The Goodbye Guys

Seeing off the astronauts is one of NASA’s most prestigious jobs, and one of the most demanding.

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ONE BY ONE, SEVEN FIGURES clad in identical orange flightsuits drop to all fours and crawl through the circular opening. A cacophony of grunts comes from inside the small cabin as the astronaut stand-ins roll onto their backs and heave their bodies—each weighed down by MORE THAN 80 pounds of snug-fitting protective gear—into thinly padded seats.

Lying horizontal with black-booted feet in the air, the astronauts quietly wait their turns at strap-in. Three sweaty attendants in white coveralls cinch up seat belts, snap on helmets, and check out radio headsets, seemingly oblivious to the odd, 90-degrees-off-kilter configuration of this space shuttle crew cabin mockup. The nose-up launch position disorients all but the most frequent visitors, but these three are pros, and they’ve been here before.

No sooner have they finished their work and left the cabin than a muffled shout—“Ready!”—comes from somewhere outside, and all seven astronauts suddenly go limp, pretending to be knocked unconscious by a whiff of toxic air. More attendants throw on gas masks and breathing tanks and pile inside. They yank round green knobs on the spacesuits to activate the victims’ oxygen supplies, then begin unstrapping them and dragging them out—head first, with feet still up. The evacuation drill takes six minutes, almost double the record of three and a half, and a minute longer than the goal. They’ll have to do better next time.

NASA calls it a Mode 2 Egress Simulation. “We call it astronaut appreciation training,” says spacecraft mechanic Rene Arriens. Rescuing astronauts is a high-energy feat that Arriens is sure he couldn’t do twice in rapid succession in a real emergency. But he practices it as many as eight times daily when he and other members of NASA’s close out crew—perhaps the most elite corps of space shuttle workers, apart from the astronauts and mission controllers—gather for annual, week-long training sessions in Houston and at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Unmistakable in coveralls emblazoned with big black digits 1 through 7, close out crew members deliver the last goodbye to astronauts about to rocket off to Earth orbit. “What they do determines whether we’re going to get off on time,” says astronaut Michael Gernhardt, waiting to board Atlantis for a countdown rehearsal on a hot morning last July, a couple of weeks before his mission. Thousands of people get the vehicle itself ready to fly, but only a select few dress the astronauts, help them aboard, seal the orbiter’s side hatch, and stand by to break it open again in the event of an emergency. In those last busy hours before launch, it’s up to the close out crew to make sure the astronauts have everything they need, and that whatever they don’t stays behind.

Their tasks range from the mundane to the heroic. One minute they may be hunting a pencil with a white eraser for a persnickety pilot who doesn’t like gray erasers. The next minute, they may save the day (or at least the shuttle launch time) with a quick technical fix. It happened just that way in March of last year, when the odor of overheating wires in Discovery’s cockpit three days before the liftoff of mission STS-102 had the launch team stumped. As close out crew chief Rick Welty remembers it, firefighters twice rushed to the launch pad looking for the source of the smell but to no avail. “All the smart money in the Firing Room was on ‘No launch—no way.’ We were in deep sushi,” he recalls. He and Arriens found and verified the problem by literally following their noses, using a couple of soda straws taped together to sniff out a malfunctioning control box behind a circuit breaker panel. The launch went off on time—no small consideration, when a single day’s delay on the pad can cost NASA several hundred thousand dollars in wasted fuel, overtime, and other expenses. “What a white-hot troubleshooting experience!” recalls Welty.  “It was truly an answer to prayer.”

The seven members of the close out crew are among only 21 people routinely allowed access to the space shuttle after its external fuel tank has been filled with volatile liquid hydrogen and oxygen propellants on launch day. The big numbers on their backs make it easier to keep track of everyone. Also, in case of fire or explosion, when the pad would be instantly deluged with water, they’d be easier to identify on closed-circuit TV screens at the launch control center, three miles away.

The numbers are not randomly assigned. Each team includes two spacesuit technicians (3 and 7), three orbiter mechanics (1, 4, and 5), a quality controller (6), and an astronaut (2). NASA uses astronauts exclusively to fill the No. 2 position for the same reason it uses an astronaut as capsule communicator, or capcom, the person at mission control who talks to the orbiting crew. The agency believes astronauts know the language, the equipment, and the environment better than anyone else. “If there weren’t an astronaut on the close out crew, there would be a big hole in the whole process of bringing the orbiter to life,” says No. 2 Greg “Box” Johnson, who joined the astronaut corps in 1998 but has yet to fly in space. He’s among a group of astronauts called “Cape Crusaders,” who spend most of their time supporting shuttle flight operations at Kennedy. The proximity to flight hardware ranks No. 2 among the most sought-after jobs in the astronaut office.

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.

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