The Goodbye Guys
Seeing off the astronauts is one of NASA’s most prestigious jobs, and one of the most demanding.
ONE BY ONE, SEVEN FIGURES clad in identical orange flightsuits drop to all fours and crawl through the circular opening. A cacophony of grunts comes from inside the small cabin as the astronaut stand-ins roll onto their backs and heave their bodies—each weighed down by MORE THAN 80 pounds of snug-fitting protective gear—into thinly padded seats.
Lying horizontal with black-booted feet in the air, the astronauts quietly wait their turns at strap-in. Three sweaty attendants in white coveralls cinch up seat belts, snap on helmets, and check out radio headsets, seemingly oblivious to the odd, 90-degrees-off-kilter configuration of this space shuttle crew cabin mockup. The nose-up launch position disorients all but the most frequent visitors, but these three are pros, and they’ve been here before.
No sooner have they finished their work and left the cabin than a muffled shout—“Ready!”—comes from somewhere outside, and all seven astronauts suddenly go limp, pretending to be knocked unconscious by a whiff of toxic air. More attendants throw on gas masks and breathing tanks and pile inside. They yank round green knobs on the spacesuits to activate the victims’ oxygen supplies, then begin unstrapping them and dragging them out—head first, with feet still up. The evacuation drill takes six minutes, almost double the record of three and a half, and a minute longer than the goal. They’ll have to do better next time.
NASA calls it a Mode 2 Egress Simulation. “We call it astronaut appreciation training,” says spacecraft mechanic Rene Arriens. Rescuing astronauts is a high-energy feat that Arriens is sure he couldn’t do twice in rapid succession in a real emergency. But he practices it as many as eight times daily when he and other members of NASA’s close out crew—perhaps the most elite corps of space shuttle workers, apart from the astronauts and mission controllers—gather for annual, week-long training sessions in Houston and at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Unmistakable in coveralls emblazoned with big black digits 1 through 7, close out crew members deliver the last goodbye to astronauts about to rocket off to Earth orbit. “What they do determines whether we’re going to get off on time,” says astronaut Michael Gernhardt, waiting to board Atlantis for a countdown rehearsal on a hot morning last July, a couple of weeks before his mission. Thousands of people get the vehicle itself ready to fly, but only a select few dress the astronauts, help them aboard, seal the orbiter’s side hatch, and stand by to break it open again in the event of an emergency. In those last busy hours before launch, it’s up to the close out crew to make sure the astronauts have everything they need, and that whatever they don’t stays behind.
Their tasks range from the mundane to the heroic. One minute they may be hunting a pencil with a white eraser for a persnickety pilot who doesn’t like gray erasers. The next minute, they may save the day (or at least the shuttle launch time) with a quick technical fix. It happened just that way in March of last year, when the odor of overheating wires in Discovery’s cockpit three days before the liftoff of mission STS-102 had the launch team stumped. As close out crew chief Rick Welty remembers it, firefighters twice rushed to the launch pad looking for the source of the smell but to no avail. “All the smart money in the Firing Room was on ‘No launch—no way.’ We were in deep sushi,” he recalls. He and Arriens found and verified the problem by literally following their noses, using a couple of soda straws taped together to sniff out a malfunctioning control box behind a circuit breaker panel. The launch went off on time—no small consideration, when a single day’s delay on the pad can cost NASA several hundred thousand dollars in wasted fuel, overtime, and other expenses. “What a white-hot troubleshooting experience!” recalls Welty. “It was truly an answer to prayer.”
The seven members of the close out crew are among only 21 people routinely allowed access to the space shuttle after its external fuel tank has been filled with volatile liquid hydrogen and oxygen propellants on launch day. The big numbers on their backs make it easier to keep track of everyone. Also, in case of fire or explosion, when the pad would be instantly deluged with water, they’d be easier to identify on closed-circuit TV screens at the launch control center, three miles away.
The numbers are not randomly assigned. Each team includes two spacesuit technicians (3 and 7), three orbiter mechanics (1, 4, and 5), a quality controller (6), and an astronaut (2). NASA uses astronauts exclusively to fill the No. 2 position for the same reason it uses an astronaut as capsule communicator, or capcom, the person at mission control who talks to the orbiting crew. The agency believes astronauts know the language, the equipment, and the environment better than anyone else. “If there weren’t an astronaut on the close out crew, there would be a big hole in the whole process of bringing the orbiter to life,” says No. 2 Greg “Box” Johnson, who joined the astronaut corps in 1998 but has yet to fly in space. He’s among a group of astronauts called “Cape Crusaders,” who spend most of their time supporting shuttle flight operations at Kennedy. The proximity to flight hardware ranks No. 2 among the most sought-after jobs in the astronaut office.
