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 4 of 5)
Some, like Jean Alexander, fell into their jobs. At age 56, she was until recently the most senior woman in a group composed mostly of men—or as she likes to put it, “the grandma on the crew.” She is confident, no-nonsense, and equally adept with a screwdriver and a sewing machine. “We’ve been called Space Age valets,” Alexander says, “and I guess in some ways, that’s basically what we do.” She was a secretary in 1980, the year before the shuttle’s first launch, when the Johnson Space Center in Houston started offering upward mobility to female clerical workers. As she looked over the abundant postings for administrative assistants and budget analysts, an opening for a spacesuit technician caught her eye. America’s first female astronauts were lining up to fly, and Alexander figures that someone thought they’d be more comfortable having another woman suit them up and strap them in.
“You had to be trainable, you had to have some sewing experience, you had to have some mechanical inclination too,” she says. “It was on-the-job training from there.” More than 20 years later, Alexander was still wearing the No. 3. Recently, though, she stepped down from regular close out crew duty when her job was handed over to United Space Alliance. Alexander trained the contractor employees who replaced her, and will keep her certification for now. Not everyone was happy that NASA’s first and only female suit tech also was the agency’s last of either gender. “The astronauts,” she said before her last mission, STS-110, “feel good having a NASA set of eyes and ears in this area.”
Others, like Thompson, deliberately set out to work on the close out crew. He saw his first rocket launch as a military brat in California, and from that day on, he knew the field he wanted to work in. He picked up some machine shop experience at a Union Carbide cryogenics plant, then moved to Florida in 1979 to start punching NASA’s time clock. Thompson wanted to work in the “forward shop,” where technicians service the orbiter’s nose section, including the crew module. When he discovered that working there could entitle him to wear a “1,” he wanted to do that too. But he was too young and inexperienced. After working and waiting five years, he got to join the close out crew. Eight years later, he finally earned the title of orbiter vehicle close out chief, and now wears No. 1 on launch day. “You don’t get anything extra for it and it’s a lot of extra work, but guys want to do it,” says Thompson. “You know you’re doing something important.”
Working in the White Room is like working in a fishbowl, and not just because it barely holds six people. “There are cameras everywhere,” Thompson complains. The views are broadcast to the public on NASA TV on launch day, and to the launch control center on closed-circuit TV all the time. If they sit down for a break in view of the camera, they risk getting a phone call instructing them to look busy. So when they want down time, they hide in a corner behind the camera.
The attention they earn leads to occasional jealousy from co-workers. Seymour reminds them to think about the worst that could happen: “What they see is a gravy day; everything goes good. When it’s a bad day, it’s gonna be a real bad day. Would you really want to be there?”
It could start with a small explosion in the payload bay. A pneumatic regulator failing on a pressurized gas tank could launch shrapnel into the forward bulkhead, puncturing the crew module and triggering a nitrogen leak that incapacitates the astronauts in a single breath. Dealing with such an emergency at night would only complicate matters. Launch controllers would cut power to the orbiter immediately. Rescuers would find themselves fumbling in darkness. “Add smoke to the equation and you’re going to be doing it by Braille the whole way,” says Arriens. “You’d better know how to disconnect a person. If you don’t, all the suit piece-parts are going to hang up on everything, and you’re never going to get [the astronauts] out.” Welty wears a little flashlight on a lanyard around his neck for just such an eventuality. He doubts the fluorescent light sticks tucked into pockets in his own coveralls and the astronauts’ pressure suits would provide enough illumination to get the job done.
The closest call so far was the shuttle’s first-ever launch pad abort, which occurred in June 1984. One of Discovery’s three liquid-fueled engines had already ignited for liftoff when computers aboard the orbiter detected a problem and automatically snuffed the engine. A small hydrogen fire triggered extinguishers on the launch tower, and the water spray drenched the escaping astronauts. “We were all soaking wet and shivering in the cold and thinking, ‘This astronaut business is not quite what I thought it was going to be,’ ” recalls Michael Coats, pilot on the flight. But all were alive, according to Welty, because a watchful close out crew member broke a potentially deadly fall. “When we went up to get them out, we had one astronaut who didn’t really want to be in the ship at all,” he recalls. The person was “so nervous and jerky that they just jumped out of the hatch and [nearly] went right through the bellows.”
The astronauts know that close out crew members stand at the top of a very large pyramid of workers, all of whom deserve their gratitude for preparing the shuttles and the people inside them to fly, year in and year out. But if a problem crops up in those dramatic moments before liftoff, there are only seven people to turn to.