At the National Air and Space Museum

Mike and I were invited to speak at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on February 12. While I always feel honored to speak to groups, this venue held a special place in my heart. I worked as a volunteer tour guide at the NASM back in the summers of 1971 and 1972, while I was a student in high school. I can’t tell you how excited I was to be back again in the capacity of a subject matter expert!

We began our Washington, DC weekend with a signing at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, on Sunday, February 11. The Udvar-Hazy Center’s vast hangar holds planes and space vehicles that are too large to display in a more traditional museum. Here you’ll find everything from a World War I “Spad” to the B-29 Enola Gay that dropped the Hiroshima bomb to a Concorde SST to an SR-71 to the space shuttle Discovery!

Mike and I walked around Discovery before our book signing. Mike remarked that the last time he stood under Discovery, she was still radiating heat from re-entry. That was after the conclusion of the STS-133 mission on March 9, 2011.

I was fascinated to hear Mike point out several things that I might not have otherwise noticed. For example, take a look at the discolored streaks marked by the arrows in the photo below. Those give you an indication of the angle of attack—how steeply “nose-up” the space shuttle flies when it is re-entering the atmosphere.

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Mike and me with Discovery, February 11, 2018. (Jonathan Ward photo)

Mike also pointed out to me some of the newer, high-density “FRCI” insulation tiles on various spots along the orbiter. These newer-technology tiles replaced some tiles along the orbiter’s belly and under its wings. You can see some of them in the photo above, as they are darker black than the older tiles.

I never cease to be amazed at how large a vehcile the space shuttle orbiter was—and Mike points out that it was the smallest part of the shuttle “stack” at launch.

It’s doubly hard to imagine that a one-pound piece of foam could bring down such a mighty ship, as it did with Columbia.

As a longtime resident of Northern Virginia, before I moved to North Carolina seven years ago, I really enjoyed seeing many friends of mine who came by to say hi at the museum. My son and daughter also brought their families to share the day with me. My middle granddaughter Samantha wore her astronaut garb and she fit right in!

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My family! My wife Jane and me; granddaughters Molly (pink coat), astronaut Samantha, and baby Charlotte; my daughter Rosey (dark coat) and her husband Jason; and my son Ken (blue shirt) and his wife Valerie. And Mike off in the corner, hopelessly outnumbered.

That night, we met for dinner with former shuttle commander Pam Melroy and Robert Hanley of NASA. Pam was in charge of the Columbia crew module reconstruction effort back in 2003, and she was instrumental in writing the crew survivability report that was key to several important equipment redesigns for future crewed spacecraft. Robert was a member of the Vehicle Integration Test Team in 2003, and he also played a very important role in the crew module reconstruction. Both Pam and Robert were key contributors for Bringing Columbia Home, and although I’d spoken with them extensively on the phone, I’d never met them in person.

Astronauts always have tons of wonderful stories to relate! I was thrilled to hear Pam give us some peaks behind the scenes of what it was like to work as a “Cape Crusader” to prepare shuttles for other crews, as well as her own experiences during missions. For example, she said that you get used to making very small and very slow movements when you’re in zero-G; she said you could always tell who the rookie astronauts were because they were covered with bruises after the first day or two. But it was critical for the shuttle’s commander and pilot to prepare for the larger, more forceful actions that would be needed to control the shuttle during reentry. So the pilots had a hand controller hooked to a laptop that enabled them to simulate the actual hand and arm motions required for reentry and landing beginning a day before the end of the mission. Pam said she really needed that reminder, because she blew the first simulated landing!

Pam also mentioned that she always had a particularly hard time adjusting from zero-G back to Earth’s gravity. It was doubly hard for her when she had to fly the shuttle back home as commander when “my gyros were pegged” and she felt physically awful from the transition back to gravity.

Robert had been the personal interface between Columbia‘s crew and the vehicle team on the ground at Kennedy. He shared some wonderful reminiscences—touching and funny—of his time with the crew of STS-107.

