The Goodbye Guys
Seeing off the astronauts is one of NASA's most prestigious jobs, and one of the most demanding.
- By Beth Dickey
- Air & Space magazine, July 2002
(Page 2 of 5)
The astronaut and quality controller are NASA employees. The rest of the crew works for United Space Alliance, the private company that operates the shuttle. The most experienced mechanic (1) leads the team. Usually shuttle missions have seven astronauts, but when there are only five or six, the close out crew may grow to eight and include a trainee. The personnel-on-the-pad limit mainly reflects how many people could safely get off the launch tower in a hurry, riding in seven baskets suspended on slide wires that extend 1,200 feet to a bunker on the ground. The baskets are yet another reminder that being a member of the close out crew has its risks as well as its rewards.
On launch day, six or so hours before liftoff, the No. 7 suit tech heads for the astronaut quarters to help the shuttle fliers wriggle into their pressure suits. Meanwhile, the other six members of the team gather a few miles from the pad to wait for a signal from launch control that fueling is finished. When the all-clear comes, they pile into a step van and drive to the pad. On the dashboard is the hood ornament from a Duesenberg luxury automobile, a gift from veteran shuttle astronaut Marsha Ivins, who often wore the “2.” The shiny chrome statuette gets a rub for good luck as the journey begins.
The truck is a rolling workshop packed with everything from parachutes to light bulbs to extra insulating tiles for the orbiter. There are eight suitcases full of tools, numbered to correspond with their likelihood of being used. On a normal day, the close out crew will need only the hatch “key” and other items in Boxes 1 and 2. Throw in a few surprises, and they may need the heavy-duty pneumatic drills in Box 3. Box 5, full of chisels and hacksaws, is reserved for a very bad day.
The van arrives at the pad, where the shuttle is belching hydrogen and oxygen vapors as though it were alive. As often as Arriens and orbiter mechanic Tim Seymour have been here, it’s still creepy. “Everything’s moving,” says Seymour. “Creaking, popping,” Arriens adds. “Lines are shifting: ‘Kkk, kkk, kkk, kkk,’ ” says Seymour, trying to imitate the sound. “And if it’s windy out, the orbiter’s swaying back and forth a little bit,” Arriens says. Astronauts are awed by the place on launch day. When they come to the pad for practice sessions, they’re often cocky, joking around, says Seymour. “Most of them are—for lack of a better word—like a banty rooster.” But when they see and hear the live rocket on launch morning, the mood is likely to be very different. “It is a very humbling experience,” says Seymour.
The close out crew’s first order of business after arriving at the pad is cabin prep and “pre-ingress setup.” Chores include draining excess water produced by the orbiter’s fuel cells, installing fresh lithium hydroxide canisters that scrub the shuttle’s air of carbon dioxide, laying out harnesses and parachutes for the astronauts, and re-checking the position of hundreds of switches in the cockpit.
Everything is done with an eye on the clock. But assuming they arrived at the pad on schedule, about two hours ahead of the astronauts, this is still the most leisurely time of the day for the close out crew. Greg Johnson likes to sit on the flight deck and take it all in, as if the orbiter were a piece of fine art. “There are thousands of little details that you might miss,” he says. “Just by sitting back in one of the seats and looking at the big picture, you may see something out of place.” There’s another benefit to those 15 minutes of solitude: “It gives me a chance to get really excited about my first flight.”
The calm is broken about three hours before liftoff. The whop-whop of helicopter rotors and the glare of a searchlight signal that the astronaut convoy is approaching the pad. From a vantage point 195 feet up the launch tower, the level where the astronauts will board the vehicle, the Airstream camper carrying the shuttle crew and the police escorts look like Matchbox cars. The close out crew members meet the astronauts at the elevator with quick handshakes or hugs, and the race against time begins. From now on, everything happens strictly according to the script, no matter how familiar each person is with the job.
The close out crew does much of its work in the White Room, a small chamber located at the end of the 65-foot access arm that bridges the launch tower and the orbiter. The White Room is joined to the shuttle’s circular hatch with a flexible collar or bellows, much like an airport jetway. One by one, the astronauts step to the front of this waiting room and prepare to enter the vehicle through the orbiter’s hatch.