A report from the Discovery launch pad.
In 1961, NASA launched the first American into space aboard the Freedom 7 Mercury spacecraft. I watched on a black-and-white television in my first-grade classroom as astronaut Alan Shepard blasted off into history in a 15-minute flight. Televisions perched on teachers’ desks for NASA launches soon became a schoolhouse tradition as the two-man Gemini spacecraft replaced the Mercury series, which was subsequently replaced by the three-man Apollo missions that eventually put Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969.
The advent of the space shuttle as a reusable spacecraft capable of landing on a runway made space travel routine. Complacency soon replaced curiosity and awe in the public mind. The explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 briefly jolted that indifference. Over the next 17 years, however, shuttle missions again became commonplace and predictable. That is, until February 1, 2003, when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere at 17,000 mph. A couple of weeks earlier during the liftoff of Columbia, a suitcase-size chunk of foam insulation that weighed a pound and a half fell from the bright orange external tank that provides liquid oxygen and hydrogen to fuel the spacecraft as it leaves Earth. The foam insulation prevents ice formation and helps keep the liquid oxygen in the upper section of the tank chilled at minus 297 degrees Fahrenheit and the liquid hydrogen at minus 423 degrees in the lower section. Foam has always fallen off the external tank during liftoff to harmlessly strike the craft, but on this particular launch, the debris hit the left wing of the orbiter Columbia. The foam ripped a hole that allowed hot air and gases to penetrate Columbia when it returned to Earth [the hole was not a threat while Columbia was in the vacuum of space], tearing the spacecraft apart in seconds and burning to death all seven crew members as they plunged to the ground.
After a two-and-a-half-year delay, NASA has decided that it’s time to fly again. The mission has been dubbed Return to Flight. The initial launch period targeted for fall 2004 was rejected, and May 2005 was chosen instead. Heightened concern about falling ice damaging the orbiter (just as foam had done to Columbia during liftoff in 2003) prompted more testing, pushing the launch date back to mid-July.
Two days before the launch of Discovery, the Kennedy Space Center was bustling with activity. Satellite news trucks and television crews secured ideal spots to telecast the July 13 launch. Inside the press room, stacks of information were available, as was a video and photo library. Scale models of the shuttle were displayed so NASA officials could better explain the intricacies of the spacecraft to reporters. An afternoon bus tour took a media contingent out to the launch pad, but the shuttle was obscured by the gray servicing structure that functions as scaffolding to allow continued work on Discovery.
Dr. Michael Griffin, a former NASA engineer, is NASA’s eleventh administrator. A relaxed, confident man, he’s been in charge of America’s space program since April of this year after a management shake-up. NASA officials readily admit that the agency had grown lax concerning safety in a deadly enterprise. “It’s a dangerous business, and it will be for the foreseeable future,” he explained at a Tuesday afternoon briefing to update the media on the status of the next day’s launch. “We work every time to make it less dangerous than the time before.” Referring to the current state of NASA as “the most difficult period in the history of American space flight,” Griffin emphasized the importance of outer-space exploration: “I believe that it is important for America to be the preemininent space-faring nation in the 21st century. . . . I think the proper purpose of the United States civil space program is to explore, develop, understand, and discover the solar system, and extend the range of places where human beings live and work. We’re at the very beginning of that right now. Technology is primitive compared to what we would like it and need it to be. The expense is great; the risk is very significant. But we will never be where we want to be if we don’t take these first steps.”
The mission of STS-114 Discovery (STS stands for “space transport system,” and it is the 114th flight of a space shuttle) is to bring supplies to the International Space Station, return experiments and garbage from the space station to Earth, and test repair techniques during scheduled EVAs (extra vehicular activities, or “spacewalk”) developed to address any debris damage to the orbiter Discovery. This shuttle mission has no “substantive” repair capabilities, as only repair experiments will be conducted. Should Discovery be too damaged to return to Earth, the seven-member crew would share the space station with its current two-member crew until Space Shuttle Atlantis arrives as a rescue ship six weeks later.