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Not looking too bad, considering we had just spent 3-1/2 hours eating, drinking, and talking at Maggiano’s! Mike, “Pambo,” Robert, and me. 

Monday, February 12 was our day at the NASM’s main building on Independence Avenue in Washington, DC. We were hosted by Dr. Valerie Neal, chair of the Smithsonian’s Space History Department and curator of the NASM’s space artifacts. Mike taped a brief segment with Marty Kelsey for the Smithsonian’s STEM-in-30 program, talking about how the slidewire escape system worked at the launch pad. Mike also taped a short segment for middle school students about his educational and career path and what he liked about his job.

Then it was time for the “What’s New in Aerospace?” program, hosted by Dr. Neal. I can’t describe for you how amazing it felt to be in that wonderful space, with my family in the front row of the audience—and my guidance counselor from high school sitting right behind them! I hadn’t seen her in person for 35 years, but we have kept in touch since 1974. She was instrumental in helping me sort out my educational path when I was a confused teenager, and even after I went off to college. It was such an honor to have her there to share the culmination of my life’s work (so far).

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Mike flashes a “thumbs up” to a colleague just before we go live.

I can’t believe how fast the program time flew by. Dr. Neal’s easygoing demeanor made this feel much more like a conversation with a friend than a presentation to a worldwide audience. It seemed like we were just scratching the surface of our stories about the recovery effort, and suddenly we saw the PA holding up a sign that it was 2:28 pm, meaning the show was only supposed to go another two minutes longer! There was so much more we wanted to talk about, but no time in which to do it.

Afterward, we learned that over 3,600 people had watched the program on Facebook Live! And the recording of the show is now posted here for your viewing pleasure.

I should also point out that the Smithsonian asked us to write a blog post for their website about the Columbia accident and its aftermath, and you can find it at this link.

We signed books at the NASM gift shop afterward. It’s always a pleasure to sign books for people who are interested in learning more about the story, and it’s always interesting to hear what parts of the book people found most absorbing. It’s sometimes difficult for authors to judge how their book will resonate with people, especially in a book like this that has technical aspects but also deeply emotional moments. As Mike says about the reconstruction, “If you can separate out the emotions, it was a fascinating engineering exercise…but you can’t separate out the emotions.”

 

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After the signing, we met up with former Shuttle Test Director Al Sofge and his wife Suzanne, a retired director from NOAA. Mike, his wife Charlotte, and Al and Suzanne shared a lot of laughs about the life of a test director during the shuttle program. Mike noted that Al was notorious for walking so briskly through the hallways that he created a gust of wind when he strode by. People gave the strength of that wind gust the unit of measure “1 Al.” If he was in a hurry for something particularly important, he might create a gust of 1.2 Al or even 1.4 Al! We also talked about the recent SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch and possible paths that NASA and the commercial crew companies might take.

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Charlotte and Mike Leinbach, and Suzanne and Al Sofge (Jonathan Ward photo)

All too quickly, our time in DC was over. We said our goodbyes at our hotel in Virginia this morning, and laughed when we said—seriously—”See you tomorrow in Florida!” We have two more signings on Thursday, February 15 in the KSC area.

Stay tuned!

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Future astronaut Samantha. What will she be flying in 20 years? (Ken Ward photo)

“Columbia—Lessons and Legends of Recovery”

On January 26, 2018 I had the distinct honor of being one of several guests in a panel discussions entitled, “Columbia—Lessons and Legends of Recovery.” The panel was produced by Michael “Chach” Ciannilli, head of NASA’s Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program, and it was held in Kennedy Space Center’s Training Auditorium. Several hundred people attended; indeed, it was standing room only!

Chach opened the meeting with a vivid visual image of how the thousands of volunteers and workers from more than one hundred agencies transformed what had been a very dark day into something with a brighter meaning. Chach said that a few glimmers of light in that initial darkness came together to produce a few rays of light, and as the days progressed and more people became involved, those rays came together to form a beams of light, and eventually those beams gathered into a powerful beacon that guided Columbia and her crew home one final time.

