Many folks around here remember Stokes McMillan as the author of One Night of Madness. Or perhaps they remember him as the great-grandson of Star-Herald publisher Wiley Sanders and grandson of publisher Stokes Sanders. Upon his grandfather’s death, his parents Della and Billy McMillan became publishers of paper.
But few remember him as a Big Red Band member who later went on to have career at NASA working with the space shuttle program.
Stokes McMillan, son of the first Big Red Band drum major, Della Sanders, joined the band in elementary school, playing the trombone, and stayed with it throughout high school. Although his mom had been in the band, McMillan grew up following in the footsteps of his brother, Roy, eight years older. Roy played the trombone in the band; therefore, McMillan chose the same path.
Learning under Mr. Hanberry and Mr. McCauley, McMillan became first chair trombone his last two years of high school and made Lions Band those same two years. Unfortunately, he was only able to attend Lions Band one of those years, as a car crash forced him to skip Lions Band his senior year. He also spent summers attending band camp at Mississippi State University.
“I loved it so much that I joined the Famous Maroon Band when I went to college at State. I was also in the symphonic band and the jazz band under Kent Sills,” said McMillan.
As an engineering major at MSU, “I studied a lot. Band was a release for me and a great way to relax from studying,” said McMillan.
One thing that McMillan has learned is that band friendships are everlasting. He is active in the MSU band Facebook group, and is able to stay in touch with many band friends. Elva Kaye Lance, director of bands at MSU and a former assistant director of Big Red, is an old friend whom McMillan has known since those high school summers at band camp. During a visit to the campus a few years ago, Lance showed McMillan around.
Growing up on South Natchez Street, which was a dirt road back then, McMillan remembers always being interested in space.
“My Dad was a big fan of space, and he bought us a cheap telescope so that we could look at the stars,” McMillan said. NASA, which was a new organization at the time, had recently launched the Echo satellite, and they would watch it pass overhead.
“That was enough to get me interested, and while at KHS, I took flying lessons and got a pilot’s license at age 17,” McMillan said.
Even though his brother and sister had gone to Ole Miss and he had grown up going to Ole Miss football games, his natural interest in space led him to study Aerospace Engineering at MSU.
“I knew the place from going to band camp. It was a great place to study engineering, and it was just a natural fit,” McMillan said. He then stayed at State to earn his Master’s degree in Aero Physics, specializing in the study of wind tunnels.
“I mainly took courses in fluid mechanics, which is how air works, but I took one class in rocket propulsion. My first job was at Teledyne Brown in Huntsville as a rocket engineer, and I never worked in the field of fluid mechanics,” McMillan said.
After working in Huntsville for a couple of years, McMillan moved to Houston to work with Singer Link. That company make flight simulators, and he designed the space shuttle simulator. When it was sold to NASA, he was hired there and it became a career for him.
“The job kind of fell into my lap, and God has really blessed me,” he said. “I trained astronauts in the systems which I helped design.” He trained all the shuttle astronauts from the first one until the Challenger.
While at NASA, McMillan was able to join Contraband, the 17-piece band made up of what he terms “NASA nerds.”
“I was in that for several years. It was made up of engineers, astronauts, and flight directors,” said McMillan. “For whatever reason, engineering and music seem to go together.”
While in the band, McMillan became friends with Astronaut Ron McNair, a tenor saxophone player. In addition to playing saxophone and being a physics astronaut, McNair held a black belt in karate, held a PhD from MIT, and was the second African-American in space. Upon discovering that they had children the same age, the two families became fast friends and spent a lot of time together.
Another close friend of McMillan’s was Judy Resnick. Although the astronaut held a PhD in Engineering, she was also a concert pianist and attended a lot of Contraband concerts. Their mutual interest in music was the basis for a lasting friendship.
Both of these two of McMillan’s close friends died in the Challenger accident on Jan. 28, 1986.
Training astronauts and flight controllers for missions were scheduled in sequence, and the appointed time for McMillan to take the lead was on the first space shuttle flight after the Challenger disaster.
“That is when I got my five minutes of fame. The news program ‘48 Hours’ with Dan Rather featured me along with the flight director and crew on its show. It followed us on a two to three-day simulation. Having producers and cameramen follow you around all the time was nerve-wracking,” said McMillan.
Luckily, the mission made it through successfully. McMillan spent most of his career with the shuttle program, with the exception of a five-year stint in which he designed a vehicle that would be a “lifeboat” for the space station. Later, NASA canceled that program and he returned to the shuttle program.
A resident of southeast Houston only five minutes from NASA for 45 years, McMillan and his wife raised three boys, all of whom were in the band at some point.
“Music has been a huge part of my life. In addition to band, I play the piano and sang in the Bay Area Chorus for a few years,” said McMillan.
But as his family grew, he cut back on his musical activities to devote more time to being a dad.
“I spent 32 years at the Johnson Space Center, and loved every minute of it,” said McMillan.
It was only after he retired from NASA that he researched and wrote One Night of Madness, selected the 2012 Nonfiction Book of the Year by the Mississippi Library Commission.
McMillan now spends his time with his family and is encouraging his grandchildren to take up band.
Purchase a chair to support the Skipworth Performing Arts Center project at https://www.kfeems.org/buy-a-chair