"Atlantis, the weather
plane is making one last check of some clouds and as soon as the pilot
gives us a clearance, we'll continue the countdown."
The Commander answers the Launch Director's call, "Roger. We're
I hear the announcement through my "Snoopy" cap headset and think to
myself, Please, let the weather be okay and let us launch.
I'm Mission Specialist 1, right behind the Pilot, in the cockpit of the
space shuttle Atlantis. I'm ready for my second ride into space.
I'm also miserable. I try to wiggle in my seat to get comfortable
but it's impossible. I have 85 pounds of equipment wrapped around my
body: long underwear, pressure suit, boots, helmet, gloves, parachute,
oxygen bottles, life raft, and survival harness. There are straps
coming over my shoulders, between my legs, and around my waist, all
holding me tightly to the steel chair. The space shuttle seats are
not couches like they had in the old days of the space program.
Then, there were just a few astronauts. Now, there are many and it
would be too expensive to build a couch for all their different sizes.
So the seats are all the same, just flat plates of heavy steel with thin
cushions covering them. They're a torture to lay in and I've been
laying in mine for the past 4 hours waiting for the weather to clear.
Try tilting your chair on the floor and then laying in it for a couple
hours on your back. You'll have a sense of what an astronaut feels
like waiting for launch.
And the diaper I'm wearing
is soaked. Yes! A diaper! Astronauts wear diapers during
launch. When you're in a space suit and strapped on your back to a
seat, you can't get up and use the shuttle toilet. So, astronauts
wear diapers. Actually, there are three times when an astronaut has
to wear a diaper: during launch, during reentry and during a space
walk. During each of those times, it's impossible to get to the
toilet. So, I'm laying in a very wet diaper, knowing why babies cry
when they have wet diapers. It's gross!
I try to gain some relief from the pain by inflating my pressure suit.
It expands like a big, orange balloon and gives me a little room to
wiggle. Actually, it is a balloon. It's a balloon in the shape
of a suit. We wear it during launch and reentry in case the
vibrations should cause a window to break or air to leak out of the
cockpit for any reason. If that ever happened, and we weren't
wearing a pressure suit, our blood would boil inside our skin and we would
die. The suit has nothing to do with the g-force pressure of the
rocket pushing us. Rather, the word "pressure" refers to the need to
keep air pressure on our skin so our blood doesn't boil.
"Atlantis, the weather pilot just reported that the clouds are no longer a
problem. We'll be coming out of the hold in five seconds...four...
three...two...one...T-minus 9 minutes and counting."
"Roger, we see the clock running."
I silently shout for joy, Finally, we're counting down to launch!
Each of the three computer screens has a digital countdown clock and those
flicker toward zero.
Humming, whirring, flashing electronic boxes are now checking everything
about the shuttle and sending the information, the "data", to the Mission
Control team. The thought of that wonderful team of men and women
watching over us erases a little of the fear that we feel.
Astronauts get the "glory"
part of a space mission. You see them floating around the cockpit
and doing space walks. You see their pictures in the newspapers and
the President shaking their hands. But have you ever thought about
the rest of the NASA team? It takes thousands of people working
together as a team to accomplish a space mission. Nobody can do it
by themselves. It's just like a baseball or soccer team. The
person that scores the winning goal is the one that everybody runs to lift
on their shoulders and congratulate. But did they win the game by
themselves? No. Somebody passed the ball to them.
Somebody blocked for them. Nobody wins the game and nobody flies
into space by themselves. It's a team effort. Everybody
depends upon everybody else.
"Okay, review your emergency escape procedures."
The order is from the Commander. He wants us to look over the
procedures we would have to follow in case there's an emergency before
launch. Remember, we are sitting on top of 4 million pounds of
dangerous fuel and if something went wrong and there was a fire before
liftoff, we would want to shut the engines off and get away as quickly as
I look at the "checklist" of emergency procedures that is velcroed on the
back of the Pilot's seat. It tells me the steps I would need to
follow to release my seat belts, oxygen hoses, and communications cords.