Cabana ACCLLP intro.jpgKSC Director Bob Cabana spoke next, recalling how the STS-107 mission was his first as head of the Astronaut Office. He had been on the Astrovan with the crew as they went to the launch pad on January 16, 2003. He was at the runway waiting for them to come home on February 1. And it was a short time after they failed to arrive that he had to inform their families that the crew had perished. Cabana said he hopes no one at NASA will ever have to do something like that again.

Mike Leinbach spoke next, setting the stage for the accident and the early phases of recovery and reconstruction. Mike was followed by Dave King, former Marshall Space Flight Center Director, who led NASA’s efforts to recover Columbia‘s crew and the vehicle’s debris. King said that until we interviewed him for the book, he had rarely spoken to anyone about his experiences in the recovery, and that this was one of the first times he had ever spoken about it publicly.

Following King’s remarks was a short video tribute to the crew of Columbia. I produced the video for this event, and you can find it at this link. The music is as song “Sixteen Minutes from Home,” by Chach’s nephew Kyle Breese.

The next hour was a panel discussion. Included were Greg Cohrs of the USDA Forest Service (who was instrumental in leading the search for Columbia’s crew in Sabine County, Texas), Gerry Schumann (NASA’s Program Manager for Institutional Safety), Dave King, Mike Leinbach, Chach, and myself. We covered a wide range of topics ranging from where we each were when we learned of the accident to the lessons we learned and what we think the American public needs to know.

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Mike Leinbach (left), Dave King, and Gerry Schumann listen to Greg Cohrs. (Jonathan Ward photo)

Most deeply touching to me was hearing senior NASA leaders say that the accident strengthened their resolve to make sure everyone has a voice and to speak up whenever something doesn’t feel right—not to assume that “smart people somewhere must already be looking at this.”

Greg Cohrs and I both provided “outside” perspectives on leadership and communications cultural issues. Greg pointed out that the Forest Service had faced very similar issues in how hard it was for unpleasant information to make it to the attention of management, but the Service was making strides to turn that around. I noted that it is easy for management to say that they want open debate, but that it takes extra effort by leaders to insure that there is no hint of intimidation or retribution if someone brings up difficult subjects.

Mike Leinbach strongly recommended that everyone in the audience read both the Rogers Commission report on the Challenger accident and the CAIB report on the Columbia accident, and then read about how NASA responded to both sets of recommendations. “When faced with a decision about how to proceed,” he said, “I hope you’ll do it the way we did after Columbia.” By that, he meant examining institutional and technical flaws with open discussion and debate, and learning from mistakes rather than treating an accident as an embarrassment to be buried and forgotten.

An audience question and answer session ensued, followed by a meet-and-greet after the program ended. What a thrill it was to be part of this discussion and to relax with some of the participants at Brix in Titusville afterward!

Day of Remembrance Reflections – Part 2

I had the honor of attending the NASA Day of Remembrance ceremonies at Kennedy Space Center this morning, as a guest of Mike Leinbach. As much as I thought I was emotionally prepared for the event, I could not help being moved to tears several times during the course of the service.

During the opening acknowledgments, I was elated that Eileen Collins recognized Greg Cohrs from the US Forest Service for his tireless efforts to recover Columbia and her crew, from the day of the accident until the day recovery operations ended. Eileen said that NASA will never forget the support that Greg and the people of East Texas rendered during the recovery of Columbia.

This year’s memorial program focused on four astronauts who perished about fifty years ago: Elliot M. See, Jr., Charles A. Bassett II, Clifton C. “CC” Williams, and Michael Adams. With the exception of X-15 pilot Adams, none of them had the opportunity to make it into space.

Most touching to me was listening to the children of the fallen astronauts, who were still young when their fathers perished. They lost their fathers without having the opportunity to get to know who they really were. Charlie Bassett’s daughter Karen Stevenson was only eight years old when her father was killed. She said, “I was just beginning to realize that he was more than just my daddy: that people cared about him, depended on him, trusted him, admired him…that he was smart, studious, gregarious, warm and funny and dedicated, and maybe just a teensy bit geeky.”

