Science and Technology News

Monday, January 24, 2011

Space Shuttle Era: Launch Director

Commander: OTC, CDR, heater reconfig complete.

Orbiter test conductor: Copy.

Pilot: OTC, PLT, APU start is complete.

Controller: GLS is go for auto sequence start.

NARRATOR: It's launch day at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The space shuttle is on the launch pad, the astronauts are aboard and the countdown is clicking steadily backwards. More than 200 miles above Earth, the International Space Station is moving quickly through its 91-minute-long orbit, leaving the shuttle a scant five minute window to lift off or risk missing the orbiting laboratory.

Inside the Launch Control Center, a cadre of some 200 launch controllers, all of them specialists in the shuttle and its myriad systems, methodically move their own checklists to make sure that everything is ready. They've worked for days to bring the countdown this far, to a point nine minutes before launch when it is time to decide whether the shuttle is indeed ready to launch.

The person making that decision is the launch director.

LEINBACH: 22,000 parameters, roughly, have to be exactly right in order to launch the shuttle.

NARRATOR: If conditions aren’t right, the launch director can scrub the launch attempt.

LEINBACH: Launch director, Endeavour. Go ahead, sir. Okay, Zambo. Well, you heard all that. You know we tried really, really hard to work the weather. It's just too dynamic. We got feeling good there at one point, and then it filled back in. And we're just not comfortable with launching the space shuttle tonight. So we're going to go into a 24-hour scrub. But thank you all for the efforts you all put in tonight. We'll see you back again tomorrow night, and we'll hope the weather's a little bit better.

NARRATOR: Sometimes a problem isn't seen until the last seconds of a countdown and the computerized ground launch sequencer aborts the launch.

Commentator: Running, three, two, one, and... we have main engine cutoff.

Controller: GLS safing is in progress.

Commentator: GLS safing is in progress. (Controllers discussing shuttle safing)

NARRATOR: Ten people have served as launch director during the space shuttle's 30 years of flying into space. For each, launch day became the ultimate test of their skills and decision-making.

BOB SIECK: The essence of the job is actually to say no when everybody else wants to go.

NARRATOR: On launch day, the launch director and his team can be found in one of the firing rooms inside the Launch Control Center at Kennedy. He sits in the back row, facing a few monitors and with the giant windows looking out to the pad at his back. Because his console is on a riser, he can look out on the other controllers in the room, many of them at specialized consoles behind horseshoe-shaped cabinets.

LEINBACH: We have to be convinced as a team, I have to be convinced as a person that everything is ready to go and so until that point, until I have the feeling in my gut that we're ready to launch, we can meet every requirement we have on the books, but we also have to meet that gut check that says we're ready to fly that day.

NARRATOR: Nine minutes before liftoff, the flight control team in Houston, NASA and contractor management and the other members of the launch team radio a simple "go" or "no-go."

Controllers: MILA. MILA is go. STM. STM is go. Safety console. Safety console is go. SPE. SPE is go. LRD. LRD is go. SRO. SRO is no-go.

NARRATOR: Then the launch director gets the last word in a tradition that goes back to the first launch of a space shuttle in 1981, when Launch Director George Page radioed to Columbia commander John Young and pilot Bob Crippen.

George Page: John, we can't, uh, do more from the launch team than say uh, we sure wish you an awful lot of luck, we're with you a thousand percent and we're awful proud to have been a part of it. Good luck, gentlemen. Voice of John Young: Crip and I are mighty proud to work with you fellows. You're absolutely professional, the best there is.

LEINBACH: It becomes very personal and I look out to the pad and I think about the crew on board and I have a little moment of reflection and then the countdown clock picks up at T-9 minutes.

NARRATOR: There were two space shuttle missions that took the launch directors into untested areas. The first, STS-51L in 1986, was the Challenger accident. James Thomas was the launch director and Seick was on-hand on that cold January morning.

SIECK: It was one of those days in hindsight when even though everything was within specification as far as the launch commit criteria, the requirements, a lot of people had this gut feeling that this just doesn't feel right.

NARRATOR: NASA rebounded from the Challenger accident with determination and the agency sought to fix its errors.

SIECK: Our resolve was, we're going to safely fly again, it's going to be a lot of work but we're going to get there and we did.

NARRATOR: Discovery returned astronauts to space in September 1988, a mission Sieck said gave a huge boost to the launch team.

SIECK: Kind of like the start or in this case the rebirth of the shuttle program. And because the mission, the flight, its performance proved that we had fixed all of those items that we should have fixed in the Challenger.

NARRATOR: In 2003, Leinbach was called into recovery service after shuttle Columbia broke apart during reentry over Texas and Louisiana.

LEINBACH: My job as the rapid response team chairman, it's another assignment of the launch director, is to take that first team from KSC to wherever the contingency is.

Commentator: Three engines up and burning! Three, two, one, and liftoff of space shuttle Discovery, beginning America's new journey to the moon, Mars and beyond. And the vehicle has cleared the tower.

NARRATOR: The shuttle returned to space again in 2005, with Discovery launching to the International Space Station.

NARRATOR: Launch days throughout the shuttle's illustrious program have always been special for the men and women in the Launch Control Center.

LEINBACH: It's what we do. We are launching America's space shuttle for the good of the country and the good of the world. It's what we do, we have to do this.

This article was sponsored by Police Technology.

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