After Ten Years: Counting Down to Disaster

Early on I decided that riding the NASA ‘corporate’ jet was not a real advantage.  NASA had acquired a number of used Gulfstream II corporate jets to be converted to Shuttle Training Aircraft.  Supposedly the Gulfstream people had upgraded to G III and then G IV aircraft and the engineering required to modify the airplanes to simulate shuttle landings would have to be redone if newer models were to be used.  Since the STAs had a defined lifetime (putting the planes into screaming power dives dozens of times a day put a lot of stress on the airframe), it was good to have some low time used planes in the inventory to be held for later modification.  Put that together with the well-known aviation principle that planes sitting unused deteriorate faster than planes being flown, and voila’ you get a number of executive class airplanes to ferry people around.  We put them to a lot of use.  Unfortunately, it was like being locked in another meeting with your co-workers while you flew.  Productive?  Somewhat.  Enjoyable?  Let’s just say that I preferred to fly commercial.

For the FRR I was on the plane from JSC going to Florida.  They returned without me as I spent a few more days getting acquainted with my new duties as Shuttle Launch Integration Manager, the office staff, and looking for an apartment to rent.  Between the FRR and the launch, I spent another week in Florida.  Lots of work to do – getting all the safety classes so I could go the all the shuttle facilities was a non-trivial objective.  Ron Dittemore had instructed me to be “in place and operating on February 1.”  I was doing my best to get “operational.”  The date seemed to be less meaningful than it turned out to be.

One of the more interesting assignments for the Shuttle Launch Integration Manager was to administer the shuttle budget for “infrastructure revitalization.”  This means maintenance on all the facilities – not just at KSC, but around the country – that had been neglected for many years.  My predecessor had gotten work started on putting a new roof on the VAB.  Since being built in the middle 1960’s, no serious maintenance had been done to the roof of that gigantic building.  It was a multimillion dollar to replace the roof and that had not been in the budget for decades.  The fact that the roof leaked so badly that material was falling out the underside and a wooden lower deck had to be installed to protect the shuttles shows how shortsighted that policy had been.  It was a good thing we had that roof installed when three hurricanes blew through the KSC area in 2004.  Similarly, the huge factory at Michoud, Louisiana needed its 43 acre roof replaced; we got that done just in time for Katrina.  If the roof had been in poor shape when that hurricane struck the shuttle would have been out of business for good.  So I got acquainted with deteriorating facilities all around the country and started parsing out money to the direst situations.

I watched Linda Ham a lot in those days.  She was extremely active, hardworking, and intelligent.  Normally pretty brusque but in the pantheon of NASA leadership she treated subordinates better than the old line managers.  I had worked with her for a long time and appreciated her commitment and abilities.  She was teaching me the ropes as the new person in the Shuttle Program Management team.

During those days, a crew of photo/TV people went down to a little concrete building about a block from Ron John’s Surf Shop on Cocoa Beach.  They loaded film in the long range tracking cameras in preparation for the STS-107 launch.  Maintenance had been cut way back on the photo/TV equipment and checking the focus and operations of the cameras was not a “requirement.”  The short staffed team loaded the film, locked the building up, and hurried to the next camera location.  We were going to sorely miss the pictures that long range tracking camera could have made for us.

Launch day was Thursday January 16.  Thursdays were generally picked as launch days since the countdown would pick up Monday and the post launch cleanup could be finished on Friday, thereby avoiding paying weekend rates to all the workers.  Yes, that is how tightly the program managed its money.

I flew down early in the week, commercially; I didn’t want to get stuck in the flying management meeting.  All the last minute meetings went well; the L-2 day meeting closed all the final actions although there was some issue being worked about structural components in the SRB attach ring that would stay active until launch morning.  We all came in early for the Tanking Weather Briefing and most of us stayed through the countdown, even though we had the option to get a little more shuteye before the formal MMT call to stations at L-5 hours.

Linda did what was to be my future job as Launch Integration manager; she chaired the MMT for all the prelaunch activities and then would continue that role as was her normal job as the Flight Operations Integration Manager.  On January 16, the weather cooperated, the structural analysis for the SRB attach rings came back positive, and the launch was on time and beautiful.  After all the speeches and the ritual beans and cornbread meal in the Launch Control Center, the MMT rushed to the SLF to board their various management aircraft to fly back home to JSC, MSFC, and Stennis Space Center.  I planned to stay another day and continue learning the new job.

The next morning, Friday January 17, was when it all started.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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3 Responses to After Ten Years: Counting Down to Disaster

  1. Lonnie Moffitt says:

    Wayne, I still love to read your writings!! They bring back so many Shuttle memories!–Lonnie Moffitt

  2. Beth Webber says:

    You bring us up against how the ordinary can become so tragically extraordinary. Just another day becomes a part of history. Waiting uncomfortably for the finish.

    • Dave H. says:

      Beth,
      It’s actually going to take Wayne a while to tell us this story, because there are so many panels to its tapestry.
      We’ve gone through mission planning, pre-launch, now we’ve launched and are safely in orbit.

      Or so we all believed.

      The next chapter will examine the rumblings and rumors which developed as the ascent imagery was examined. This is where the seeds for all of the post-mission soul-searching were planted…soon to be harvested in a blizzard of “what ifs” and “if onlys”.
      My own tears are welling up as I write this, thinking about what is to come, and how my own life was changed by these events.
      And I don’t even work in aerospace…

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