Launch fever

In an earlier posting, I talked about ‘schedule pressure’ and how it should have more correctly been referred to as ‘schedule awareness’. Awareness of the schedule contributed to good, productive decision-making. Pressure-based decisions could be shortsighted or worse, destructive.

What about decisions on launch day itself? Hundreds of subordinate schedules and decisions are about to pay off. Pressure? Awareness? Something else?

There’s a phenomenon in the launch business called “Launch Fever.” It, too, is very real. It is never productive and can be destructive. It’s the #1 thing on a Launch Director’s list to recognize and deal with. What is it? Why is it a big deal? What does a LD do about it?

Put yourself in the Shuttle Firing Room on launch day. A tremendous amount of work by thousands of people across the country is about to pay off. The vehicle is full of fuel. The astronauts are all strapped in, their hard work about to pay off big time. TV cameras are rolling. VIPs fill viewing areas, and tens of thousands of tourists line the causeways around the Cape area. Crew families await their loved ones’ achievement. Blue jeans have been replaced by suits and dresses on launch team members. Teams at other NASA and ISS centers are listening. KSC is in full launch mode with security tight on the ground, sea, and in the air. The final schedule achievement is about to be realized. We are about to launch the Space Shuttle. Everyone wants to launch. Our business is to launch. That’s Launch Awareness.

Enter a technical problem, weather issue, fouled Range, or any one of a thousand reasons to question whether we should launch or not. There’s a definite feeling, a palpable mood that sweeps over the collective team. For a while, good decision-making becomes secondary to the desire to launch.

Imagine that: Good decision-making becomes secondary to the desire to launch. Real? It absolutely can be. That’s Launch Fever.

What to do about it? After recognizing that it’s happening, which sometimes can be tricky in the first place, the #1 job of the Launch Director kicks in: Keep that Shuttle on the ground. As the last person to say “GO” it’s incumbent on the LD to have absolutely no reservations to launch. Zero. So even in the face of everyone else wanting to launch by saying GO, my job was to NOT launch the Shuttle unless and until I was ready.

Pressure? Only if you allowed it. Awareness of it was mandatory.

I was asked once what would have happened if on launch day I said NOGO in the face of everyone else being GO. Part of my training, and the training I gave each of my assistant LDs, goes like this. “That’s easy to answer. On that day we would not have launched. The astronauts and the vehicle would be on the ground and and they would be safe. NASA might have a new Launch Director the next day, but on that day we would have been safe.”

I never had to do put that training to use, as good decision-making always prevailed.

exp-nr-endeavor-launch-delayed-cnn-640x360
The final launch of shuttle Endeavour, STS-134, is scrubbed on April 29, 2011 due to problems with heaters on the vehicle’s auxiliary power units. President Obama and his family were on hand but unable to see the launch because of the scrub. (CNN 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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