Tal Ramon, the son of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the Columbia accident, traveled from Israel for the event. Tal has lost not only his father in 2003 but also his brother Asaf, an Israeli Air Force pilot who died in a training accident in 2009. Tal is using music to help him deal with the loss of his father and brother. He sang and played his stunningly beautiful composition “Dmut” (Courage) and played a piano solo “Victoria” (Victory). His profoundly moving music said more than words could ever convey, and it touched a very deep part of my soul.

Eileen Collins then reverently read the names of the fallen astronauts, and with that music still in our ears, it was impossible not to feel an overwhelming sadness at the loss of people who held such promise—but also to know that they died doing what they truly enjoyed.

The ceremony then moved out to the Space Mirror, where Bob Cabana (Director of Kennedy Space Center) and Therrin Protze (Chief Operating Officer of Delaware North) laid a wreath emblazoned “Forever Remembered.” The rest of us were then invited to twine the stem of a rose or carnation into the fence in front of the mirror. It was a simple and beautiful way to bring closure to the event.

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Greg, Sandra, and Adam Cohrs speak with STS-114 commander Eileen Collins at the Space Mirror. (photo by Jonathan Ward)

Afterward, I enjoyed connecting with people I’ve met over the years during my many visits to the Space Coast—Lee Solid, Bob Sieck, Russ Lloyd, Ann Micklos, Gerry Schumann, Steve Coester, and Jean Wright, just to name a few who were there. I admire their contributions and envy their connections to the space program. Their careers have included many long days and much thankless effort, but all of it has been important work. We couldn’t be exploring the universe without people like them.

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Visiting the VAB always makes my heart race and my spirit soar! (Photo by Jonathan Ward)

Greg Cohrs, his wife Sandra and his son Adam, and my wife Jane and I then met up with Mike Ciannilli, director of KSC’s Columbia Research and Preservation Office. Mike took us up to the Columbia Room on the 16th floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building. I had the honor of visiting the room in June 2015 when I first began working on the book. However, Greg and his family had not seen it before. The room is currently in transition. Mike has been working to upgrade the room to better fit its intended purpose—as a learning laboratory rather than merely a warehouse of Columbia‘s debris.

Being in the room with Greg and his family was a powerful experience. Greg and Sandra had found pieces of Columbia‘s debris on their property in Hemphill after the accident. Greg of course managed the search operations for Columbia‘s crew in Sabine County, Texas, and then helped manage the debris recovery operations in East Texas after that. Adam had taken two days off from college a week after the accident to help search for the crew. And Mike Ciannilli had flown as a spotter on helicopters out of Palestine, Texas during the debris recovery. Again, I hold these people with utmost admiration for what they did in very tough times.

Reflections on NASA’s Day of Remembrance

Mike and Jonathan share their thoughts on NASA’s Day of Remembrance, 2018

by Mike Leinbach and Jonathan Ward

420415main_astromemfilephotoOn January 25, NASA and our extended NASA Family will pause to remember the astronauts who lost their lives in service to our country.

The Day of Remembrance was instituted by then-Administrator Sean O’Keefe in 2004. He decreed that the last Thursday in January would be set aside to remember the astronauts who gave their lives in the line of duty.

This year will mark the 51st anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, 32 years since the Challenger accident, and the 15th anniversary of the loss of Columbia in East Texas. All three tragedies occurred within a one-week period in late January and early February, hence the chosen date to hold the Day of Remembrance.

NASA employees and the space community will gather in various places across the country, most near the NASA centers, with common feelings of reverence, respect, and appreciation. We will honor all 24 fallen heroes with speeches and other such memorials—some formal, some less so, but all with the dignity one would expect, and deserved by those we celebrate.