Then, it says to crawl from the cockpit, run across the launch pad
platform (that's called the "gantry") and jump in a basket that's 200 feet
above the ground. As I read the steps, I think, I hope I never
have to do this! It would be an awesome ride, like something out
of an Indiana Jones movie, but it would also be very scary.
Just imagine for a moment, that it's happening to you........
"Atlantis! We see a fuel leak! Get out! Mode 1 egress!
Mode 1 egress!" The launch team has detected an emergency that might
cause the shuttle to explode and they want you to escape - to egress - in
Because you've just reviewed your emergency procedures it only takes you a
moment to release all the connections that hold you to the seat.
Next, you roll off your seat and crash onto the back instrument
panel. Remember, the shuttle is standing on its tail, so the back of
the cockpit is now the "floor".
There's no room to stand
up, so you crawl on your hands and knees to the side hatch. In ten
seconds you have that open and crawl through it and onto the gantry.
Water is everywhere! What's going on?! Then you remember.
The launch team has turned on the water sprinklers to help protect you
from any fire.
After making certain that the rest of the crew is out of the shuttle, you
run through the water spray and jump into an escape basket. The
ground is 200 feet straight down and the basket swings and bounces.
You think this is the scariest thing you've ever done.
BAM! You smash your fist onto a paddle that cuts a cord and releases
the basket. This begins your escape off the launch pad. You
can't go down the stairs or the elevator. It would take too long.
Besides, if there was a fire at the bottom of the gantry, running down the
stairs or taking an elevator would put you right in the middle of it.
The escape basket takes you to the ground while moving you away
from the rocket. It slides on a steel cable that stretches sideways
a thousand feet from the launch pad.
What a ride! A loud hissing sound comes from the cable as the basket
accelerates. The ground rushes toward you. If you crash into
it, you'll be killed. What's going to stop you?
WHAM! Just before the basket reaches the ground, it slaps into a net
that's hung between two poles. The net drags your basket to a stop.
But you're still not safe. Even though you're a thousand feet from
the launch pad, a big explosion could kill you. Get going!
You jump from the basket and run into a nearby
underground bunker. Or maybe you decide the danger is so great that
even the bunker wouldn't protect you. So you get in an old army APC,
armored personnel carrier (it looks something like a tank), and drive
away. NASA parks an APC near the bunker for that purpose.
Good job! It only took you four minutes and thirty-five seconds to
un-strap from your seat, get out of the shuttle, run to the basket and
slide down the cable.
My countdown continues. The clock shows T-minus six minutes.
I check that all of my straps are tight. There will be a lot of
vibration during launch. I double check that my parachute is
attached. After the solid-fueled boosters burn out and the
liquid-fueled engines stop, the space shuttle is a glider. That
means there's always the possibility something could go wrong and we might
not be able to glide to a runway for landing. In that case we would
bail out, using parachutes that are attached to our backs. After
floating into the ocean, we would get in small life rafts that are also
folded up and clipped to our backs. Hopefully, we could stay alive
long enough for a helicopter to reach us.
"Atlantis, start the APUs."
The call comes from the Launch Director. The countdown has reached
T-minus 5 minutes and it's time to start the hydraulic motors that will
steer the three, giant rocket engines. APU stands for Auxiliary
Power Units. Calling every piece of equipment by their complete
name would be tongue twisting, so astronauts and the rest of the NASA team
use abbreviations, like APU, IMU, EPS, MPS, MECO, MLS. There are
hundreds of them that we learn in our training.
The APU switches are on the Pilot's side, so I watch him follow the
checklist. Everything an astronaut does is written on a checklist.
The walls, ceiling and instrument panel are papered (velcroed) with them.
Why do we use checklists? You never see anybody on Star Trek using a
checklist. But Star Trek is make believe. Nobody on Captain
Picard's Enterprise is really going to die if they make a mistake.
