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What Astronauts Do When There’s Nothing to Do

by Terry Dunn
Waiting For The Go

Whether it’s stoplights, your doctor’s office, or a popular restaurant on Saturday night, waiting is an inescapable aspect of modern life. For many of us, the pain of waiting is rarely much worse than being behind some indecisive couple at the Redbox kiosk. But even that trivial torment can be eased with time-killing apps on your phone. Now imagine that you have a few hours to kill before fulfilling your life’s greatest ambition, with practically nothing to do, all while firmly strapped to a fully reclined seat atop a few million pounds of highly explosive fuel…and no smartphone to check Twitter. That was the situation that many Space Shuttle astronauts found themselves in. That stoplight doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?

Much has been written about the experience of riding a spaceship to orbit…but what about the wait to get started? (photo credit NASA)

When astronauts arrived at the launch pad via the gleaming Astrovan motor home, there was much more to do than just pile into the shuttle and light the engines. There could have been up to seven astronauts on any given flight, and just strapping them into their seats took nearly an hour. Then the entry hatch had to be closed, sealed, and pressure checked…along with a laundry list of other vital tasks. When all was said and done, an astronaut could find themselves in that seat for as long as five hours before liftoff. I don’t even want to sit in my La-Z-Boy for that long, much less be shackled with a five-point harness to a rigid seat that was designed for lightness above all else.

While physical comfort (or lack thereof) is one element of sitting on the launch pad, the mental aspect of processing the pending, and rather dramatic events must have been equally unsettling. Whether their primary emotion was excitement, fear, or something else entirely, I don’t see how anyone could dismiss the fact that launching into space is a very big deal. The last few hours of the countdown were likely among the least frenetic periods since the crew had begun training for the flight months--or years--earlier. The ways in which astronauts coped with this forced inactivity while perched at the edge of such a rare and dynamic human experience are surely as varied as the people themselves.

The Setting

Looking at the flight deck from just behind the pilot’s seat, we can see the minimalist nature of the space shuttle’s seats, as well as the passageway in the floor that leads to the mid-deck. (photo courtesy of Ben Cooper/www.LaunchPhotography.com)

The Space Shuttle had two seating areas for launch; the flight deck and the mid-deck. The flight deck was basically the cockpit, which housed the flight controls and instrumentation. Seated just behind the forward-looking windows were the commander and pilot. Immediately behind them and slightly offset were two more seats reserved for mission specialist astronauts.

An opening in the cockpit floor behind the commander’s seat held a ladder leading down to the mid-deck. If the shuttle had a steerage class compartment, it would be the mid-deck (but who would complain?). Up to three seats could be located in this room for launch. The wall just forward of these seats was actually a set of lockers used to stow provisions for the flight. Much of the other volume in the mid-deck would have been taken up by additional supplies that were stored in bags and lashed into place.

The commander and pilot not only had the best view because of their windows, they also had the most work to do during the countdown. It is doubtful that they would have had much time for introspection. The mission specialists on the flight deck could perhaps steal glances through the front windows. Given their perspective and distance, however, there would have been very little to see. The windows located above their heads would have been equally useless. These mission specialists had some assigned tasks during the countdown, but their workload was decidedly less than that of the pilot and commander.

Appearing more like a padded room than a spaceship, the shuttle’s mid-deck offered little in terms of comfort or entertainment while on the launch pad.

(above photo courtesy of Ben Cooper/www.LaunchPhotography.com)

The mission specialists on the mid-deck had a tiny window (located on the entry hatch) which looked back onto the launch pad. Other than that static view, they had nothing to look at except the locker doors in front of them and each other. By and large, astronauts on the mid-deck had no jobs to cover during the countdown. Perhaps that is why those on the mid-deck had to key their microphones to be heard, while everyone on the flight deck had hot mics. If you are claustrophobic, or maybe just easily-bored, you wouldn’t want to spend much time on the mid-deck.