It’s a time to think and thank…

And so it will be again this year. For those of us on the Space Coast, the ceremony is always held at the Space Mirror at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Dedicated in 1991 by Vice President Quayle, the black granite wall, 50 feet wide by 42 feet high, carries the names of the 24 astronauts who died in the line of duty. Their names are laser-cut through the 2.5 inch thick panels for all time and for all to know.

The Astronauts Memorial Foundation administers the memorial among its other very worthy initiatives including educating America’s youth through innovative educational technology programs. I was recently asked to serve on the Board of the Foundation, a call for which I feel deeply honored.

This year’s memorial event starts at 10:00 am Eastern Time, if you’re in the area and would like to attend. It begins in the Center for Education building adjacent to the Rocket Garden. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend.

We hope you will pause and thank our lost astronauts for their sacrifices, no matter your location or connection with them.

On a personal note, these ceremonies invariably leave me with the two dominant feelings I believe most other people experience:

  1. I admire the astronauts and their families, and
  2. I hope the number of fallen comrades stops at 24.

Fairly simplistic I know.

The important thing is, how does #1 manifest itself to make sure #2 happens? That’s better left as the subject for one or more follow-on posts, as it gets complicated pretty fast. It gets into some very fundamental questions about exploration, safety, experience, value, and values.

For now I choose to simply embrace #1 and #2, and remember my friends privately.

— Mike

— — — — — — —

On the morning of Saturday, January 28, 1967 I was a 10-year-old boy riding with my family in our van in Naha, Okinawa. I vividly remember hearing on Armed Forces Radio that the crew of Apollo 1 had just perished in a fire. My father pulled over to the side of the road. My sisters and I went silent. None of us could believe it. The loss of my astronaut heroes devastated me every bit as powerfully as the assassination of President Kennedy just three years earlier. I worried that our space program had just ended. I was too young to appreciate the resolve of the country and NASA to continue moving forward despite the horrible loss.

Exactly nineteen years later, I walked by a conference room at work where someone had turned on a TV. No one spoke. I saw smoke and vapor trails and was confused about what was going on. What seemed like an eternity passed, as I watched the replays of the fireball and vapor cloud and the solid rocket boosters careening in the sky. Apollo 1 had been an accident on the ground, but Challenger was the first time NASA had lost a crew in flight.

And we lost another seven brave souls in flight on February 1, 2003 when Columbia disintegrated over Texas. The loss of Columbia and her crew affected me perhaps even more deeply than Challenger, as the advent of the Internet and NASA’s public outreach had enabled me to follow the crew’s training and mission for months. This was a crew who I felt that I knew, even though I had never met any of them.

I started attending Spacefests and Astronaut Scholarship Foundation events in 2009. I’ve spent much of the past three years researching the Columbia accident, and now I know dozens of astronauts and other people who had worked on the Space Shuttle Program. I venerated the astronauts as a kid, and continued to put them on pedestals as an adult. But now I realize that I had never fully wrapped my head around the fact that the people who climb into space vehicles are real people with real families. True, they’re exceptionally competent and smart and brave and tough.

But they’re also really nice people with parents and husbands and wives and sons and daughters who care about them and worry about them. I never truly knew what it was like to worry about someone until I became an Army dad, and my son went on his first—and second—and third—deployment to a war zone. That’s when you begin to understand the real nature of sacrifice in the line of duty.

Our astronauts put their lives on the line every day to help make our world a better place. They have to balance the need to explore with the toll that it takes on their families.

I’m thankful that Sean O’Keefe instituted the NASA Day of Remembrance as an annual milestone that provides us the opportunity to pause and reflect on the meaning of heroism—the willingness to put aside one’s personal concerns in order to serve the greater good.

Let us be grateful to those brave people and their families for their service to our country and to humanity.

— Jonathan

The Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program

One of the most positive outgrowths from the Columbia accident remains the Debris Loan Program. I have sung its praise in earlier posts, and for good reason. Another initiative underway has equal or greater positive potential.

Something more meaningful than studying the debris in order to design safer spacecraft? Yes. What about something to deal with some of the common root causes of America’s manned spaceflight accidents? To deal with them BEFORE they become big problems.

