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In Run-Up to Space Shuttle Atlantis Launch, NASA Allows Rare Peek Behind Mission Control Curtain

Photos by Troy Fields
Photos by Troy Fields

Check out our pictures of the final round of space shuttle simulation training at NASA's Mission Control.

Space. If you are anything like me, you've probably started to take it for granted. Save for disasters like the Columbia explosion in 2003, the country as a whole no longer gives the space program more than a passing thought. Indeed, much of the whiz-bang novelty had fizzled way back in 1986, when the Challenger exploded. That tragedy fixed our interest on the space program again, but only temporarily and for all the wrong reasons. Films like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 would get our juices going again for a month or two, but then interest would wane along with the next new moon.

It's hard to explain to younger people how much of a big deal space once seemed to be. People born in the mid-1970s and before were positively steeped in space mystique.

I was conceived in the heated run-up to the moon landing and my sc-fi-devouring dad selected a middle name for me that looked towards the heavens. (No, I was not conceived in a Nova. And wow, I've never heard that one before...)

As a child, I thrilled to stories of the Apollo, Gemini, Voyager, Soyuz and Saturn programs and even had some love for the SkyLab. Star Trek and Star Wars fueled my grade-school combat fantasies, supplanting the Lone Ranger and World War 2.

And I remember how thrilling I used to find it when a local TV station used to sign off at midnight with a montage of a suborbital test pilot tearing through the skies at supersonic speeds while a voice-over ponderously narrated that poem about breaking "the surly bonds of Earth."

And here is one very much like that:

And it still raises the hair on my arms. But with all those more or less routine shuttle missions of the last three decades, my memories had faded, along with my childhood terror of nuclear war. When an old friend of mine said he was going to a shuttle launch a couple of years ago, I thought it was a mildly eccentric idea. Who does that these days?

But there was a time when every American would have wanted to go, and that era came back to me yesterday, when officials at the Johnson Space Center allowed reporters unprecedented access to Mission Control during a series of simulated Shuttle launches.

As we pointed out elsewhere, Austin might have some little rock stars in their town, but we have astronauts here, and those, my friends, are this rock's real stars. When the Atlantis crew walks in a room, in their flight suits or their civvies, the excitement level ramps up noticeably.

And when you walk into Mission Control, all the magic of your space-haunted childhood comes back. It looks exactly like it does in the movies, and the guys (and a couple of women) running the show appear to be from Central Casting: all quasi-military brush-cuts with a touch of nerd chic. And when they go to work, it's one of the greatest productions the world has ever known.

At 14 workstations, team members monitor and control the shuttle's trajectory, boosters, propulsion, arm and crew systems, and electrical generation and more. To pick one team member more or less at random, imagine this was your job description: "The EECOM is responsible for passive and active thermal control of the vehicle, cabin atmosphere control, avionics cooling, supply/waste water system management and fire detection and suppression." For a 176,413-pound vehicle carrying a half-million gallons of highly combustible fuel that is hurtling through space at over 17,000 miles per hour...

All of the workstations report to Butch Wilmore, the capcom, and Richard Jones, the flight director, both of whom relay their messages to the astronauts on Atlantis. While all of these guys could play themselves in the movies, none could more so than these two guys: Wilmore resembles a ruddy-faced Roger Clemens, and the flat-topped Jones (a Hispanic Aggie from El Paso) looks like a Mexican-American Ed Harris. Failure to look the part was not an option for those guys.

And then you watch them work. You hear things like "Liftoff confirmed" and "Atlantis, go at throttle up." And then they start throwing problems at the crew. You start hearing things like "Atlantis, abort ATO. You're limit-circuited."

In one especially hairy sim, NASA's brass threw just about every conceivable problem they could dream up at Mission Control and the crew. You could hear chatter about various tanks leaking nitrogen and helium, computers going down, and cabin leaks. To top it all off, Shuttle pilot Douglas "Chunky" Hurley's microphone developed a real-life problem in the simulator. He couldn't turn it off, so he had to deal with everyone's chatter while trying to zero in on messages intended for him. (After the sim, Hurley said this unpredictable breakdown was his "favorite malfunction" because it was real and not in any script.)

 

In Run-Up to Space Shuttle Atlantis Launch, NASA Allows Rare Peek Behind Mission Control Curtain

All those dreaded developments and the way they were each overcome in turn steered me towards a silly thought: It reminded me of nothing so much as the way I used to play football in the backyard as a kid when nobody else was around. I'd script myself as the star in scenarios like this: "The pitch is to Earl Campbell..he looks for daylight, but oh no! The Oiler line sucks, and here comes Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood! What's this? Campbell stiff-arms Greene and tramples Greenwood! And now here comes Jack Ham and Jack Lambert! Campbell bulls right through both Steeler linebackers, and swats Mel Blount and Donnie Shell aside like gnats! Touchdown Oilers! Houston wins the Super Bowl!"

And so on. Except what Mission Control and the Atlantis crew were doing was not child's play, and NASA flight sims are about as real as anything pretend can be. Jones later explained that the day's last sim had been a "systems AOA," which as near as I can tell is a mission-abort coming after the Atlantis has traveled around the world one time only. (AOA stands for Abort Once Around.)

"It's the worst kind of abort," Jones said after the sim was over. "We had systems going down and coming back up, but we got to the finish line, and it was a great team-building exercise."

And what a team it is. It's no exaggeration to say that the combination of Mission Control and a Space Shuttle crew constitutes one of the greatest arrays of brainpower, technical ability, mental toughness and physical courage the world has ever seen. And on July 8, this team will come together for its very last launch.

After the sims were over, the astronauts came out and took questions from us. Most of our queries revolved around the end of this era, and the astronauts talked about how it was more a time to celebrate the shuttle's accomplishments rather than lament its passing. They did say that it was undoubtedly sad that the shuttle's support team -- not just Mission Control, but all the people in all the factories and labs all over America that helped build and maintain this fleet -- would be dispersing, never to be reassembled again. Never again would a Space Shuttle tread "he high untrespassed sanctity of space," no more would these astronauts put out their hands and touch the face of God.

But talk about Central Casting again -- one of our number was a pretty, très elegant blond Frenchwoman. Speaking through a translator, she asked the Atlantis's sole female crewmember -- Mission Specialist Sandy Magnus - if "there would be any love in space."

Magnus was only faintly amused. "We are a four-person crew," she replied. (The shuttle often takes seven up.) "We are going to be very busy, so there won't be time for that."

"Or the inclination," she added after a half-beat pause.

Not even the space program can get the French mind out of the gutter. You gotta love 'em.


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