Astronaut families on launch day

Put yourself in the role of an immediate family member of an astronaut on Launch Day. What do you do? What do you feel? Where are you? Will your wife, husband, or parent be OK?

Imagine the multitude of thoughts and emotions as the most important person in your life is about to put her or his life on the line, literally. Do you think about Challenger? Columbia? Apollo 1? Of course you do, but you don’t allow yourself to be consumed by them either.

If you’re the parent of a youngster, what do you do to assure your child that mom or dad will be fine? And how do you spend the final several hours of countdown waiting for liftoff?

I’ve spoken to lots of astronauts over the years and it comes down to “duty supersedes danger.” Easy to say as adults, not so much for kids.

So what did we do to help the families and their children on launch day? Several things evolved over time as good to do and they became standard protocol—a tradition, if you will. First though, a brief understanding of the timeline for launch might help.

The astronauts usually arrived at KSC three days before launch, as did their families. Being quarantined for about seven days before a mission necessitated the crew and families staying at different locations. The astronauts stayed on base at the Crew Quarters in the Operations and Checkout Building, about eight miles from the launch pad. The families would stay in local motels. Their paths crossed only in phone calls or other electronic ways. The next two days would see the crew get into final training for the mission and the families preparing for a very momentous day.

Launch day for the crew started approximately seven hours before launch and after fueling of the External Tank had begun. Breakfast and suit-up followed. By about three hours before launch, they’d be strapped in the Shuttle awaiting liftoff, as final systems checks continued from the Firing Room.

The immediate family members—wives, husbands, and children—would arrive at the Launch Control Center about four hours before launch and take up residence in my office on the fourth floor, just above the control rooms. Each family would have their own personal veteran astronaut assigned to them to explain what was happening, answer questions, etc. Protected from the prying eyes of the press in this private setting allowed them to be alone with each other and their thoughts.

But how do you entertain the youngsters for the long three to four hours of waiting? The ‘Kid Pic’ was born in the earliest days of the Shuttle Program as a fun way to help each child pass the time and think positive thoughts about what his or her parent was about to do.

The Kid Pic was hand drawn in full color by the astronauts’ children on a 3’ by 5’ white board in an adjoining but separate office. It was a great way to allow their parents even more privacy and occupy their children. Each drawing was unique, inspired by their pride in their parent and limitless imaginations. After launch it was framed and protected behind plexiglass and hung in the hallways of the LCC.

As the number of Kid Pics grew with each mission conducted, we began displaying them in other operational areas of KSC. Artistic prowess wasn’t required, and none were judged for it!


The STS-107 Kid Pic, drawn by the children of Columbia‘s crew (photo by Jonathan Ward)

As liftoff approached, the families with kids in-tow would be escorted to the roof of the LCC to experience launch from a truly great vantage point. Once their loved ones were safely in orbit, their day of overwhelming pride and unbelievable stress was essentially over. They would return to their motel rooms or head directly back to Houston to watch the crew perform on behalf of the country as the mission unfolded.

Launch was a success, but true celebrations would have to wait for their reunions as families again on landing day.

Panoramic view of LC-39 from the LCC roof (Photo by Jonathan Ward)

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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