This is NASA’s Apollo Challenger Columbia Lessons Learned Program. (ACCLLP)

Never heard of it? That’s understandable, given its newness. But I hope that as it matures and gains traction within NASA, its value will be realized and its lessons made available even outside NASA organizations. The lessons NASA learned the hard way are widely applicable. Think about the value of open communications vs. stifled debate as just one example.

So what is the ACCLLP?

It’s a fully-funded and staffed NASA HQ initiative to teach all NASA and supporting organizations about the causes—and especially the common causes—of the three fatal accidents. And obviously, as the causes are discussed, the more important topic of their lessons learned are emphasized.

Back to open communications: Challenger and her crew were victims of stifled debate as surely as flawed hardware. Improvements to the hardware proved easier to implement than the organizational and cultural corrections based on that tough lesson learned. NASA improved its communications and management practices, but they eroded over the 17 years between Challenger and Columbia. We fell back into some bad habits: over-confidence, less hunger for fully understanding the potential for minor issues becoming major ones, and to a degree stifled debate. Columbia was victim to those practices just as surely as Challenger.

How does ACCLLP work and how can it help?

Mike Ciannilli (who I fondly call “Chachi”) is a former member of the shuttle launch team and one of the people who conducted aerial searches for Columbia’s debris. He created, developed, and now manages the ACCLLP for NASA and is 100% dedicated to its success. Mike has developed lessons learned programs and “teaches” them to the workforce at KSC and other centers. He routinely conducts tours of the Columbia Preservation room in the Vehicle Assembly Building each week. These reach a wide array of folks across all NASA Centers and missions, including civil servants, contractors along with the brand new commercial crew workforce—even NASA Space Act partners such as NASCAR. Mike ensures that these tours powerfully emphasize the lessons of the past and present, and their direct impact to the future.

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Mike Ciannilli with his beloved Columbia (photo courtesy Mike Ciannilli)

Mike is also creating the Agency’s largest lessons learned library with teaching materials from NASA and other organizations. It is the agency’s best advocate to not ignore or forget the past, but rather to learn from it.

A traveling road show took some key pieces of Columbia’s debris to the NASA Centers over a decade ago. Word has it that Chachi is creating a brand new and really cool concept to bring Columbia herself to the masses as we speak. Fireside chats featuring ‘graybeards’ talking about Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia have been held to full houses and garnering outstanding reviews. And other concepts to discuss lessons learned are being developed to help spread the word, including videos that would be made widely available. Mike is overloaded with requests, and loves it!

So if you’re currently involved in manned spaceflight (or unmanned spaceflight for that matter) and want to know more about this extremely positive outcome of NASA’s three fatal accidents, look up Mike. He’s based at KSC and would love to have you and your organization exposed to his work. I promise you’ll not only be impressed with his enthusiasm, but the lessons learned will be applicable and valuable for your people. There’s no doubt.

KSC “Launch Director” Tours

About 18 months ago I was asked to support the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in their overarching goal for their guests of being educated while being entertained. I was honored to be considered for it, given the other major ‘attractions’ that further that goal. Heroes and Legends—the re-envisioned Astronaut Hall of Fame—recently opened in the original Debus Center. A new Mars exhibit will soon begin construction. Honoring the fallen astronauts in Forever Remembered and the tribute to the Apollo 1 crew are moving reminders of the risks associated with spaceflight. By far, however, the KSCVC celebrates the successes and contributions to mankind that the space programs have provided for over 50 years. Attendance promises a full day of activities and memories unlike the typical theme parks in Orlando.

My small part is called, cleverly, the Launch Director Tour! A few times each month, I take a group on a personal tour of the Atlantis attraction, the Launch Control Center, launch pads, and conclude at the Apollo Saturn V facility. In the four-hour tour we discuss not only those specifics but get into anything the group wishes to know more about. As I tell them at the outset, “If you leave here today and wish you had asked me a question but didn’t, bad on you! My job is to make your time here as full as possible. Answering your questions is an integral part of that.” And the groups aren’t shy!

