Last time I talked a little bit about Columbia’s final time at the launch pad and why it had to extend over the annual year-end holiday period. This time I’d like to take you back to those days 14 years ago and recall it in more detail.
The final Launch Team training exercise for STS-107 happened on Friday, December 6, 2002. It was the last chance for the whole team to practice together in an environment that simulated launch countdown conditions as closely as possible. It was also the ‘cert run’ for all members to be declared certified to conduct the actual launch in mid January. It went very well with the team solving numerous diabolical problems crafted by the training team to test our knowledge and ability to work under time constraints imposed by a countdown clock. And though the whole thing was conducted against a math model instead of the actual flight and ground hardware, it always felt like launch day itself, less the TV cameras and ties! We were ready. We took the weekend off.
We came back to work Monday morning December 9 and promptly rolled the vehicle out to the Pad. This eight-hour job was normally conducted at night to avoid daytime storms and lightning, but this time of year they weren’t a big threat so we rolled on first shift. I gave the GO to roll and the team did what they did best, getting the Columbia stack (Orbiter, ET, SRBs) on the Mobile Launch Platform to Pad A in a little less than 8 hours on top of the massive Crawler Transporter. Once there, the CT lowered the MLP onto six mounts at the pad and backed away, its job done.
The rest of that week was spent performing a ‘pad validation’ test wherein all systems between the stack and the pad are connected and wrung out. These include all power, communications, data, water, gasses, etc. During this two-day test we performed a confidence run on all three Auxiliary Power Units, as they were replaced in the Orbiter Processing Facility and needed to be tested “outside” and prior to launch day when they’d be needed to power the hydraulic system pumps. Also done this first week were all the preparations for loading the hypergolic fuels for the thrusters, Orbiter Maneuvering System engines, and topping off the APU tanks. In parallel with the hyper preps we conducted a test of the main propulsion system by pressurizing it with helium and looking for leaks. This test was developed after we experienced a series of troublesome leaks in the late 80s that delayed several missions.
The second full week at the pad was dominated by two tasks – loading the hypergolic fuels and conducting the practice launch with the astronauts participating. Hyper load took two full days as did the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test, with the simulated T-0 at 1100 EST, Friday, December 20. Both went very well and it was great seeing Rick Husband and his crew one last time before launch itself. (I’ve described the traditional crew dinner during TCDT in another post, by the way.) We took both days of the weekend off.
Monday, December 23 was a day of preparing the vehicle and ground systems for the nine days we’d be home with our families before returning to work Thursday, January 2, 2003. But even though most of us were off those days a very dedicated skeleton crew cared for Columbia every day. Walkdowns, visual inspections, security sweeps were all done as a matter of course. We were all glad to see her in such great shape January 2, now just fourteen days away from launch.