Local hero Ted Freeman had the right stuff

May 20, 2022

It's one of the most tragic stories in the history of Sussex County.

If not for a terrible accident, the name Theodore “Ted” Freeman would be in the history books as one of the elite NASA astronauts who walked on the moon.

The Lewes High School and U.S. Naval Academy graduate was chosen among the first few astronauts in the Gemini and Apollo projects.

However, on Oct. 31, 1964, just a year after joining the program, he was killed in a plane crash while doing routine flying time at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, Texas. In a cruel twist of fate, his T-38 Talon was hit by a flock of geese, disabling both engines. In order to avoid crashing into military housing on the base – including homes of his fellow astronauts – he veered off and crashed the jet. His unselfish, heroic act cost him his life.

In the book “Afterglow: Ted Freeman's Legacy,” author Joanne Guilfoil recounted that horrific incident. “With only a few seconds to come up with a plan, Ted attempted to swing around to the nearby runway. He lowered his jet's landing gear and tried to hold his airspeed, but was losing altitude quickly. He attempted a dead-stick landing, but he knew he could not clear the houses, so he banked away. The jet arced, then fell into a nosedive. Ted pulled the ejection handles ... and he slammed straight into the ground.”

There was a major investigation into the crash, which resulted in several changes to the aircraft design.

Ted Freeman was the first NASA astronaut to lose his life. And what a life he had during his 34 years. He definitely had the right stuff.

An early love of flying

Ted was born in Haverford, Pa., in 1930 and moved with his family to Harbeson when he was 15 months old. Growing up in the Lewes area, Ted developed a passion for flight and obtained his pilot's license at the age of 16. He and his lifelong friend, Joe Hudson, who passed away April 25, were aerial spotters searching for schools of menhaden for the Lewes Fish Products Co. during the heyday of the fishing industry in Lewes. The two were inseparable as they grew up and became fasciated with anything dealing with flight.

They both worked as teenagers at the Rehoboth Airport, doing odd jobs and soaking up as much knowledge as they could.

Those who knew Ted growing up knew he was destined for greatness.

He graduated from Lewes High School in 1948 and was accepted at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he graduated in 1953. On graduation day, he also married Faith Clark Freeman, and the couple had a daughter, “Faithee,” born the following year.

Freeman graduated in 1953 from the University of Michigan with master's degrees in science and aeronautic engineering.

He entered the U.S. Air Force, was soon promoted to captain, and from 1961 to 1963 became one of its top test pilots, specializing in high-performance aircraft. Ted's skills – including more than 2,400 flying hours in jets – were noticed by NASA, and he was selected as one of the early group of astronauts and assigned to the Apollo team along with Gordon Cooper, Buzz Aldrin, Gene Cernan and Alan Bean, all famous names to those who know anything about the early NASA days. He was assigned to Edwards Air Force Base in California to begin training.

In later years, in a book honoring eight fallen NASA astronauts throughout the program’s history, Cernan wrote that there was no doubt Ted would have been among those on a mission to the moon.

All 29 astronauts attended Freeman’s funeral in Houston, which was the only time they all gathered in one place. It was important to all of them to honor their friend. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

In tribute to a local hero

In 1966, officials named Theodore C. Freeman Highway leading to the Cape-May Lewes Ferry terminal in Lewes in his honor. On June 23, 2014, friends, family members and officials gathered at the terminal to unveil a plaque and garden in his memory. The ceremony was attended by two of his nephews, Brook Freeman of Lewes and Bruce Freeman of Virginia, and his friend Joe Hudson.

Earlier that year on Feb. 18, a large crowd attended a special ceremony at the Delaware Coastal Airport near Georgetown as Delaware Technical Community College officials named their new aviation maintenance building in his memory. The hallway in the education center includes photographs and a large mural depicting his life, called “On the Wings of a Dream - The Theodore C. Freeman Legacy.”

On Oct. 8, 2021, during the annual Wings and Wheels Festival at the airport, a large crowd gathered once again to celebrate Freeman’s life inside the Delaware Tech Theodore C. Freeman Powerplant Education Building. Among the attendees were his daughter Faith Johnson and her son, Tyler.

Ted Freeman's heroic life story cannot be retold enough. He deserves a special place, in not only the history of the Lewes area, but as part of the history of man's greatest quest to reach the moon.


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