One of the most interesting shuttle flights was STS-93 which put the Chandra Advanced X-Ray Telescope into space. Not only was it the first shuttle flight to be commanded by a woman – Eileen Collins – and the heaviest payload to that time – 59,000 lbs – but we had the most eventful launch scenario of all the shuttle missions – clearly a close call which turned out well.
But before I start, some background is in order. Especially about the Flight Director office as it existed in 1999.
Being a Space Shuttle Flight Director was the best job I ever held; it was the toughest, the scariest, and the most rewarding. I never wanted to leave the office but was propelled out by events beyond my control – something I talked about in my rambles about the Columbia accident earlier this year.
The FD office held the best people in the world and at the same time many of whom caused me to contemplate homicide. Being a Flight Director was not for the faint of heart; we held an awesome responsibility to the crew, to the program, and to the nation. We learned early not only not to suffer fools gladly but not to suffer fools at all. Every Flight Director had a highly tuned BS detector and would swiftly attend to anyone who was not prepared, organized, and thorough. Every Flight Director thought that he (or she) was the best in the office and the other guys and gals needed help.
Monday morning staff meeting in the Flight Director office resembled a school of sharks swirling about looking to devour the weakest member in the room. It could be intense. Most of the office chiefs encouraged this behavior. It made you really think through any position on a controversial subject or approach. As we went around the table, each FD had to describe the status of an upcoming shuttle flight for which he had been assigned responsibility. Nobody got through their discussion unchallenged. It was brutal but many mistakes were corrected early because shortcomings in a plan were identified on Monday morning.
As a flight approached and integrated training schedules started appearing, the team of Flight Directors would be assigned; the Lead Flight Director generally started at least a year in advance but the rest of the team could be lined out as little as six weeks before a flight. The Lead got the primary shift where the biggest activities occurred during the crew work day; this was generally called the Orbit 1 shift and covered the period from just after crew breakfast through the middle of the crew ‘afternoon’ – which could be any time on the clock in Houston. Another experienced flight director would be assigned to the Orbit 2 shift which wound up the crew day and got them in bed. If a rookie flight director was assigned, he would draw the Planning shift when the crew was asleep and plans for the next day were modified as required and uplinked for the crew to read when they awoke. And of course there would be the Ascent/Entry Flight Director (sometimes split for two) whose job was to get the mission off the ground and back down again – and who paid little attention to the ‘cg management device’ found in the payload bay.
Additional flight directors could be assigned depending on the type of flight; for ISS assembly or logistics flights a single flight director was sent to the Russian control center (TsUP or MCC-M) to help our partners understand what the crazy Americans were doing. For a flight with the big Boeing upper stage – the IUS – which was the case for STS-93, a Flight Director was assigned to travel to the USAF/Boeing control center at Sunnyvale, California, to keep those guys in line with what Houston wanted to do. And finally there was the Mission Ops Director. For all the early Shuttle flights there was only one MOD – the legendary Gene Kranz. The function of the MOD was to keep the program leadership, the headquarters guys, and any other management lookie-loos who might be present out of the way of the flight control team. After Gene’s retirement, the position of MOD was circulated between senior managers (always former flight directors) in the Mission Operations organization and some of the senior flight directors. For STS-93 the MOD of record was Randy Stone, former Flight Director, Director of Mission Operations, and an expert on the IUS. But Randy was never an Ascent Flight Director, so as senior A/E FD in the office, I was tapped out to be the MOD just for the launch and landing shifts. John Shannon was the Ascent/Entry Flight Director, Brian Austin was the Lead (Orbit 1) Flight Director.
So midway through the countdown of STS-93, I would take my seat in Mission Control, right behind John Shannon, and right next to Brian Austin – who could not stay away. Everything that happened later, I blame on being sandwiched between two Texas Aggies . . .
Well, maybe not.
To be continued