Of course the title is wrong; there was nothing calm about STS-113. I was the Ascent/Entry Flight Director as you can see in the picture of the mission control team. This ISS assembly and crew rotation flight was jam packed with activities Mike LA added to his spacewalk tally by working with John Harrington to install the P1 truss and other gear – three EVAs. We carried up the ISS Expedition 6 crew who got a much longer stay on ISS than they expected.
Jim Wetherbee was the commander and his right hand man was Gus Loria as pilot. But Gus had an unfortunate accident late in the training and was replaced by Paul Lockhart. Paco was very happy – just as Gus was not. Of course the flight was delayed while the collective space shuttle program worked on analyzing BSTRA ball cracks (see my previous post on STS-112).
Training all done and issues all dispositioned, we got ready to launch on November 9. With a two week flight, we should be done before Thanksgiving. A Sunday launch was unusual, but not unheard of; everybody knew the schedule was tight and we were behind because of all the technical issues earlier in the year. The ascent team came in Saturday to do the usual prelaunch crew briefings and get the weather forecasts. Everything seemed to be in order. We went home to get a good night’s sleep for the launch. Sunday, Murphy had a little surprise in store for us: leaking oxygen in the payload bay. Seems that some of the metal bellows flex hoses that carried crew breathing oxygen from the tanks in the mid-fuselage had been stepped on by some of the workers preparing Endeavour for flight. The hoses blew out and the gas detectors showed higher than normal concentrations of oxygen – not enough to be a flammability hazard, but demonstrating that a leak was occurring. So the ascent team never even made into mission control to man the consoles.
The launch was scrubbed and plans were made to replace the faulty hoses. This required opening the payload bay doors and inserting work platforms so that the techs could get access to the hoses. Unfortunately, putting a work platform into the front end of the payload bay did not go so well; it bumped the shuttle’s arm which was clamped in its launch restraints. The shuttle arm is a composite material and impact damage can greatly reduce the strength of the material. So in addition to fixing the oxygen hoses, we now had to fix the arm. Time passes. Word from NASA HQ is that people in high places are not pleased with the delay.
New launch date: November 22. Rats, Thanksgiving on console again.
On Friday, November 22, the shuttle was flawless, everything working perfectly. On November 22, the weather at KSC was beautiful, even the weather at Edwards and White Sands was beautiful in case we needed to land early. But in Spain we had a real problem. A basic safety requirement for the space shuttle was that there had to be a safe landing place all throughout the launch phase. If one of those three high pressure main engines were to shut down early on, the shuttle could ‘return to launch site’ for an early shutdown; and later on it could ‘abort to orbit’ or ‘abort once around’ to White Sands or Edwards. But for an engine failure in the mid section of the launch, a ‘trans Atlantic abort’ was the only option. The shuttle program had several sites just across the ocean which were prepared to receive the shuttle. For flights near the equator – like the Hubble space telescope missions – we could use a West African airport, Yundum, at the capital city of Banjul, The Gambia. Before I worked on the shuttle program I’d never heard of it. For flights to the space station, farther away from the equator, runways in Europe could be used, but the weather was worse. Ireland, England, Germany, even Sweden had airports that could be used in an emergency, but we didn’t staff them because the weather was generally poor. Later on, after Columbia, we added the French Air Force flight test center, Istres, at Marseilles, but in November 2002 that was not available. We had a great runway at a very old Strategic Air Command base from the 1950’s in the desert of Morocco not far from Casablanca. But after Sept. 11, 2001, sending NASA personnel to a largely Muslim nation was not considered to be a good safety risk. So we had two landing sites in Spain, south near Seville, and north near Zaragoza. And today, November 20, 2002, there were thunderstorms at both places. The shuttle could not survive a lightning strike, so that was a firm, solid, no questions asked NO GO. Abort landing weather was the responsibility of the Ascent/Entry Flight Director and I made the call the Mike Leinbach the Launch Director. We were all disappointed but understood that tomorrow would be a better day.
It nearly got me fired. One of the senior managers at NASA HQ, a former military flier, was incensed that we did not fly. Fortunately, I was well insulated from that kerfluffle and didn’t even know about it until days later.
On Saturday, November 23, we had better luck with the weather and launched uneventfully. Of course, I held my breath through first stage, and kept my fingers crossed all the way until FDO reported over the loop “Nominal MECO, Flight, no OMS-1 required.” Probably the best call that an Ascent Flight Director could ever hope to hear.
The Ascent/Entry Flight director checks in with Mission Control every day, goes to the Mission Management Team meetings as they are scheduled, and generally prepares for the end of the mission. As long as you don’t bother the Orbit Flight Directors, you can watch EVA’s, monitor arm ops, and in general have the best seat in the house. Of course, if it’s slow, the PAO officer may trap you into an on-console mini-interview on NASA TV, but that is a small price to pay.
Finally landing day rolled around. We had done so well on this flight that we had an unprecedented 4 days of consumables to try to land at the Kennedy Space Center. And since Endeavour was going into a depot maintenance period, there was no hurry to land. Program management told me to use all those days if necessary to get back to KSC. Weather in the late fall being a little unsettled, of course it took us three days to find a good day to land. But we did; and again all was well. Of course, I always held my breath during re-entry. I always did. But nothing untoward happened, and the commander and I had a nice chat on the radio before he climbed out of Endeavour on the KSC runway.
It would be the last safe landing of a space shuttle for a very long time.
Weather was something we just had to deal with; no issues there. Metal bellows flex hoses became the bane of my existence in my next act in life as we went through and replaced almost all of them on the three remaining orbiters after Columbia. BSTRA balls also continued to be an issue. Human errors like driving a work platform into the arm will plague high risk endeavors until the end of time. But all in all, STS-113 was calm, no biggies. No foam lost. Not yet.
Personally, I had spent nearly 15 years in the Flight Director’s office. That is more than twice as long as average. I enjoyed the job, thought I was good at it, but there were younger people that I was holding back. And my eyes were going: presbyopia meant that I couldn’t wear contact lenses and see all the screens in the control center – there are only so many ‘granny glasses’ that you can use. Years of having a headset plugged into my ears were deteriorating my hearing. And everyone seemed to be advising me that I should look for a promotion, a job where I could do more important things for the agency. That advice turned out to be poor.
Parker Counts had been the External Tank Project manager at MSFC. I really respected him. After a long career, he took a position at NASA HQ working for the Assistant Administrator for Space Operations, Bill Readdy. Now, Parker was retiring and his job was offered as a one year rotational assignment at HQ. I decided to put my paperwork in for a tour.
Ron Dittemore, my old collegue and Space Shuttle Program Manager caught wind of it, and gave me a call; Jim Halsell, heading up the shuttle program at the Kennedy Space Center, had just been assigned to command STS-120, about a year away. Ron needed a replacement for Jim. His argument that it would be more fun than being at headquarters sounded good. My old collegue Linda Ham would train me. What Ron really wanted was a permanent replacement but we agreed for a one year trial as a rotational assignment. If I liked it, I could have the job permanently, if it didn’t work out, in a year I’d be back in the Flight Director’s office. Even my wife agreed.
Robert Lightfoot got Parker Counts’ old job at NASA HQ. Ron Dittemore didn’t tell me that he was quietly negotiating retirement and would soon be working for industry.
None of us expected what was going to happen in early 2003.
Over the Christmas holidays I stopped at my office preparing for the move. On the way out the door, I ran into Kalpana Chawla. She was so ready to fly and so excited – she told me all about it with a big smile. It was the last time I saw her.