Space Shuttle Memories – Back at NASA

July 19, 2011

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The following is a remembrance of the United States Space Program as I have lived it. I will restrain from naming specific people except historic figures and the actual crews of missions I have witnessed or supported. My qualifications for writing this memoir are; a BS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas, three tours as a Co-operative engineer at the NASA Johnson Space Center, and nine years as an engineer supporting the Space Shuttle and Space Station programs for what eventually became the United Space Alliance (USA) on the Space Transportation System Operations Contract (STSOC). For those who are interested, technical summaries of each Space Shuttle flight can be found at the NASA web site. All NASA manned missions can be viewed in the archive.

I returned to NASA for a second Coop tour to the same group I had originally worked with. This time I focused on a satellite retrieval mission, STS-51A. While I was at school, NASA had changed the numbering system for Space Shuttle Missions. They changed right after STS-9, which could have suggested that they did not want double digits, but the new system used double digits plus letters. The coops joked that it was to avoid the unlucky number 13. In fact we hung up a sign on building 13 reading 41C, the new designation for the original mission 13. NASA announced that the numbering change was to remove the question of order and accommodate a second launch site. The numbering system used the last digit of the year, the launch site number, and a letter giving the sequence for that year. Site #1 was Cape Canaveral Kennedy Space Center on the east coast of Florida. Site #2 was Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

This system does not really hold up well. Using the last digit of the year suggests that you only plan on flying (or using this numbering system) for ten years. There was never a Space Shuttle mission launched from California. The order was merely shifted from a numeric to an alphabetic sequence.

So we had a new numbering system, and we were trying to get as many missions flown per year as possible. I was working on the planned first flight of 1985. The idea of this mission was retrieve two satellites that had failed to reach orbit. This was a great thrill. I was working side by side with old time Space Engineers and Astronauts. We designed adapters to grab the satellites and secure them in the shuttle bay to bring them back to Earth. Here is a summary of the planned events. An Astronaut (Joe Allen or Dale Gardener) would fly out to the satellite on the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), a jet pack, with a probe, called the stinger. The stinger was basically a toggle bolt that would be put up into the failed rocket nozzle and clamped on so that the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (RMS), the arm, could grab it. After it was grabbed by the arm, the astronaut would break loose of the stinger and return to help put a bridge over the top of the satellite to give another hand hold for the arm. Once the bridge was on, the arm would change locations to hold the satellite from the top while astronauts would put an adapter on the bottom then the whole thing would be put into the payload bay. The activity would be repeated for the second satellite.

Let’s go back to the start of the activity. An astronaut would fly up to the satellite and put a probe into the rocket nozzle. This is the business end of a rocket that failed to ignite when commanded to do so, but could still be “live”. An astronaut’s space suit is designed to keep air in and enough of the hostile environment of space out long enough for him or her to perform some activity outside the relative safety of their ship, it is not designed to take a direct blast of a rocket.

The team designed all of the hardware needed. I provided clearance drawings to make sure all of the equipment would fit and the tasks could be performed. I also helped develop some of the training material. My name is now part of the NASA permanent record as Dale commented during training (I paraphrase) “there isn’t as much room as Martin’s drawings showed.”

Not all went as planned. I was back in school by the time the launch occurred. Another Coop finished the task and gathered some mementoes for me that I have framed and hanging in my man room. I watched as Joe caught the first satellite as planned, but then things went poorly. There was an appendage on the satellite that we had failed to account for that prevented the use of the bridge. This meant that Joe had to hold the satellite while Dale put on the adapter. Joe is possibly the smallest male astronaut (small in stature, not in character). In space you can move immense objects, it is just a matter of overcoming momentum very slowly. Joe had to hold on as Dale tightened bolt after bolt so that the satellite could be secured in the payload bay. It was amazing to watch and more amazing that they succeeded. It went so well that NASA chose to capture the second satellite even knowing that the adapter would have to be put on manually again.

It was an honor to be part of that mission. The crew and other members of the team were wonderful to work with. We all looked at the task and new we could do it, from the Ph.D. to the Navy Captain to the coop. We even designed t-shirts for the team, a catcher’s mitt extended from the space shuttle payload bay catching a satellite. This was also my first experience with quasi-secrecy. Although the mission was not classified, we did not want the whole world to know every detail of our efforts. Some of my drawings ended up in Aviation Week and Space Technology Magazine. Outer space blue covered the header line with my name, the date and my NASA division, but it was definitely my drawings. In the article, details of our discussion were also revealed. This really annoyed the team leader, but nothing could be done about it.

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