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At my Launch Director console in Firing Room 4. (Photo by Jonathan Ward)

Since they are truly ‘avid space fans’ the questions asked are just terrific. Technical specifics of the Shuttle, the early manned spaceflight programs and the current and future ones, most memorable moments, most difficult launch, and the questions from kids are special! We also always have foreign guests on the tours and their perspectives on America’s programs offer unique and memorable interactions.

I could write a book in itself on the questions I get on my tours—they are that good. My personal favorites generally fall into three categories. 1: What is the future of manned spaceflight? 2: How I made the final launch decision. 3: My favorite launch.

Discussing the future always comes up. As do the politics behind decisions. This discussion can always take unexpected turns! But briefly, I express my view that Mars should not be the next goal of our manned efforts, but establishing a permanent base on the Moon. Why? We need to learn to live on another body before we take off on the exponentially more difficult trip to Mars. The Moon is the next logical step. Not as sexy as Mars, but vastly more logical in our progression off Earth.

I made the final launch decision by thinking about my seven friends on the rocket and asking myself if I’m ready to commit them to the most risky thing they have ever done. The astronauts are real people with real lives, real families, real children, spouses, parents. How can I give a “go” without considering their families? This was always part of my final decision, but became even more paramount, if that’s possible, following Columbia.

My favorite launch is answered two ways: the most difficult and the most unexpected. The most difficult was STS-107, Columbia’s final mission. Why? The book has more detail, but we had a security scare just before liftoff that had me holding onto my console to steady my hands, literally. Just sixteen months after the attacks of 9/11, and with an Israeli astronaut on board, Columbia was recognized as a prime terrorist target. Liftoff was fine, but foam damage during ascent doomed the mission and crew. The launch with the most unexpected event was STS-105 and the need to launch earlier than planned due to impending bad weather. I addressed this in an earlier posting. Check it out.

My all-time favorite question, however, came from a kid from England, maybe ten years old. She asked, “How does an orbit work?” WOW! From a kid came a question demonstrating great thought, curiosity, and desire to learn. The goal of the whole tour concept had come true in spades. Fortunately, luckily, I could work my way through it, but first I asked the group how many people knew the answer. Of the 35 people, 2 knew. I asked them to help me answer. With my pen as a prop we demonstrated the balance between gravity and speed and the little girl’s eyes lit up. She got it. That’s why we do the tours. It was perfect.

I invite all of you to join us if you ever find yourself at the KSC Visitor’s Complex. Advance reservations for the tour are recommended—and can be made at this link. The tour frequently sells out weeks in advance. If not on my tour, the overall KSCVC experience promises not to disappoint in any way.

Tropical Storm Ernesto and the Half Rollback

Every now and then, a little creativity goes a long way…….

As noted in my previous post, we were charged with protecting the Kennedy Space Center workforce and the hardware. But of course, we were in the business to launch the Shuttle, not stay on the ground indefinitely while maximizing the safety statistics. The basic tenet for all of us was “Get work done, safely.” Apply that to all aspects of Shuttle processing and launch. Meeting the manifest was important. Launching was important. Doing it safely was paramount.

Decisions that could affect the manifest required me to consult with the Shuttle Program managers at Johnson Space Center (JSC)—and for good reason. The “Program” was “theirs”, not “mine”, or KSC’s. So for major decisions like rolling back for storms two people needed to agree: the Launch Director (me, at KSC) and the Operations Manager (the JSC manager stationed at KSC). We conferred and jointly made those major manifest-impacting decisions.

Flashback to late August, 2006. Atlantis was on the pad preparing for STS-115’s assembly mission to the ISS. Atlantis was originally scheduled to launch on August 27. Our ground team made an unprecedented replacement of some parts on the shuttle with a week to go until launch, and we maintained the schedule. Then on August 25, one of the most powerful lightning bolts ever recorded at Kennedy Space Center hit the lightning mast at the top of the launch pad’s Fixed Service Structure. We needed at least 24 hours to assess the damage from that strike, moving the launch date to August 29.

