Posted on May 25th, 2011 by george.
Contrary to what you may have seen in movies like Apollo 13, life in the Launch Control Center is not terribly glamorous. Sure, we get the occasional visit from the first family, Nobel-prize winning physicist, or other celebrity or dignitary. And the chief administrator of NASA is there almost every time.
But they just smile and wave at the crowd after MECO (Main Engine CutOff, when the vehicle is safely in orbit), or make a statement about how proud of us they are or how we’re the greatest launch team in the world (Russia, Japan, China, Europe, India and private companies notwithstanding).
For the most part, though, our task is tedious: monitor every single system on the vehicle as the tanks are filled, the fuel cells powered on, the auxiliary power units spun up, the hydraulics pressurized, the inertial measurement units calibrated, and so on. In general it takes more than ten thousand people about half a year to recover, safe, refurbish, repair, test, upgrade, checkout, assemble, integrate, rollout, load, retest and otherwise prepare a space shuttle for launch. The 72-hour countdown is relatively brief when compared to the processing flow, and the launch itself, at just over eight minutes, is shorter still. For the engineers who witnessed Challenger, though, who are intimately familiar with the incredible danger involved in the controlled explosion we call rocketry, those nerve-racking moments can last a lifetime. That’s why one of my colleagues, Sunshine Menendez (not his real name, but sarcastically indicative of his demeanor), characterizes our job as “six months of boredom followed by nine minutes of sheer terror.”
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a delicate ballet, and I could list hundreds of maddeningly complex components that must be in perfect working order and playing nice with each other before the candle is lit. But when things go as planned, it can feel like the countdown takes forever (understandable, given that it’s three days long). Then, toward the end, things get very tense. By the time the final minute rolls around, it’s quieter than an empty library. No one even coughs. The computer takes over at T-minus 31 seconds, the main engines light at T-minus six seconds and come up to full thrust, and then within milliseconds of T-zero the SRBs are lit (by another rocket, inside them!), the explosive hold-down bolts are shattered, and she’s away. We all look to the huge windows at the front of the room, not exactly sure where the shuttle will pop up, since we can’t see her on the pad. Then there she is, screaming by, lighting up the sky whether it’s day or night.
Blink and you’ll miss it. If you’re all the way in the back of the room, like we are at the Flight Controls console, you get to see the orbiter for a grand total of three seconds. Then we watch it on TV like everyone else, while continuing to monitor our respective systems (even though Houston takes over as soon as the stack clears the tower). After MECO we pose for photos, then it’s downstairs to enjoy some well-deserved beans.
Back when STS-134 was the final scheduled flight, I was proud that I’d be a part of the ultimate launch team, and that my vehicle, Endeavour, would have the honor of being the last to fly. Even though Atlantis is now the orbiter that gets the curtain call, I’m not upset. For the crowning space shuttle mission, I get to be a tourist just like everyone else, watching the clouds of steam rise from the pad when the SSMEs are lit, witnessing the alacrity with which the vehicle leaps from the pad, and, barring the kind of cloud cover we had for the penultimate launch, following the spacecraft from the ground all the way into the heavens. Just like the rest of the million people who travel to Cape Canaveral from around the world, I will wait in eager anticipation of the moment when the crackling vibrations from those fiendishly hot nozzles whip through the air to my ears, catching up with the spectacle of light and reverberating through every organ in my body.
I might even leave the camera at home.
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