Rocket Man: MHS Graduate Follows Remarkable Path to Four-Star GeneralNov 01, 2018
Photos courtesy of General William Shelton and Moore High School
As a young boy growing up in the 60’s, William Shelton was captivated by space travel. Among those formative memories are some early wake-up calls from his parents.
“My parents used to get me up for those early Mercury and Gemini space launches,” said Shelton. “I was hooked from that early age, and I knew that I wanted to do something in the aerospace industry.”
He began that pursuit by taking flying lessons with plans on becoming a pilot but found that his eyes weren’t good enough to follow that path. His fascination with space was so profound that he was already wondering what he could do to be somehow involved in the business of sending man and satellites beyond the reaches of earth’s gravitational pull. Around his 7th-grade year, he discovered the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“I don't know if I just saw pictures or what,” said Shelton, “But I decided that's where I want to go to school, and as it worked out, that’s where I was able to go.”
His first days at the Academy were eye-opening. It was the early 1970’s. The Vietnam War was in full swing, the world was awakened to terrorism by the 1972 Summer Olympics massacre in Munich, and at home, America was dealing with racism, Watergate, and the oil crisis. Shelton learned that many of his Academy classmates were dealing with some of these issues on a personal level. As he listened to their stories, he gained an understanding of the depth of these problems and his need to catch up in his understanding of those issues, it also gave him a deep appreciation for his life in Moore.
“I feel pretty blessed to have grown up where I did,” said Shelton. “I grew up in a very peaceful environment and a very loving, caring community. I just didn’t have any of that history that I was burdened with. I’m grateful that I didn’t have to go through all of that until I was mature enough to really take it in and think about it on a right level.”
Shelton decided to pursue a degree in astronautical engineering. He followed that Bachelor of Science degree with a Master’s in Astronautical Engineering at the United States Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. It was while he was in graduate school, rising in rank from Second Lieutenant to Captain, that he received a call that was so exciting he could hardly believe it.
“NASA called and asked, ‘How would you like to work on the space shuttle at the Johnson Space Center?’” said Shelton. “It was one of those moments when you can just hardly contain your glee. I managed to say something like, ‘Yeah, that would be nice.’ But really I was jumping around thinking what a great privilege this was.”
What followed for Shelton, now a Captain was a four-and-a-half-year assignment working in Mission Control during the first 18 U.S. space shuttle missions. Shelton said the chance to be involved in this formative space program is still one of his favorite memories.
“What you did during the day was national news during the evening,” said Shelton. “It was just one of those extraordinary times.”
Today most Americans look at the shuttle launches as somewhat routine. Shelton said it’s important to remember that what seems routine to the layman is an exceedingly difficult task, especially during the early years of the space shuttle program.
“You’re talking about a controlled explosion that we’re taking advantage of to boost a rocket into space,” said Shelton. “There are series of miracles that have to occur in the right order and in precision to get things to orbit. So, you know that every space launch can’t be taken for granted.”
That difficulty and dangers of space travel became clear to the American public during the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia shuttle tragedies. Shelton said those accidents highlight the truth that there will always be a danger associated with space travel, but NASA and the Air Force are rising to the challenge of making each mission as safe as possible.
“We have a great understanding of failure mechanisms and how to control those,” said Shelton, “And there’s a lot of redundancy built in, and there’s a lot of checking that goes on ahead of time. We build those craft and those boosters we take great care to make sure that we’re getting the best parts that we can possibly get and taking all of the precautions. But still, on the day of launch when those engines light you know that rocket’s going somewhere, and you just hope it goes to the place where it’s supposed to go.”
Following his assignment with NASA at the Johnson Space Center Shelton served at a series of Air Force posts that were each rewarding in their own unique way. One of his favorite assignments during this period was running the Global Positioning System (GPS) squadron in Colorado from 1990 to 1992. Shelton and his team had a hand in building the system that has become an everyday part of life.
“it’s a utility everybody takes for granted now,” said Shelton. “In those days had any idea how fast this was going to take off and the implications and impact it would have on life around the world. It’s just embedded in daily life for everybody these days.”
His next memorable stop was at Vandenberg Air Force Base from 2005 to 2008, where he was in charge of all Department of Defense space operations. Shelton said even though he was an Air Force officer, he wore what’s called a “joint hat” and was in command of Army, Navy, and Air Force space operations.
It was during the stretch between running the GPS squadron and Vandenberg that Shelton attained his first general’s star as a Brigadier General. The ceremony awarding him his first star was held in 2001, which turned out to be a bittersweet moment.
“My dad passed away in 2000,” said Shelton. “He lived long enough to know that I was selected for brigadier general but he passed a month before I pinned on my first star, so that was a bittersweet ceremony, to say the least.”
After serving at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. from 2008 to 2011, Shelton moved to his final Air Force assignment as Commander of the Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) supports U.S. military operations around the world through the use of many different types of satellite, launch, and cyber operations. Shelton said it is a complex and critical part of the modern military.