The astronaut and quality controller are NASA employees. The rest of the crew works for United Space Alliance, the private company that operates the shuttle. The most experienced mechanic (1) leads the team. Usually shuttle missions have seven astronauts, but when there are only five or six, the close out crew may grow to eight and include a trainee. The personnel-on-the-pad limit mainly reflects how many people could safely get off the launch tower in a hurry, riding in seven baskets suspended on slide wires that extend 1,200 feet to a bunker on the ground. The baskets are yet another reminder that being a member of the close out crew has its risks as well as its rewards.
On launch day, six or so hours before liftoff, the No. 7 suit tech heads for the astronaut quarters to help the shuttle fliers wriggle into their pressure suits. Meanwhile, the other six members of the team gather a few miles from the pad to wait for a signal from launch control that fueling is finished. When the all-clear comes, they pile into a step van and drive to the pad. On the dashboard is the hood ornament from a Duesenberg luxury automobile, a gift from veteran shuttle astronaut Marsha Ivins, who often wore the “2.” The shiny chrome statuette gets a rub for good luck as the journey begins.
The truck is a rolling workshop packed with everything from parachutes to light bulbs to extra insulating tiles for the orbiter. There are eight suitcases full of tools, numbered to correspond with their likelihood of being used. On a normal day, the close out crew will need only the hatch “key” and other items in Boxes 1 and 2. Throw in a few surprises, and they may need the heavy-duty pneumatic drills in Box 3. Box 5, full of chisels and hacksaws, is reserved for a very bad day.
The van arrives at the pad, where the shuttle is belching hydrogen and oxygen vapors as though it were alive. As often as Arriens and orbiter mechanic Tim Seymour have been here, it’s still creepy. “Everything’s moving,” says Seymour. “Creaking, popping,” Arriens adds. “Lines are shifting: ‘Kkk, kkk, kkk, kkk,’ ” says Seymour, trying to imitate the sound. “And if it’s windy out, the orbiter’s swaying back and forth a little bit,” Arriens says. Astronauts are awed by the place on launch day. When they come to the pad for practice sessions, they’re often cocky, joking around, says Seymour. “Most of them are—for lack of a better word—like a banty rooster.” But when they see and hear the live rocket on launch morning, the mood is likely to be very different. “It is a very humbling experience,” says Seymour.
The close out crew’s first order of business after arriving at the pad is cabin prep and “pre-ingress setup.” Chores include draining excess water produced by the orbiter’s fuel cells, installing fresh lithium hydroxide canisters that scrub the shuttle’s air of carbon dioxide, laying out harnesses and parachutes for the astronauts, and re-checking the position of hundreds of switches in the cockpit.
Everything is done with an eye on the clock. But assuming they arrived at the pad on schedule, about two hours ahead of the astronauts, this is still the most leisurely time of the day for the close out crew. Greg Johnson likes to sit on the flight deck and take it all in, as if the orbiter were a piece of fine art. “There are thousands of little details that you might miss,” he says. “Just by sitting back in one of the seats and looking at the big picture, you may see something out of place.” There’s another benefit to those 15 minutes of solitude: “It gives me a chance to get really excited about my first flight.”
The calm is broken about three hours before liftoff. The whop-whop of helicopter rotors and the glare of a searchlight signal that the astronaut convoy is approaching the pad. From a vantage point 195 feet up the launch tower, the level where the astronauts will board the vehicle, the Airstream camper carrying the shuttle crew and the police escorts look like Matchbox cars. The close out crew members meet the astronauts at the elevator with quick handshakes or hugs, and the race against time begins. From now on, everything happens strictly according to the script, no matter how familiar each person is with the job.
The close out crew does much of its work in the White Room, a small chamber located at the end of the 65-foot access arm that bridges the launch tower and the orbiter. The White Room is joined to the shuttle’s circular hatch with a flexible collar or bellows, much like an airport jetway. One by one, the astronauts step to the front of this waiting room and prepare to enter the vehicle through the orbiter’s hatch.
Fifty minutes are allotted for strap-in and communications checks. Closing the hatch and pressurizing the cabin should take 30 minutes. If all goes well, about 90 minutes before liftoff, the close out crew will head for a roadblock three miles from the pad. Once in a while a radio glitch or a balky hatch latch forces them to cut it close. “We always like to get off the pad before main engine start,” jokes team leader Welty. Arriens points out that some members of the team are cross-trained, so “if the timeline gets really tight, we can basically throw people at a particular task and the job gets done right and safely.”