Following Michael Griffin’s briefing, the media gathered outside for the bus ride to view the rollback of the rotating service structure. The trip is a NASA ritual that gives photographers the opportunity to take photos of Discovery at sunset, with the scaffolding rolled away to reveal the orbiter, rocket boosters, and external tank. Suddenly, the drama that had slowly been building that day erupted without warning as word began to spread among the media throng that an accident had occurred at the launch pad. Reporters returned to the press building as NASA press liaisons explained what they knew of the problem. A plastic window covering the roof of the orbiter Discovery had inexplicably fallen off, plunging 65 feet, where it damaged a fragile heat shield tile covering one of the engines near the tail of the spacecraft. One surprised NASA official admitted he’d never seen such a freak occurrence at the launch pad.
It was the first glitch in an otherwise smooth preparation for the next day’s launch. Up until that point, the main worry had been the weather. On Tuesday, Space Shuttle Discovery had a 60-percent chance of favorable conditions to launch. Favorable conditions include no thunderclouds within 20 miles of either the launch pad or the 15,000-foot landing runway five miles away. Lightning is the major concern, though on this particular mission a heavy cloud cover would obscure the many cameras being used by airplanes tailing Discovery’s ascent to check for any debris damage, forcing the launch to be possibly canceled. Apprehension grew among the media that the launch would be scrubbed.
At 6:30 Tuesday evening, NASA announced a 7 p.m. briefing regarding the falling window cover and spacecraft damage assessment. Fifteen minutes later, the briefing was pushed back to 7:30. Suddenly a photographer dashed into the press briefing area to announce that the problem had been solved and the buses were leaving for the launch pad. The press conference room emptied as the media ran for the buses. The contingent of about 150 photographers and reporters gathered 100 yards from the launch pad at 7:30, waiting for the half-hour rollback of the service scaffolding to begin in anticipation of the 8:30 sunset. Two hours went by without any movement of the service structure as more work was performed on Discovery.
The mosquitoes at the launch pad are vicious monsters that bite through clothing. Kennedy Space Center is a veritable jungle of menacing beasts; a day earlier, alligators were spied in the marshy wilderness within the space center acerage. Buzzards sit in trees, adding an ominous reminder of the danger of returning to outer space. To combat the mosquitoes, members of the media lined up to be sprayed from a single can of insect repellent wielded by one of the NASA escort officials. The can was emptied within an hour, so everyone retreated to the buses to wait in the air conditioning. At 10 p.m. six buses abruptly pulled up next to the press buses. A NASA official boarded each press bus and warned in no uncertain terms that anyone who pointed a camera in the direction of the newly arrived buses would have their media badge taken away. We later learned that these buses were carrying family and friends of the Discovery crew and NASA VIPs.
Within half an hour of the VIP arrival, the service structure rollback began. By 11 p.m., Space Shuttle Discovery was revealed in its entirety a mere football field away, illluminated by spotlights. After half an hour of taking photos, our NASA escort urged the media to return to the buses for the ride back to the softball fields five miles from the Kennedy Space Center. The softball park functioned as a parking lot. Lingering reporters were warned that they would be left behind and no doubt shot if discovered by security guards. It’s hard to tell if our escort was kidding.
At midnight I arrived back at my car. Since I planned to be at Kennedy Space Center at 4 a.m., there was little point in driving to Orlando where I was staying. Napping in my automobile in the sweltering Florida heat was impossible, so I drove half an hour to Titusville to a 24-hour drugstore to replace the sunglasses I’d lost at the launch pad earlier that evening. Another hour was spent in a Cocoa Beach Waffle House, where the toothless cook told me his brother had been a student in Miami of Christa McAuliffe, the school teacher killed in the explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger. I didn’t tell him that McAuliffe was teaching in Connecticut when she got the opportunity to fly on Challenger.
At 4 a.m. I boarded one of the Bluebird schoolbuses NASA uses to ferry the media to the space center. Individual vehicles were allowed onto Kennedy Space Center only if there were at least three passengers. Single drivers and foreign media were required to take the buses.
