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

Categories: NASA

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.)

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Shuttle Instructor
Shuttle Instructor

A "Systems AOA" is a type of abort that causes the shuttle to have to go completely around the world and land in Florida (or California) - that's an Abort Once Around. It's bad because the two types of SYS AOA's are for different scenarios where the shuttle has lost all cooling and require huge powerdowns - as opposed to a generic AOA which does not require a powerdown. An AOA is typically called for certain failures late in the ascent to orbit, when it's going too fast to be able to land in France or Spain or return to the launch site quickly. So in this case, the call for the abort came pretty early, around 10 minutes or so after liftoff, but late enough that they had to travel around the world and come back 90 minutes after liftoff.


Challenger exploded in 1986, not 1987.

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