That was all trouble enough. But meanwhile, a minor tropical weather disturbance had been forming in the Caribbean. Unimpressive—but like all such systems, we would monitor it in case the unexpected happened and it became a threat to us.

True to form, after days of watching the storm, now named Ernesto, its track and forward speed appeared likely to affect Florida’s Space Coast while Atlantis was still preparing for launch.

Decisions were coming, no doubt. We began the initial work to roll the shuttle back to the Vehicle Assembly Building as a precaution. This work could easily be reversed and still hold the launch date if the storm took an unexpected turn away from us. Discussions with the 45th Space Wing meteorologists were now being held every six hours to coincide with the official forecasts from the National Hurricane Center.

As Ernesto crossed western Cuba and headed into the Florida Straits, it grew to hurricane strength. The frequency of our calls went up to the rare every three hours, and then almost continuously. Ernesto was on a track to enter extreme south Florida and head up the eastern side of the peninsula, essentially right at us.

Meanwhile, Atlantis had a launch date that was sandwiched in between several other arriving and departing vehicles at the International Space Station, other Eastern Test Range operations, and other constraints that were beyond our control. If we didn’t launch before about the 12th of September (as I recall), we would have to stand down for another two weeks or so. Schedule awareness (not schedule pressure) was real.

The decision was coming. Stay at the pad and risk exceeding our wind limits and possible Shuttle damage? Or roll back to the safety of the VAB and miss the near term launch opportunity?

After numerous tense calls with the Launch Weather Officer, LeRoy Cain (the JSC Ops Manager) and I made the decision to play it safe and roll back. It was the morning of the day before the storm’s predicted arrival, approximately 40-44 hours hence. Rolling early enough to beat the winds was the game we needed to play.

But what if the storm changed course and became less of a threat? That became a real possibility after the wheels were already in motion.

As the ground operations team was rolling Atlantis off the pad for its eight-hour trip back to the VAB, the question came to me: Could we reverse the roll and return to the pad IF the storm really did weaken and veer off course, permitting us to stay at the pad?

The Crawler-Transporter (CT), built for Apollo, went in only one direction: forward. Forward toward the pad, and forward toward the VAB. What? The CT had two control stations—one on the east face, one on the west face. It was from either of these “cockpits” that the crew drove the vehicle. There was no way to turn that mammoth vehicle around on the crawlerway. To go the other way, you’d just stop, get out of the western control cab en route to the VAB, get into the eastern cab, and then start driving again, this time toward the pad.

I asked the Support Test Manager if his guys could do this. He went pale. Never before even contemplated, no procedures allowing it, the time required, etc., etc. all indicated a negative response was likely. But Bobby Briggs, being the best STM at KSC, said he’d “look into it.” His eventual answer was that if we decided before the CT was halfway to the VAB, his guys could do it.

Perfect answer.

Armed with that, I went to LeRoy Cain to see what he thought of the idea. He liked it immediately. If the storm veered away in the next four hours or so, we could stop and return to the pad.

For the sake of brevity, here’s the punchline. We did stop the roll and went back to the pad following the “final” call with the LWO, Kathy Winters. The storm would start to weaken coming up on its overland track, AND the track had it going a bit farther to our east. Atlantis would be on the best side of the storm.

As all of us watched the storm progress up the state from the safety of our homes. The favorable track was verified. It passed to the east of the pad by approximately 40 miles, as I recall. Winds remained within limits and no damage resulted.

We launched successfully Atlantis on September 9, 2006. Astronaut Brent Jett commanded the mission. He had been an integral part of the crew recovery effort after the Columbia accident.

As I look back on this achievement, I can’t help but think about this being just one example of team creativity and their can-do, will-do approach to all operational challenges. I can’t put into words how proud of them I was, and am to this day.

This ‘partial rollback’ was needed to do two things – protect the vehicle, and, because of the way things turned out, preserve a launch opportunity. Get work done, safely.

Damn, it was fun!