“On the space side you’re talking about missile warning radar around the world,” said Shelton. “You’re talking about space tracking radar around the world, satellite operations and controlling DoD satellites in space, and launching satellites into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the west coast and Cape Canaveral on the east coast.”
On the cyber side of the command, it involves organized training and providing equipment for cyber forces for defending AF networks and also providing offensive capability that is under the auspices of the US Cyber Command. Shelton said the advances the United States has made in space capability over the last 30 years have led to a fundamental shift in thinking about space for the Air Force as well as the entire U.S. military.
“Potential adversaries have been watching what we’ve been doing,” said Shelton. “We’re to the point now where we’re highly dependent on space capabilities to do almost any military operation you can think of. But now you’ve got Russia and China watching what we’ve been doing in the Middle East over the past 20 years of our operations there, and they’ve started to develop counter-space capabilities to take out our space advantage. So, we’ve gone from a peaceful, laissez-faire environment where everybody did their own thing in space without challenge to a time today where space is becoming increasingly contested.”
It was during that three-year period between his Pentagon assignment and the move to Air Force Space Command when Shelton was awarded his next three stars as he rose in rank to Major General (two stars) to Lieutenant General (three stars) to General (four stars). Shelton, who is a genuinely humble and down-to-earth guy, acknowledges that it takes a personal willingness to work hard and take advantage of every opportunity to achieve a four-star ranking in the Air Force. But he also says timing and good fortune also play a significant role.
“You get promoted by a promotion board up through the rank of a two-star general (major general),” said Shelton. “When it comes to the three-star (Lieutenant General), and four-star (General) ranks you are Senate-confirmed for each of those positions individually.”
In the end, it seems that reaching the rank of four-star general is a lot like launching a rocket into space, a series of perfectly-timed events have to happen in sequence for it to happen.
“A position that you’re qualified for has to come open,” said Shelton. “The leadership of the Air Force has to agree that you’re the right person for that position. Then the Senate has to confirm you for every job at the three and four-star level. So, a lot of it is about timing and being the right person for the job that comes open.”
Shelton retired from the Air Force in 2014. He and his wife Linda, who was his high school sweetheart in Moore, moved to a home near Colorado Springs. He understands the accolades that come with his military career and postings, but he wants everyone to know that his wife is the real hero of the family.
“She has been the glue that holds our family together,” said Shelton. “She’s a devoted and kind Christian woman who was an outstanding mother and is now an outstanding Nana to our two grandsons.”
Shelton said he was hanging out with a group of his friends when spotted Linda coming home from band practice in her 1965 GTO.
“I motioned for pull over and the rest is history,” said Shelton. “She stayed with me through 4 years away at the Air Force Academy, and we got married a little over two weeks after I graduated in '76.”
In addition to being the strong core of the Shelton family Linda is also a two-time survivor of ovarian cancer, overcoming surgery and chemo in 2011 and another round of chemotherapy in 2014. She has been cancer-free since October 14th.
“I don't think military spouses get the credit they deserve,” said Shelton, “For putting their careers second, for packing up and moving every couple of years, and for enduring long work days, deployments and other related absences by their spouse.”
These days his time is spent running a consulting business, serving on four boards, two of which are non-profits, and visiting his family. Shelton and Linda have a daughter who is a family practice doctor, living in New Jersey with her husband and two children, and a son who works for the federal government and lives with his wife in Washington, D.C. Shelton’s mother, brother, and sister all still live in South Oklahoma City. He’s planning on being back in Oklahoma in November for his mother’s 90th birthday celebration. During that trip, he will also be honored at the Moore Veteran’s Day ceremony at Veteran’s Memorial Park. General Shelton said he’s grateful for the opportunity to grow up in Moore and still has great memories of his time there. He also admits to feeling great pride about his hometown as he has watched the people of Moore grow stronger in the face of repeated tragedies and challenges.
“It’s really stunning, the destruction that happened after those storms in Moore,” said Shelton, “But the resilience of the people has been equally stunning because they just keep rebuilding and coming back for more. It’s been pretty inspirational to me to see how people have responded and have been willing to help each other out. The stories that I’ve heard, not only on the news but also through personal stories that I’ve heard. When you talk about the best of the human spirit, we know this is true about Oklahomans. They’re just good, high-quality, down-to-earth people.”
Shelton said he couldn’t be prouder of his Oklahoma heritage and hopes people understand that while being a four-star general is something he’s also very proud of, he’s still just a regular guy. In fact, you could group him with your typical classic rock fan who laughed when the title “Rocket Man” was suggested for this story. He said he loved the early Elton John period when John worked with Bernie Taupin on the “Madman Across the Water” album. He’s also a fan of Blood, Sweat &Tears, Fleetwood Mac, Three Dog Night, and the Eagles. But if you really want to stop him in his tracks, play some Karen Carpenter.
“I have a rule that if we’re driving along and a Karen Carpenter song comes on, I tell my wife, ‘You have to be quiet. We have to listen to Karen.’” said Shelton. “She’s just got a set of pipes that are unbelievable. You can’t train that. It’s a God-given thing.”