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 3 of 5)
Fifty minutes are allotted for strap-in and communications checks. Closing the hatch and pressurizing the cabin should take 30 minutes. If all goes well, about 90 minutes before liftoff, the close out crew will head for a roadblock three miles from the pad. Once in a while a radio glitch or a balky hatch latch forces them to cut it close. “We always like to get off the pad before main engine start,” jokes team leader Welty. Arriens points out that some members of the team are cross-trained, so “if the timeline gets really tight, we can basically throw people at a particular task and the job gets done right and safely.”
The crew members double as babysitters while the astronauts are waiting to enter the shuttle, when those toward the back of the line have plenty of time to meditate or make inadvertent mischief. Some astronauts opt to use the restroom on the launch tower instead of their government-issue diaper, and need help getting dressed again. “When we’re up there working, gender really doesn’t matter,” Welty offers delicately. “We do whatever we have to do to get the job done.”
While waiting to board, astronauts are confined to the 195-foot level. Because of tight timelines and the potential for disaster, corralling the crew must go smoothly. Travis Thompson (No. 1) recalls the time in 1985 when guest astronaut Prince Sultan Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia wandered off to the 215-foot level. “We looked around for him and found him up there on his mat praying [toward] Mecca,” says Thompson. “I tried to give him a little time, but I was like, ‘Hey buddy, we’ve got to go.’ Now we tell ’em point blank: ‘Don’t leave!’ ”
Small even when empty, the shuttle’s crew compartment feels like a phone booth when suited astronauts start climbing inside. It can be an emotional as well as a busy time. Arriens recalls one of six-time shuttle veteran Story Musgrave’s launches. “He was on the flight deck, and I was in one of the access ports. He reaches out and grabs me and pulls me in and says, ‘Thanks.’ That meant a lot to me. I said, ‘I’ll see you when you get back.’ ”
As the strapped-in astronauts check communications with the launch and mission control centers, two of the orbiter mechanics inspect, close, and pressurize the hatch, while the quality control crew member watches over their shoulders. The slightest nick or ding on a seal around the hatch could cause a show-stopping air leak when the cabin is pressurized for flight. The hatch is locked with a big T-shaped key. To watch the locks engage, the mechanics poke a little mirror, like the ones dentists use, into a hatch pressurization port. Arriens modified another mirror for just this purpose.
If you do this delicate procedure incorrectly, he warns, “you’re going to end up taking the hatch apart to get [the key] out.” No one wants to become famous, like the close out crew for Challenger’s doomed January 1986 flight. The hatch didn’t lock properly for the first of two launch attempts. Countdown time ran out while mechanics sawed off the key and drilled out a broken fastener. Although the incident had no bearing on the launch accident the following day, memories of that flight are so painful that close out crew veterans still refuse to talk about it.
Once the cabin is pressurized and checked for leaks, the last couple of insulating thermal tiles are attached to the orbiter near the hatch and the close out crew heads for cover. The job of greeting the astronauts’ families in the control center after launch customarily falls to fellow astronaut No. 2. It’s considered an honor to do so without a name tag, because the lack of one means the shuttle crew has just carried yours into orbit. Greg Johnson’s went to the International Space Station with commander Kent Rominger and the crew of STS-100 in April of last year. Johnson recalls: “As I shook his hand and said a final goodbye, he grabbed my name tag and looked at it, then he stuck it up on the Velcro on the flight deck.”
Altogether, about 30 men and women from NASA and United Space Alliance belong to the select close out crew. When not working with astronauts in practice sessions or on actual launch countdowns, they have regular duties either at the Cape or in Houston. All of them are volunteers, and they get no extra hazard pay.