The Cast

Valerie McNeil (holding sign) and Max Kandler (behind sign) pose with other members of the closeout crew for STS-83. (photo credit Kandler)

If you can imagine the challenges of boarding an airplane while it is parked on its tail, you can begin to understand the difficulties of getting shuttle crews on board. They were assisted by a seven-person team called the closeout crew. Dressed in white coveralls, these folks ensured that the crew made it to their seats with all of the correct gear and made certain that the shuttle was properly buttoned-up for launch. The dangers of this job can be presumed by the fact that those coveralls were made with fireproof and anti-static materials. They also featured integrated straps so that your would-be rescuers could more-easily drag you to safety. If you still have doubts about the inherent dangers of working on the launch pad, read Terry Burlison’s article about a little-known incident in the shuttle program’s history.

Working on numerous closeout crews, Valerie McNeil and Max Kandler were among the last earthlings that astronauts saw before launch. More than anyone else, Max, Valerie, and their teammates had unique insight into the general mood and disposition of crews as they began their wait on the launch pad.

Valerie states, “To me, the crews were always extremely focused, very professional, and always ready for launch day.” While Max does not disagree, he points out that launch day was a perfect opportunity for veteran flyers to get in a little last-minute hazing of the rookies:

“On STS-83, the commander (James Halsell) wanted the suit technicians to make boarding passes for the veteran crewmembers to put in their suit pockets on launch day. When the crew arrived at the launch pad, the security officer onboard the Astrovan asked the crewmembers to present their boarding passes. The rookies had no passes, so the he wouldn't let them leave the Astrovan until he checked with the security office over his radio link. The verbal reply was that they were cleared to go on the launch pad. The veteran crew got quite a chuckle out of the rookies’ momentary dilemma.”

Waiting…Again

Tom Jones got right back in the saddle following a scary last-second launch abort. (photo credit NASA)

In his book, “Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir”, retired astronaut Tom Jones talks in detail about his time on the launch pad for each of his four missions. For his first flight, STS-59, he spent a full five hours in the mid-deck before the launch was scrubbed due to high winds. Back in his seat the next day, Jones had passing thoughts of potential doom that he was able to suppress. His biggest concern was that he might somehow make a mistake that would affect the mission…an anxiety so prevalent among his peers that it spawned the Astronaut’s Prayer: “God, please don’t let me screw up.”

Jones’ second flight, STS-68, also required two trips to the launch pad, but for a very different reason. Tom and his crew tolerated the boredom of the countdown, noting little more than the physiological effects of sitting in such an awkward position for so long (stuffy head and tingling feet). During the final minutes, they began to feel a surge of tension and adrenaline as the shuttle’s systems came alive all around them in preparation for liftoff. With six seconds to go, the three main engines fired, causing the shuttle to sway on its mounts. Less than two seconds before the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) were to fire and jolt the shuttle off of the launch pad, all fell silent. A redline temperature reading had triggered an abort at the last possible moment…arguably the mother of all teases.

You would expect such an event to create a crew of white-knuckled, Valium-popping, reluctant flyers who would be less than eager for another attempt. That was not the case. When they climbed back into Endeavour six weeks later, Jones captured the mood while speaking into a personal recorder, “It’s nice and relaxed. Everyone is cracking jokes, having a good time up here.” He later wrote, “The August pad abort had swept away much of the tension in Endeavour’s cabin; we were rested, relaxed, and ready to get to orbit.” I guess the ability to shrug off near misses and look ahead is part of what made them steely-eyed missile men.

Nature Calls…Collect

Mike Foreman proved that gravity is no match for adult diapers. (photo credit NASA)

As the crew of STS-129 prepared to launch, mission specialist Mike Foreman had one overpowering feeling…an urge to empty his bladder. On the surface, this should seem like no big deal since the innermost layer of his orange Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES) was a Maximum Absorbency Garment (MAG – NASA’s version of an adult diaper). Nobody really wants to urinate into a MAG, but it sure beats holding it in for hours. While MAGs can also handle “the other” bodily function, it is universally considered a reluctant last resort. Babies with stinky diapers cry for a reason!