I shared my bus with three members of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and a pair of French reporters. Our bags were checked before we boarded, but the inspector failed to give the driver a “search placard,” indicating that passengers had already been through security. This meant that at the checkpoint a mile from the entrance to Kennedy, our bus was told to return to get the search placard. When the Canadian television broadcaster asked the security guard if we could simply be searched again, as he had a 5:30 a.m. live remote broadcast to do, the guard said he was just following NASA orders, and that all incoming buses must show a search placard on launch day. “That’s an idiot decision!” the Canadian thundered. Apologizing, the guard politely told the television reporter that there was nothing he could do. The Canadian responded, “The next time you talk to NASA, tell them I think you’re the biggest asshole I’ve ever met!”
At 5 a.m. I walked into the quiet press building. There was little activity as a half dozen reporters and a handful of NASA officials prepared for a busy day. Outside, the 20-by-10-foot countdown clock glowed in the dark as the minutes ticked away. Behind it lay a lagoon, with Space Shuttle Discovery in the distance bathed in floodlights that reached several hundred feet into the sky. Suddenly, a soothing female voice came over the space center’s outdoor audio system. “At 4:45 this morning, space shuttle crew and managers met and gave a ‘go’ to proceed with the tanking operations [filling the tank with liquid hydrogen and oxygen] for the launch attempt this afternoon for the STS-114 Return to Flight mission.” The voice came from the audio broadcast of NASA Television, which has monitors throughout the space center facilities detailing updates on the planned launch. As I walked around the empty field in front of the countdown clock, the sun began to turn the lower sky a neon orange. The broadcaster continued to reel off details of the mission over the speakers when it hit me that her voice was eerily similar to the woman’s public-address voice in the spaceport in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A malfunctioning heater associated with one section of the orange external tank forced a 90-minute delay in beginning the tanking process. Again, worries mounted that the launch would not happen that day. By 7 a.m., the heater had been repaired and the three-hour fueling began. Unfortunately, NASA’s weather monitors had downgraded launch probability to 40 percent from an earlier 60 percent. Most of the morning was spent monitoring NASA TV and the sky overhead. July weather on Florida’s Atlantic coast is unpredictable, and the dark thunderclouds rolling by were an aggravation. A 10 a.m. interview with famed Apollo flight director Gene Kranz (he coined the famous phrase, “Failure is not an option!”) briefly took my mind off the rolling clouds. As the astronauts rode to the launch pad at noon to enter orbiter Discovery, a thunderstorm began in earnest. An anxious mood flooded the press building as pessimists and naysayers speculated that there would be no launch.
An hour later, the rain stopped and a gorgeous blue sky lit up the Kennedy Space Center. Menacing thunderheads hovered near the outskirts. It was 2 hours and 50 minutes until blastoff and the air was charged with excitement, which grew with each 15-minute weather update. The dark clouds appeared to be blowing inland. With the countdown clock ticking at 2 hours and 33 minutes, the audio on NASA TV suddenly warned that a fuel sensor had malfunctioned. Two minutes later, NASA officially scrubbed the launch. I felt like a four-year-old who had been told that Santa was not coming this Christmas. As of press time, the intermittent failure of the fuel sensor had yet to be resolved. This was not the first time the device had malfunctioned during the past few months.
Space Shuttle Discovery was rescheduled for launch on Tuesday, July 26, but I won’t be there. I’ll be watching a telecast, as I did 44 years ago on a little black-and-white television set. Only this time, I’ll be watching in color. &
The Real Man in the Moon
Of all the people who fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s, Gene Kranz is probably the most integral. Kranz was the crusty, determined flight director of the Apollo 13 lunar-landing mission in 1970 that had to be aborted after a series of system failures in midflight. He was portrayed in the Apollo 13 movie by actor Ed Harris, and immortalized the famous line, “Failure is not a option.” That statement summed up NASA’s tenacity as Kranz, and the the flight team he led, saved the Apollo 13 crew from almost certain death. —Ed Reynolds
Black & White: I know you’ve been told this a million times, but the Apollo 13 mission is the most exciting true story I’ve ever heard.