The crew members double as babysitters while the astronauts are waiting to enter the shuttle, when those toward the back of the line have plenty of time to meditate or make inadvertent mischief. Some astronauts opt to use the restroom on the launch tower instead of their government-issue diaper, and need help getting dressed again. “When we’re up there working, gender really doesn’t matter,” Welty offers delicately. “We do whatever we have to do to get the job done.”
While waiting to board, astronauts are confined to the 195-foot level. Because of tight timelines and the potential for disaster, corralling the crew must go smoothly. Travis Thompson (No. 1) recalls the time in 1985 when guest astronaut Prince Sultan Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia wandered off to the 215-foot level. “We looked around for him and found him up there on his mat praying [toward] Mecca,” says Thompson. “I tried to give him a little time, but I was like, ‘Hey buddy, we’ve got to go.’ Now we tell ’em point blank: ‘Don’t leave!’ ”
Small even when empty, the shuttle’s crew compartment feels like a phone booth when suited astronauts start climbing inside. It can be an emotional as well as a busy time. Arriens recalls one of six-time shuttle veteran Story Musgrave’s launches. “He was on the flight deck, and I was in one of the access ports. He reaches out and grabs me and pulls me in and says, ‘Thanks.’ That meant a lot to me. I said, ‘I’ll see you when you get back.’ ”
As the strapped-in astronauts check communications with the launch and mission control centers, two of the orbiter mechanics inspect, close, and pressurize the hatch, while the quality control crew member watches over their shoulders. The slightest nick or ding on a seal around the hatch could cause a show-stopping air leak when the cabin is pressurized for flight. The hatch is locked with a big T-shaped key. To watch the locks engage, the mechanics poke a little mirror, like the ones dentists use, into a hatch pressurization port. Arriens modified another mirror for just this purpose.
If you do this delicate procedure incorrectly, he warns, “you’re going to end up taking the hatch apart to get [the key] out.” No one wants to become famous, like the close out crew for Challenger’s doomed January 1986 flight. The hatch didn’t lock properly for the first of two launch attempts. Countdown time ran out while mechanics sawed off the key and drilled out a broken fastener. Although the incident had no bearing on the launch accident the following day, memories of that flight are so painful that close out crew veterans still refuse to talk about it.
Once the cabin is pressurized and checked for leaks, the last couple of insulating thermal tiles are attached to the orbiter near the hatch and the close out crew heads for cover. The job of greeting the astronauts’ families in the control center after launch customarily falls to fellow astronaut No. 2. It’s considered an honor to do so without a name tag, because the lack of one means the shuttle crew has just carried yours into orbit. Greg Johnson’s went to the International Space Station with commander Kent Rominger and the crew of STS-100 in April of last year. Johnson recalls: “As I shook his hand and said a final goodbye, he grabbed my name tag and looked at it, then he stuck it up on the Velcro on the flight deck.”
Altogether, about 30 men and women from NASA and United Space Alliance belong to the select close out crew. When not working with astronauts in practice sessions or on actual launch countdowns, they have regular duties either at the Cape or in Houston. All of them are volunteers, and they get no extra hazard pay.
Some, like Jean Alexander, fell into their jobs. At age 56, she was until recently the most senior woman in a group composed mostly of men—or as she likes to put it, “the grandma on the crew.” She is confident, no-nonsense, and equally adept with a screwdriver and a sewing machine. “We’ve been called Space Age valets,” Alexander says, “and I guess in some ways, that’s basically what we do.” She was a secretary in 1980, the year before the shuttle’s first launch, when the Johnson Space Center in Houston started offering upward mobility to female clerical workers. As she looked over the abundant postings for administrative assistants and budget analysts, an opening for a spacesuit technician caught her eye. America’s first female astronauts were lining up to fly, and Alexander figures that someone thought they’d be more comfortable having another woman suit them up and strap them in.
“You had to be trainable, you had to have some sewing experience, you had to have some mechanical inclination too,” she says. “It was on-the-job training from there.” More than 20 years later, Alexander was still wearing the No. 3. Recently, though, she stepped down from regular close out crew duty when her job was handed over to United Space Alliance. Alexander trained the contractor employees who replaced her, and will keep her certification for now. Not everyone was happy that NASA’s first and only female suit tech also was the agency’s last of either gender. “The astronauts,” she said before her last mission, STS-110, “feel good having a NASA set of eyes and ears in this area.”
