I was just over 5 years old in December of 1972 when my dad sat me down with him in front of the TV. He told me it was going to be the first time a rocket carrying astronauts took off at night. I’d been crazy for spaceships ever since I could remember. I had Apollo print pajamas and a sleeping bag sporting sputnik’s. I remember it was special because I could watch this one with my dad. It’s funny, I even remember where the TV was sitting, but for some reason I don’t remember it being in the winter. It’s funny the things you remember as a kid.
Today the Shuttle Discovery took off on its last mission. Peripherally I was aware it was coming up, but when I saw a news article saying it was today, my productivity at work shot out the window because I discovered NASA streams the launches online. I called up the NASA website a couple hours before launch time and saw them strapping in the last of the astronauts. I was pleased to find that most of the commentary wasn’t the inane dribble of tv talking heads, but mostly live radio chatter with some explanation by a Kennedy Space Center official.
I tried to just listen to the audio while going about my other work, but I kept getting sucked back in by all the little details. The crew that was buckling in the astronauts wore their mission patches on the tops of their hats so the cameras could see the patches as they are standing while the cockpit is aimed heavenward, so the camera is pointed down. The harnesses that the white-room crew wear to clip in their safety lines has the primary tether access on the shoulder, rather than the back, so they can wear their oxygen tanks and not have them in the way. And my favorite, they said one of the astronauts “…worked at KFC for 5 years before she became an astronaut.” I had a mental double-take at that before I realized that KFC probably stood for Kennedy Flight Center, and not the chicken place.
Time ticked away and, as interesting as it was, I was getting a little impatient for the launch, and I vividly remembered asking my dad why they couldn’t just “light it off”. A small piece of the ceramic heat-resistant tiles came off when removing the protective tape around the door. A glass slurry was used to patch the hole and we heard discussion of how that patch cleared the rules for repairs within specs. The radio chatter with flight control started ticking off more completed items off the checklist above the 400 mark about then. The detail of our downtime checklists have stirred a bit of pride in me at work in their detail, but these were pretty complex and infinitely more thorough.
I had shared this time-killer with my team in an email, and every so often Sam would come to my cube, or I would run to his with some exclamation at the developments. Before the planned hold at nine minutes one of the downrange communiques reported in a rather stressed voice that there was a problem with downrange monitoring and they were a no-go. Flight control stepped in calmly and asked them to work on fixing it.
I was awestruck contemplating the bulk of the procedures involved that I hadn’t considered before. I’m fairly anti-bureaucratic and have done my share of scoffing with news reports of the boondoggle that goes on in any government agency, but in this case I found myself struck with wonder at the balance that has been achieved in safeguarding not only the lives of the astronauts and crew but the huge monetary investment of the mission. A valve was discovered to be .9 degrees outside the allowable differentiation in temperature. The area was checked and showed that one side of the valve was sitting in sun and the other side in the shade. A little discussion showed that fit in with an allowance that could be made regarding natural elements causing temperature differentiation.
The countdown resumed at nine minutes with the downrange still broken. An agreement had been made that the countdown would continue as planned until five minutes to launch and a window could be held a further five minutes to resolve downrange problems before scrubbing the attempt. In a dramatic climax you would expect from the movies the clock ticked down to fifteen seconds left in the window before the hurried commands were given that cleared the error and allowed the count to resume. The cone over the nose of the main fuel tank retracted slowly and the control surfaces and engines gave their final computer-aided tests, swiveling back and forth in a pre-programmed dance almost as if eager to leap from the pad. Flight Control gave the word that the launch area was being bathed in water in some sort of acoustic dampening procedure to withstand the launch stresses. The count hit zero and the sparking ignition sequence lit. For two seconds Discovery hung trembling and with my heart tight in my chest Launch Control said the word “Go” and like it had been unleashed Discovery began to climb.
And again I was five years old and trying to hold back tears at the roar and the light propelling a handful of people outside the safety of the Earth. I was struck with the accomplishment of putting together in working order such a broad spectrum of knowledge that we can move men to an extremely hostile environment and support them there and bring them back again.
In the end I was a little sad at the thought that there are only two space shuttle missions left. Maybe NASA will undertake great projects again, but the step back to single use rockets for supplying the ISS as well as the push for commercial companies to step in to that role also seems to be the ending of an era. Looking back to that December night when, with my dad, I watched a black and white tv and dreamed of being an astronaut, we didn’t have any idea that the Apollo 17 mission would be the last time that man would go so far into space for more than 40 years. Maybe the hope is with commercial space ventures and a reboot of competition to push back the boundaries once again, but I was always a NASA kid.