Manned spaceflight traditions

Traditions play an extremely important role in almost all aspects of life. Think of your work, your personal doings, your religion. Think about how your parents raised you, and how you raise(d) your kids. Think of politics—well, OK, don’t! Traditions are everywhere, and deservedly so.

Traditions in the American manned spaceflight business run deep. From those that were born in the Mercury program—like the ceremonial “Farewell” words from the capsule communicator to the astronaut on board the rocket—to the post-launch beans and cornbread of the Shuttle program, they are ways to celebrate, connect to the past, and look to the future.

Continuity. Celebration. Reverence.

Of all the traditions, my personal favorite was the pre-launch ‘quiet time’ shared by a lucky few at KSC with the crew that was just about ready to fly into space. We did this during TCDT Week. The Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test was, on the surface, a dress rehearsal for launch. The astronauts and the launch team would conduct an exercise as close to launch conditions as possible to prepare for the real thing. After all, no rookie astronaut or console operator should experience launch ‘cold’, right?

The three days leading up to the simulated launch was time to train in emergency systems, get technical and operational briefings, and have the ‘quiet time’, also known as the TCDT crew/management dinner. Always conducted at the famed “Beach House” on the Atlantic coast, it was a chance for the astronauts to get to know the folks who prepared their spacecraft and payloads, and vice versa. Of critical importance, and an intended consequence, was the opportunity for them to get to know and personally thank a fraction of those people whose work could directly affect their lives.

With a group of about fifteen folks at the dinner, representing the thousands of KSC workers, the Orbiter Test Conductor went from being “OTC” to being “Roberta.” The Director of Payload Processing was now known as “Steve.” And the Launch Director became “Mike.”

Just a name change? NO WAY. We went from ‘Cape guys’ to trusted colleagues and friends very quickly.

The meal itself was a tradition: barbecue chicken, beef brisket, smoked sausage, baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad, tossed green salad, buttered and toasted Italian bread, a dish of sliced jalapenos and other condiments, and brownies for desert. The wonderful ladies at crew quarters would prepare the food, the crew would provide the “refreshments”.

Talk was sometimes about the mission but mostly about families, colleges, hobbies, and the like. The time passed quickly overlooking the ocean and mementos of previous missions. It was by any measure a time for fellowship, some reflection, and certainly wishes for success.

(It should be noted that the astronauts routinely went around the KSC processing facilities thanking as many of the technicians, engineers, and office workers as possible as they were going about their business. Seeing a Blue-Suiter was much more common than rare.)

Many other traditions surrounded Shuttle’s TCDT Week, Launch Week, and Landing Day, and I’ll get to them in time. Many can be traced back to the 1960s when similar groups had similar interactions before manned missions.

We owe a tremendous amount to those that truly blazed the trail and left us with enduring and deeply meaningful traditions. I’m certain many will survive the transition to the next manned programs. They should.

(Hear Mike tell the story of the STS-107 Columbia crew dinner in this “Untold Story from the Rocket Ranch“.)

beach-house
The Beach House (NASA photo)

Author: Mike Leinbach

Mike was the final Space Shuttle Launch Director at NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center. He led the launch team for all Shuttle missions from August 2000 to the end of the program in 2011, giving the final "go" for every launch.

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