Wednesday, April 13, 2011

T minus 6.6 seconds...from the inside!

Dear STS-134 NASATweetup Attendees,

Being a NASATweetup veteran, I am reliving the feelings you are going through in your hearts and minds as you get ready for the experience of a lifetime. I know first hand the dreams that will come true on April 29th as Endeavour leaves the pad for the last time. I especially know the journey you will will be an emotional one. For me it was excitement, awe, passion, nervousness, and a little bit of sadness when Atlantis climbed the hill on May 14th 2010.

Subject: STS-132 NASA Tweetup Group
Credit: NASA
Subject: STS-132 NASA Tweetup
Credit: Aaron Cunningham
Even though Endeavour is the youngest of the NASA Orbiters, her legacy is long and historic. So, as you stand just 3.5 miles from the pad, looking at this living, breathing, complex vehicle, you may have a few questions about her history, her triumphs, and what it's like to fly her. You will probably stand in wonder and amazement at the things you will see, hear, and feel over your two days of the tweetup.

For example, you may wonder, what's it like to ride in the AstroVan to the pad? What are the thoughts that go through the minds of the crews as they ride the elevator up to the white room? What is an astronaut thinking when he or she hears over the loop "Endeavour, you are go for auto sequence start?" And what happens, at T-6.6 seconds, when the three SSME's ignite with fury causing the Shuttle to "twang" under the 1 million pounds of thrust being generated by an mixture of LOX/LH2? Then at T-0, the SRB's erupt with shocking light, sound, and vibration bringing the total trust up to 7.0 million pounds hurling the astronauts and Shuttle stack up the hill for the 8.5 minute commute to work. What's that moment like? I would love to be able to tell you from first hand experience, unfortunately I can't. But, I do know someone who can! Astronaut Tom Jones of the 1990 NASA Astronaut Class, the Hairballs. His classmates included Leroy Chiao, Janice Voss (Video: J Voss at STS-132 Tweetup), and Dave Wolf, all of whom I met at the STS-132 NASATweetup. Tom's first spaceflight was STS-59 (Brief Summary) aboard Endeavour. I just finished reading his book Sky Walking (a must read for all space enthusiasts) and in it Tom captures these moments in vivid clarity and detail allowing the reader the ability to share the in experience.

Date: April 9th, 1994
Launch Site: Kennedy Space Center LC39-A
Mission: STS-59 (Detailed Summary)
Vehicle: Space Shuttle Endeavour

Subject: STS-59 Launch
Credit: NASA
With Tom's permission, I am quoting the following section from:

Sky Walking - An Astronaut's Memoir

   T-6.6 seconds, and tons of water flooded the pad and cascaded into the flame trench in a Niagara designed to cushion the shock waves of ignition. Endeavour's computers commanded the start sequence for the three main engines. Far aft in the orbiter's engine bay, turbopumps spooled up and the dentist-drill whine carried to us in the cabin.
   A rumble shook the stack from ten stories below as the main engines coughed fire and shivered their way up to full power. Six seconds tumbled by as the entire stack rattled with the barely restrained fury of a million pounds of thrust. "Three at a hundred!" said Kevin over the rumble as the engines shouldered Endeavour sideways, steel booster casings flexing under the load. Still bolted to the pad, the twin solid rocket boosters took up the strain, then sprang back to the vertical. The computers raced through engine checks and marked the time: zero.
   Wham! Twin boosters ignited and instantly added  6 million pounds of thrust to the fight against gravity. Gravity lost--just as explosive charges shattered the eight nuts holding the SRBs to the pad. Endeavour jolted into the air, sending a crash-bang wallop through the cabin.
   A giant mallet hammered my seat from below, and I felt the upward surge. Swiveling booster nozzles whipsawed us left, right, forward, and back, striving for the vertical. It was all I could do to plant a shaky finger on my kneeboard's digital stopwatch and stab it into life, my sole duty during the ascent. The clock is running!

