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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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.

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.

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