Launch Fever

My entire professional career I have heard warnings about ‘launch fever’.  When a team works on a space project for a long time – months, years sometimes – pouring heart and sweat into it, launch day is the worst time.  Best and the worst, because the plan all comes together – or worst because it doesn’t.

It is so easy to want – with a capital W – want to see the vehicle fly that any obstacle becomes a serious frustration.  Temptation is very high to wave away issues, ignore anomalies, squeeze the rules, or brush aside inconsistencies just to GET ON WITH IT.  Unfortunately, in the rocket business, any wee error can result in catastrophe.  So, wanting to launch must be tempered with the discipline to deal rigorously with situations even if that means waiting to fly another day.

I’ve been a victim – and written about it before –

But I’d like to address a little known but different inciter of the dread disease.  One of the greatest traditions in NASA’s human space flight program – and how it puts launch fever into the head of every person in the firing room.

Beans and cornbread.

You either like them or you don’t.  For those of us of a certain heritage, there is nothing better.  Comfort food at its zenith.

Norm Carlson was the legendary leader of the KSC Launch Processing team; head of the NTDs [NASA Test Directors].  Being a good southern boy he especially liked beans and cornbread.

At JSC, in the Mission Control Center where I spent much of my early career, you had to stay on console for long periods of time.  Leaving was simply not an option.  Food had to be with you.  Eating on console was de rigour.  No other way.  We even had the coffee pot in the Flight Control Room and those with long enough headset cords could reach the pot without unplugging.  Sometimes it got messy – I’ve written about the time we thought it was a good idea to have an ice cream party during LOS – it did not go well.  But food, good or bad, messy or simple, was part of being in the MCC.

Don’t even ask about the Atomic Fireball jar at the FDO console.

Or the time that the sniffer dogs brought in before the President came to speak, the dogs which almost ate my bologna sandwich brown bag lunch.

But at KSC, in the Firing Rooms, food and drink are strictly not allowed.  No coffee, no ham sandwiches, no chewing gum, no nothing.  When I started serving countdown duty in the Management ‘Bubble’ room at KSC this was a rude realization.

Not that there wasn’t food in the building – there was lots and lots of food in all the offices, downstairs in the little cafeteria, all over the place.  But you had to leave console and exit the Firing Room to go to it; eat it away, and potentially miss whatever happened in the count while chowing down.  Obviously not to do during the critical parts of the countdown.

One unnamed senior NASA manager – you know who you are – would sneak a bag of candy into the management bubble and surreptitiously pass the illicit bag down the row of managers – underneath the bookshelf of the console.  A whole line of senior managers trying to hide the fact they were chewing chocolate candies was a sight to behold.  I’m positive they fooled absolutely nobody.

Norm Carlson instituted a grand tradition of having beans and cornbread after every successful launch.  Sometime around L-3 or 4 hours, someone would fire up the cookers in the hallway outside the firing room and start cooking the beans, warming the cornbread.  The ventilation system in the Launch Control Center would distribute the warm delicious smell throughout the building.  Sitting on console in the firing room you could hear the stomachs growl all over the place.  It was torture.  But the worst part was the knowledge that if the launch scrubbed, those beans and cornbread went into the freezer to wait for another countdown.  No beans on scrub days!!!

Talk about inciting mass launch fever.  If some sociologist writes a paper about why the NASA launch team got in a hurry and launched when we shouldn’t have – and doesn’t mention the beans and cornbread – well, that paper just won’t be complete.

Just a few days ago, I got to witness the first commercial crew demonstration launch from KSC.  I was stuck with the VIP crowd in another building, separated from the launch team.  I just must wonder if they served beans and cornbread over there after the launch.  Or is there a new tradition?  Or maybe everybody just went home.

Traditions can be a good thing.  But consider the unanticipated consequences if you try to institute a new one.


Armando sampling the beans!

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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14 Responses to Launch Fever

  1. RAY GEDALY says:

    Shouldn’t this have been titled “Lunch Fever?”

  2. Dan Adamo says:

    Ah, yes, Atomic Fireballs: FDO’s only consumables “bingo” call for EOM through much of the Shuttle Era and a back-room reward far more easily transported via p-tube than were carbonated drinks.

  3. Spacebrat1 says:

    absolutely love your columns, always pithy and to the point. please keep them coming Wayne! Go USA, Americans back in Space on our own, when the time is right…

  4. Thomas Moody says:

    Atomic Fireballs also enjoy a tradition in the Nuclear Power Plant industry…during “Refueling Outages” (the occasions where the plant was taken offline to change out the nuclear fuel and perform maintenance, typically between 30 and 60 days) in my days at the Comanche Peak Nuclear Plant in Glen Rose, Texas, it was “de rigeur” for the control room to have a giant plastic jar on hand until we “closed the output breaker” (put the plant back online.” And so when I read that the FDO also had mission fireballs, I felt compelled to share this story…funny how technical industries share some similarities!

  5. Kristin Rumpf says:

    I remember leaving console in the middle of the night after a 12ish hour shift where we’d scrubbed fairly late in the count. I was starving and was hoping to get some beans so I wouldn’t have to resort to the vending machines, but I was denied. They told me “No launch, No beans.” and they meant it. Always kept a granola bar stashed in my headset bag after that!

  6. Marcus Ivan Valdes says:

    I’ve got a feeling at SpaceX the reward is that you get to take a day off and sleep!

  7. Armando says:

    Not sure what they had after the commercial crew launch, but the beans and cornbread after shuttle launches were not to be missed! Had the privilege of experiencing it 110 times (fresh or previously frozen). And by the way, the photo you included was from the STS-115 launch day. As always, great posts Wayne.

  8. James Carleton says:

    After I retired from supporting all 135 shuttle flights and living in Titusville, I would see Norm off and on in some of the local establishments. When and if the subject came up about beans and corn bread, the recipe, he was often noted to say, “corn bread recipe is on the back of the box”. He was a kind man with a great sense of humor.

  9. Hank Jarrett says:

    I had always heard about the beans and cornbread but was never lucky enough to be there for the actual launch. Any chance there is a recipe out there? I would really like to continue the tradition at home in front of NASA TV now that I am retired from NASA and would STRICTLY conform with the “No launch, no beans” tradition. 😉

    These blogs are the best and really do help me feel like I am still “connected”. Please don’t ever stop!

  10. Mark Wollam says:

    Armando loved those beans.

  11. Jean Wright says:

    I had the honor of making the launch beans and cornbread at the TPSF!

  12. Bob Pound says:

    Thanks Wayne, I’m enjoying your blog,
    Having followed Norm Carlson in the NTD office, I remember our team cooking those beans ‘n ham and corn bread. I wouldn’t doubt if the starting of the beans cooking wasn’t a “Launch Commit Criteria”. I remember that the JSC, MSFC and Headquarters, VIP planes at the Shuttle Landing Facility held their departures after launch until our NTD runners personally delivered the Styrofoam bait buckets of beans, bowls, spoons, and cornbread directly to the planes on the runway.
    Those were fond memories of the good old’ days!

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