Mike was no stranger to MAGs, having worn them countless times during training for launch scenarios and spacewalks (MAGs are also used within the Extravehicular Mobility Unit worn for spacewalks)…not to mention his flight experience on STS-123. Yet, no amount of experience can convince your mind that it’s okay to let loose while lying flat on your back with your legs elevated…a quite unnatural position for this most natural of acts. Mike relates, “My bladder was saying ‘yes, yes, yes!’, but my brain was saying ‘no, no, no!’”

Foreman shared his predicament with his crewmates and received jokingly unsympathetic and heckling responses. Eventually, Mike’s bladder overpowered his brain and the MAG did its job as intended. His relief was short-lived, as he felt his bladder filling again a mere twenty minutes later in the countdown. While preparing to urinate in his MAG for a second time, one of his crewmates asked Mike over the intercom if he had been able to take care of his earlier problem. Mike proudly replied, “Yes, now I’m working on number two!” The obvious double entendre created several wincing faces aboard the shuttle and required hasty clarification.

Ignorance is Bliss

For many astronauts, having prior spaceflight experience removed many of the unknowns and helped ease pre-launch jitters. For other veterans, knowing what was coming is precisely what had them on edge. Story Musgrave is one of only seven astronauts with six or more missions to his credit. Despite his obvious love of space travel, he had this to say about launching in the shuttle:

“It's 137 decibels. It's shaking. Everything is shaking. You're along for the ride and you want to survive that. So, it's not a joy ride for me. It's what I need to go through to get into the incredible serenity and celestial dance of zero gravity."

Tom Jones shared the flight deck with Musgrave for his final launch on STS-80. In “Sky Walking”, Jones transcribed the chatter among the crew during the final minute of the countdown, while also sharing a related anecdote from Story’s fourth flight:

Story Musgrave experienced six missions on the space shuttle, but he never got comfortable with the sensations of launch…or waiting for the time to arrive. (photo credit NASA)

Taco (Commander Kenneth Cockrell): I’m glad they don’t do live heart monitors anymore.

Story: I’m glad they don’t, man. They’d abort this launch.

This set off a ripple of laughter in the cockpit. I suddenly remembered Jim Voss’ story – about Story – waiting for the STS-44 launch. Tom Henricks, the pilot, who was about to launch for the first time, noticed that three-time-flier Story wasn’t participating in the lighthearted banter on the flight deck. Tom said ‘Story, how come you’re so quiet over there?’ His voice uncharacteristically serious, Story replied: ‘Because I’m…scared…to…death.’”

Lest anyone question Musgrave’s mettle (although I’m pretty sure that’s never happened), Jones also notes that Story abandoned his return seat on the mid-deck and stood on the flight deck during re-entry… all while casually video-taping the whole show. If the demands of that feat are not obvious to you, think “NASA meets Chuck Norris”.

The World’s Smallest Violin

The point of this story was to illustrate the human factors of sitting in a spacecraft and waiting to launch--something scant few of us will ever experience firsthand. I don’t expect that I’ve elicited much sympathy for hardships that the astronauts may have endured. After all, the reward for their troubles was a trip to space. This more than made up for a few anxious hours on the ground. It is obvious that the astronauts agreed. There was never a shortage of willing crewmembers clamoring to fill every empty seat on the Space Shuttle…even if it meant they had to wait.

Special thanks – I would like to thank Valerie McNeil and Max Kandler for sharing their experiences and photos from their days as closeout crewmembers. Thanks also to astronaut, Mike Foreman, for taking the time to answer my questions and being so forthcoming about his bodily functions. I owe a big thanks to retired astronaut Tom Jones for patiently replying to my emails when all the answers I sought were already in his book…which I highly recommend. Finally, I would like to thank Ben Cooper for the use of his fabulous photographs of the shuttle flight deck and mid-deck. His website features an amazing collection of space-related images. Check it out!

Terry Dunn worked for 15 years as a NASA contractor at NASA Johnson Space Center, and now lives in Lubbock, Texas, where he works as an engineer in the plastics industry. He previously wrote about NASA's Space Shuttle abort plans.

Photos courtesy NASA and Ben Cooper