Gene Kranz: “[Laughing] Apollo 13 was just one of the stories, so I was surprised when the movie came out. But America is not familiar with the many close calls we had during the lunar program. To put it bluntly, risk is the price of progress. Risk is the nature of exploration. And I thank God that we have risk-takers and the astronauts and the people in launch control and the people in mission control who are willing to control the risks to allow us to see solutions to problems in the majority of the very difficult and complex missions we fly. On Apollo 11 we almost ran out of fuel, down to 17 seconds. Very dicey land/abort position. On Apollo 12 we were hit by lightning. Apollo 13, you know the story . . . Apollo 16, in order to get into lunar orbit we had to solve a problem with the steering engines. So this business of risk and risk management, and basically controlling risk, making the level of risk acceptable, is the nature of the beast.”
B&W: Though technology during the Apollo program was less sophisticated than what NASA has today with the space shuttle, Apollo only lost one crew whereas the shuttle program has lost two crews. How do you explain the discrepancy with advanced technology?
Kranz: We’ve flown a lot more shuttle missions. Apollo was a relatively tight system, a relatively small system. We had a space system that was designed for a single objective: go from Earth to the moon and then return back to Earth—a difficult mission. But if you think about the shuttle, it deploys satellites, it retrieves satellites, it carries scientific modules in there, it does repair work in orbit, it brings things back from space, it carries stuff up to the space station. The shuttle is a much more complex system than that which we flew during the Apollo programs. I really consider it quite remarkable that during all of the missions that we have flown with the shuttle we’ve only had two accidents.
B&W: Is returning to the moon still important?
Kranz: Oh, heck yes! I think that if we intend to remain a great nation, if we intend to keep the economics of our engine churning out, we have to do difficult things. Going to the moon and Mars is a difficult thing, energy independence is a difficult thing. There are many things that will focus American know-how to develop new technologies, and new technology is the only way we are going to compete with the rest of the word. We can’t out-mass produce them anymore . . . President Kennedy said we choose to go to the moon and other things not because they are easy but because they are hard. Because he recognized that his nation had to do difficult things in order to remain a leader in the world.
B&W: In the Apollo days, did you have any notions or visions that the present shuttle spacecraft would look as it does today?
Kranz: Back in the Apollo day, frankly, the shuttle was the last thing on my mind [laughs]. My job and my organization’s job was, once we had landed on the moon, fly the remaining missions, bring the crew back safely and successfully, move into more difficult landing sites with a diminishing team—because I had to move team members, flight directors, and instructors over to the Skylab program. So once we had finished Skylab, now we could start focusing on the shuttle. We were intimately involved in the design of the shuttle, but it was in the post-’73 time frame . . . Basically, my job during the Apollo era was to really make sure we finished Apollo safely and successfully. We were landing in sites that had mountains that were higher than the Grand Canyon is deep. So we had our hands full.
B&W: Did you ever wish the early astronauts, who had reputations for wild living, were more tame like today’s shuttle astronauts?
Kranz: No, I think the nature of explorers changes. Sort of like mission control. In the early days most of us came in from aircraft flight testing because that was our background right on down the line. We were working with very rudimentary system; technology was very primitive. So we relied upon extremely intense preparation, innovation to a greater extent. The generation today has to be a hell of a lot smarter than we are. On Apollo, we had a computer on board each spacecraft. On board the shuttle now, you’ve got five computers, four of them working in what they call the redundant set, you’ve got a backup system . . . God, when I was deputy director of flight operations, I used to go crazy with these guys bringing me all these problems, and I’d have to go home and study all night long in order to participate in the meetings the next day. So the nature of the technology we are working with and the nature of exploration continues to demand a different kind of people. You think about Lewis and Clark going across the United States—that was the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo generation. &