Others, like Thompson, deliberately set out to work on the close out crew. He saw his first rocket launch as a military brat in California, and from that day on, he knew the field he wanted to work in. He picked up some machine shop experience at a Union Carbide cryogenics plant, then moved to Florida in 1979 to start punching NASA’s time clock. Thompson wanted to work in the “forward shop,” where technicians service the orbiter’s nose section, including the crew module. When he discovered that working there could entitle him to wear a “1,” he wanted to do that too. But he was too young and inexperienced. After working and waiting five years, he got to join the close out crew. Eight years later, he finally earned the title of orbiter vehicle close out chief, and now wears No. 1 on launch day. “You don’t get anything extra for it and it’s a lot of extra work, but guys want to do it,” says Thompson. “You know you’re doing something important.”
Working in the White Room is like working in a fishbowl, and not just because it barely holds six people. “There are cameras everywhere,” Thompson complains. The views are broadcast to the public on NASA TV on launch day, and to the launch control center on closed-circuit TV all the time. If they sit down for a break in view of the camera, they risk getting a phone call instructing them to look busy. So when they want down time, they hide in a corner behind the camera.
The attention they earn leads to occasional jealousy from co-workers. Seymour reminds them to think about the worst that could happen: “What they see is a gravy day; everything goes good. When it’s a bad day, it’s gonna be a real bad day. Would you really want to be there?”
It could start with a small explosion in the payload bay. A pneumatic regulator failing on a pressurized gas tank could launch shrapnel into the forward bulkhead, puncturing the crew module and triggering a nitrogen leak that incapacitates the astronauts in a single breath. Dealing with such an emergency at night would only complicate matters. Launch controllers would cut power to the orbiter immediately. Rescuers would find themselves fumbling in darkness. “Add smoke to the equation and you’re going to be doing it by Braille the whole way,” says Arriens. “You’d better know how to disconnect a person. If you don’t, all the suit piece-parts are going to hang up on everything, and you’re never going to get [the astronauts] out.” Welty wears a little flashlight on a lanyard around his neck for just such an eventuality. He doubts the fluorescent light sticks tucked into pockets in his own coveralls and the astronauts’ pressure suits would provide enough illumination to get the job done.
The closest call so far was the shuttle’s first-ever launch pad abort, which occurred in June 1984. One of Discovery’s three liquid-fueled engines had already ignited for liftoff when computers aboard the orbiter detected a problem and automatically snuffed the engine. A small hydrogen fire triggered extinguishers on the launch tower, and the water spray drenched the escaping astronauts. “We were all soaking wet and shivering in the cold and thinking, ‘This astronaut business is not quite what I thought it was going to be,’ ” recalls Michael Coats, pilot on the flight. But all were alive, according to Welty, because a watchful close out crew member broke a potentially deadly fall. “When we went up to get them out, we had one astronaut who didn’t really want to be in the ship at all,” he recalls. The person was “so nervous and jerky that they just jumped out of the hatch and [nearly] went right through the bellows.”
The astronauts know that close out crew members stand at the top of a very large pyramid of workers, all of whom deserve their gratitude for preparing the shuttles and the people inside them to fly, year in and year out. But if a problem crops up in those dramatic moments before liftoff, there are only seven people to turn to.
What Goes Up
Partial list of items carried and/or worn by astronauts during a shuttle launch. Some are optional and some, like life support and survival equipment, are mandatory.
Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES)
ACES Neck Dam Pull Tabs
Boot Assembly, Lightweight
ACES Glove Assembly
Gloves, Deerskin, Male, Short
Gloves, Deerskin, Male, Long
Gloves, Deerskin, Female
Shoulder Comfort Pads, .25” or .5”
Thermal Bottom, Men’s
Thermal Bottom, Women’s
Liquid Cooling Pants
Very Lightweight Headset
Headset Interface Unit
Sunglasses with Case
Sunglasses, Crew Preference
Contact Lens, Case, and Solution
Personal Accommodation Plate
Disposable Absorption Garment
Maximum Absorption Garment
Watch, Aviation Space
Wrist Watch, Personal
G-Shock Digital Watch
Microcassette Tape, Spare
Calculator, model HP-48SX
Pencil, Silver, w/Lanyard
Drinking Water Container
Survival Pack A (Flares, etc.)
Survival Pack B (Radio, etc.)
Knife/Shroud Line Cutter
Dosimeter, Crew Passive
Flashlight with Switch Controls
Knife, Swiss Army
EMU Wrist Mirror
Lower Back Support Cushion
Side Hatch Locking Device
Terrycloth Ponytail Holder
Bracelet, Adult I.D.