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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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.

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.’ ”

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