets travelers entering the Lewes ferry terminal. What they may not realize is the significance of its location so close to the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean.
Freeman and his best friend Joe Hudson were employed as fish spotters by Mayor Otis Smith in the late 1940s, when they attended high school in Lewes. They flew PA-18s (small single-engine aircraft) out of Rehoboth Airport, searching for fish called menhaden in the bay and ocean. From the air, schools of these fish appeared as shimmering, dark ovals moving along the shore. Joe or Ted wrote the location and direction of travel on paper, put that in a capped bottle, then dropped it near the fish boats below. There were no radios yet. The fish boat captains would find the fish, harvest them with nets, then take their haul to the processing plant on the bay near Lewes Beach to be processed and sold for fish oil, vitamin B-12 and fertilizer, but not for food. Joe and Ted flew full time for several summers and part time when Lewes School was in session. They also flew charter flights and took their boss Otis Smith to all his fisheries from New Jersey to the Carolinas.
While in high school, Joe and Ted also played sports. They played baseball and football, and were on the school’s first football team, which won only one game. Ted’s nephew Bruce Freeman said that in a 1947 football game against Rehoboth, Ted’s teeth were knocked out of alignment, creating a severe crossbite.
In 1948, Ted passed the United States Naval Academy academic exams, but failed the medical exams because of his teeth. Academy entrance officials said if he had them straightened, he would be accepted for 1949, since he already had his nomination from Sen. John J. Williams. So, Ted entered the University of Delaware and continued fish-spotting, which helped pay for an operation to correct his crossbite. It worked, and in June 1949, Ted was inducted in to the USNA Class of 1953.
Of the 1,300 plebes in his class starting in 1949, only 925 finished successfully in 1953. Of that group, Ted ranked 238th. Quite an accomplishment for a kid from Lewes. Early on, he decided he would spend his five years of service in the U.S. Air Force.
Upon graduation, Ted became Ensign Theodore C. Freeman. Later in the afternoon, Ted changed his clothes and was married to Faith D. Clark, his fiancée. After the ceremony, Ted announced his intention to accept a commission as an Air Force second lieutenant. He would begin flight training in Texas.
In 1960, Ted received a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan. He became a test pilot, aerospace research pilot and experimental flight test instructor. As an Air Force captain, he was in the third class of NASA astronauts and served key roles in the Gemini and Apollo programs. He was a formidable test pilot with thousands of hours’ flying time, especially in jet aircraft.
One Saturday morning, Oct. 31, 1964, Freeman was flying a routine training mission in his T-38. While on approach to the runway at Ellington Air Force Base near Houston, a large goose struck the plane’s Plexiglas canopy, and it shattered. Astronaut James Lovell led the accident investigation and reported that shards of Plexiglas entered both jet engines, causing them to fail. Losing power and altitude, Freeman attempted a dead-stick runway landing but could not clear the nearby military housing, so he banked the plane away. When he finally did eject, he was catapulted horizontally 600 feet from his T-38 and slammed into the ground, dying instantly.
All 28 astronauts including John Glenn attended Freeman’s burial with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, after a small memorial service in Houston. This was the last occasion all NASA astronauts were gathered at the same place, at the same time. They were there for their friend.
Described by his peers as an outstanding pilot, Freeman was highly regarded at NASA by those who determined future projects and flight crews. It seems virtually certain that he would have been selected to fly to and walk on the moon.
In 2010, the Delaware Aviation Hall of Fame inducted Ted Freeman as a member. In 2014, the Theodore C. Freeman Power Plant Education Building was dedicated as part of the Aviation Maintenance Technology Program at Delaware Technical Community College in Georgetown, near Delaware Coastal Airport.
On Nov. 5, 2014, 50 years after his death, Ted Freeman was honored at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. At the Space Mirror Memorial, state Sen. Thad Altman said, “It is important that we honor the brave men and women who gave their lives in pursuit of human space exploration so that we can preserve their legacies and carry on their dreams.”
The whole world watched 51 years ago as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon July 20, 1969. The world cheered at the announcement, “The Eagle has landed.” All three astronauts returned home safely that summer of ‘69. Then, celebrations and parades honored the brave men and women who made this historic journey possible.
We also remember test pilots like Ted Freeman. Without him and the eight others who perished in the line of duty, no one would have been able to say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”