Credit: Sky Walking by Tom Jones, Published: 2006

The time span coved by those four paragraphs was very short. All of that happened before they cleared the tower! Simply amazing! I got excited reading it, I am excited typing it out, and I am excited for all of you, when you will see it happen live on April 29th. And you will not only see it, you will hear it....and FEEL it. All three physical sensations will let themselves be known. As I said above there is an emotional journey that goes with this and it is unique to each of us. I can't tell you what it will be, but please let yourself have that experience. You won't regret it.

Launch and landing video of STS-59

I want to mention, briefly, three other things about Tom's book, the first being the main topic. His first attempt at EVA (Extra Link: NASA EVA Detail) and his subsequently successful EVA's during the delivery of the Destiny Lab to the ISS. He brings to life the preparation, anticipation, and execution of working in free fall.

Subject: Astronaut Tom Jones / STS-59
Credit: NASA
Another topic he discusses is the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew on STS-107. I remember this day like it was yesterday. I got a call that day in February 2003 "Turn on the TV, something happened to the Shuttle!" The imagery and emotions are still fresh for me. Now imagine it was your friends and colleagues. Tom, does this with sincerity and respect.

Subject: STS-107
Credit: NASA
Subject: STS-107 Crew Photo
Credit: NASA
Finally, at the end of the book Dr. Jones writes about his thoughts, opinions, and ideas for the future of the space and Shuttle programs. Many from my generation are bothered by the "early retirement" of the Orbiters, including myself. But, Tom rightly points out, they are just too expensive. It is well documented that the Shuttle program never achieved the cost economies set out in the original plan. As a result NASA had to funnel very limited budget resources to keep the Shuttles flying and ISS construction on track. This left  precious little dollars for future vehicle development, science missions short of funds, and future exploration ideas without discovery money. Take a look at what he wrote, you may find you agree with his ideas.

There were other questions I mentioned earlier in the post. Such as, what is it like to ride in the AstroVan to the pad or to ride the elevator to the white room? You could be curious about what its like to prepare for a space shot. I know from reading books like Tom's Sky Walking and Mike Mullane's Riding Rockets, that it's years of training, family sacrifice, emotional highs and lows, and sometimes just a bit of luck. Tom, details these experiences in his book, if you want to enhance your Tweetup experience, pick it up. You will get an inside view of launch day activities such as the ride to the pad and the strap-in process; you will even get a idea of the emotional roller coaster a countdown can be.

Now think about how you will feel if you know the astronaut's point of view, when you see the AstroVan 50 yards in front of you, speed past on its way to LC39-A. Think about how you will appreciate the astronaut mind set as you watch them get strapped into their seats, which are attached to a very complex and fragile machine surrounded by....rocket fuel...which is highly explosive. I think you should know what an astronaut is thinking as he or she is preparing in the white room. Preparation that includes thoughts of family. It's important to remember that you are watching this launch along with each astronaut's friends and family standing nervously on the roof of the Launch Control Center (LCC). When you are at the Press Site, look left to the LCC, remember those families are giving their loved ones to the us, the space program, and the nation on launch day.

When you walk away from KSC on launch day, don't let the experience end. The mission goes on. STS-134 is scheduled for ~14 days of flight on the final ISS assembly mission. Honor Endeavour and her crew for this final flight by following it until you hear "Houston, Endeavour, wheels stopped."

As far as Endeavour's legacy and history, check out my prior post on April 3rd, 2011. I am not a historian nor a writer, so I don't do her justice. Take the time to do your own research to understand this storied spacecraft and those that have flown her.

I can see now, on my Twitter feed, Endeavour will proudly serve the West Coast in her retirement at the California Science Center. I'm sure this will be a great home allowing all who go and visit to learn what Endeavour has provided to the space program, our nation, and our planet.

If you would like to buy Tom's book you can go to:

Tom can be reached through his website (and believe me he does respond) at:

Thanks for reading,


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