But in the real world, a mistake could threaten an astronaut's life.
There are nearly 2000 switches and controls in the shuttle cockpit, so a
mistake is certainly possible. Even though we practice the mission
until we know what every one of those switches does, we never trust our
memories. We always do things by following our checklists.
The APU motors are at the back of the shuttle, but as they start I can
feel their vibrations in the cockpit. For the first time, I get the
sensation that the machine is alive. It's like some giant beast
stirring from its sleep.
No longer do I think about
my backache and wet diaper. Now, I'm scared. In just a
few minutes Atlantis will liftoff in a thunderous cloud of fire and smoke.
With such enormous power, there's a lot that can go wrong and put us in
danger. The rocket has many parts. It's a very complicated
machine. So, in these last few minutes before launch, I'm scared.
My heart pounds inside my chest. I can feel it in my
throat...THUD...THUD...THUD...like I've just run a race. I try to
swallow but my mouth is dry. Fear does that to you. It makes
your heart pound and your mouth feel like it's full of cotton.
The countdown has reached
T-minus 2 minutes and the checklist says to close our helmet visors.
These are the clear, plastic coverings on the faces of the helmets.
Before I close mine, I pull a drink container from a velcro patch on the
wall and suck down a few swallows of water through a plastic straw.
The container is the same design as we use on orbit. It's a foil
pouch with a straw on the end. I clip the straw closed, re-attach
the container to the velcro and lock my visor down. A cool flow of
oxygen swirls around my face. If a window should break during
launch, now I'm completely protected.
The beast awakens some more. I can feel it shaking. The
computers are making a final check of the steering controls and it causes
the rocket to sway back and forth. The bottoms of the two
solid-fueled rocket motors are held to the launch pad by 8 giant threaded
nuts, so I know we can't fall over. Still, the shaking is another
indication that the shuttle is readying itself to fly. My fear increases
and my breathing becomes faster...SSSSSSSSSS...SSSSSSSSSS ...SSSSSSSSSS.
I can hear it inside the sealed helmet. It's a hissing sound as air
is inhaled and exhaled.
The movies always make it
out like astronauts are never afraid. But that's not true. We
know flying into space is dangerous and there's a chance we could be killed.
So we're scared. At the same time, though, our hearts are ready to
explode with happiness. Many of us have dreamed all our lives of
flying into space. Now, that dream is about to come true, so we're
joyous. In a small way, it's like you feel when you're getting on a
roller coaster. You're afraid, but you're happy, too.
The instruments begin to change as the engine system prepares to start.
Green, glowing digits on the computers flicker with new data. Meters
move. The beast is more alive than ever and my heart pounds deeper and
I think of my family, of my wife and my three, teenage children.
They are three miles away on the roof of the LCC, the Launch Control Center.
I know they're more scared than any of us inside the rocket. It may be
Atlantis standing on the launch pad, but in their mind's eye they can only
see Challenger. That was the space shuttle that blew up in 1986 and
killed its crew. I know my family fears the same thing will happen to
It's always much harder to watch somebody you love do something dangerous
than it is to actually be the one in danger. Can you remember when you
were learning to ride a bike? I'll bet you were very scared the first
time you wobbled along without training wheels. But I know your
parents were more scared because they were afraid you would get hurt.
In this final minute before the engines start, I know it's that way with my
wife and children. I know they're clutching each other and praying for
my safety. I love them even more for their courage to stand on that
roof and watch Atlantis take me to my dream.
"T-minus 10 seconds. Go for main engine start."
Atlantis' computers are ready to start the engines. There's nothing to
do now but watch the instruments. Astronauts don't really fly the
shuttle into orbit. Things happen too fast for an astronaut to
control, so we have to depend on the computers. We watch the
instruments while they steer us into orbit. Only if something goes
terribly wrong, would we try to fly the shuttle like a pilot flies an