I can’t sleep.
“You never sleep the night before a launch,” is what I often tell people.
Well, I lied: I slept 3 hours.
I lay awake for the next 30 minutes until a text hits my phone.
It’s improved from the initial prediction of “30% go for weather”. Sounds like Atlantis may be going afterall.
I skip my panned wake-up time for 6AM and head down to the shower. Cereal for breakfast [better goodies await once in the office], work clothes on [polo, jeans, Vans slipons].
The drive to work is my usual, no traffic hiccups.
In and I drop my stuff off in the office. We’re set to do a public Q&A before and a bit of time after liftoff.
Our books are ready (about 15 pages of procedure to go over during launch) and after a quick review lasting from 7:15AM till 7:50, we head down to face the crowd for the final time.
Nearly 200 people are there to watch on our 15-foot media wall. Young, old, knowledgeable and clueless. They’re all here to watch the main event, and who can blame them?
I handle the crowd as usual, apparently I’m the only engineer there who can talk to the public AND do their job correctly. Who knew.
“I herrrrrd we’re gonna’ be gittin’ rides from them Russians!” someone points at me asking.
“That’s right,” I reply, “And considering that the Russian astronauts NASA took up to Mir and the ISS on the Shuttle didn’t complain, neither should we.”
“Why is the Shuttle program ending?”
“Well,” one of the experts we allowed from outside to come in and speak with us opens his mouth, “President Obama decided it was time for the Shuttle program to end.”
“Not to mention the official call for the Shuttle program to end came under the Bush administration,” I make sure to add, “This current Congress gave additional funding to allow the flight of STS-135 and Obama is pushing to increase NASA’s budget over the next few years.”
After a half-an-hour spent mostly correcting misconceptions, outright lies and explaining how the Shuttle will launch, we retreat upstairs to our room.
Littered with laptops, computer screens and TV’s, we’re all set to make sure the telemetry data is “on the line”, essentially making sure the Shuttle is going up into space on the planned trajectory it should take.
The countdown hold at T-9min releases. This hold is built in and lasted 41mins, this allows Control in Florida to assure for a final time that Atlantis is ready to go. Ground Launch Sequencer begins its check of over 1,000 parameters to make sure the bird is ready for launch. At T-31sec the official handover to Atlantis’ computers will occur so long as all is well.
At T-5min the onboard Auxiliary Power Units, fuel cells that give the Shuttle hydraulic power so a controlled ascent can occur, start-up, and within a few seconds readings are looking good.
There is less chatter than usual. We’re all watching our screens anticipating everything.
On my laptop in front of me is a contingency list, essentially boxes with arrows that point to possible abort modes we may need to run. Our TAL Abort site for this launch window is Zaragosa AFB in Spain, which the Shuttle can make if it needs to just cross the Atlantic Ocean due to a problem.
Our AOA Abort site is Edwards AFB, Atlantis landing there if a problem besets the Shuttle only allowing it to orbit once.
T-2min, we double check everything. All food and drinks are out of our room, no need to have them, they’ll just get in the way.
T-1min, all non-essential personal are gone, not that there were any with us.
A quick check of my workstation and everything looks good. I’m bouncing my leg nervously, sitting back in my chair, hand covering my chin.
STS-135 is set to begin ascent at 8:46:26, right in the middle of a 10min window that would allow it to reach the ISS.
“Clock will hold at T-31sec due to a failure.”
Instantly a flurry of sounds, mostly the clicking of computer mice, begins within our room, but quickly stops. We get word that the GVA has not fully retracted. The Gaseous Vent Arm sits on top of the External Tank, capturing all the gases venting until T-2min till launch.
Nothing we can do about it except sit and wait.
We can confirm through our own cameras avalible to us that is has cleared.
There’s 3m16s left in allowable hold time left and the confirmation that resumption of the clock will begin:
“3…2…1…Mark…Go for auto-sequence start.”
My palms are sweating.
Are we really about to do this? crosses my mind, as it had for the previous ascents I worked.
“Firing chain armed,” I hear in my headset.
“Looking nominal for SSME ignition.”
“Confirm SSME at 100…”
Here we go…
Actually, not we, they.
I correct myself a lot.
“SRB IGNIT.” my computer screen lets me know.
Up, up and away.
Downstairs the crowd cheers. Upstairs we watch. The crowd often forgets there’s still over 8 minutes 30 seconds of powered flight left.
At T+5sec the tower is cleared.
“Twang nominal, engines are gimbaling, roll program init.”
“ROLL PROGRAM HOUSTON!” is called out by Commander Christopher Furgeson at T+7sec. Houston acknowledges.
“Confirm, engines at 100%, three good APU’s, SSME 72 on the upcoming. Riding uphill.” I check in for the launch with my first commands.
Our next action, the SSME’s throttling down to 72% of rated performance, allowing the Shuttle to pass through the transonic region safely, occurs. We confirm.
Once through, we hear from Houston those cringe-worthy words:
“Atlantis, go at throttle up, no action DPDT.”
We’ve done our job for the first part of ascent flawlessly.
“Coming up on SRB sep.”
“Copy SRB sep.”
“Standby SRB sep.”
The two largest solid-fueled rockets ever designed detach and fall away.
“Can confirm on telemetry on SRB sep, OMS ignit. 2 engine TAL active,” I say, letting everyone know that at this point we can make it to Zaragosa on two-good engines.
“Confirm that guidance now on track post-SRB sep.”
“What is that?”
We all turn to look. There’s a little “D” graphic near the bottom right corner of the screen. Shortly after we’ve all seen it, it dissapears.
“This was the last launch too! Someone’s gonna lose their job!”
“Atlantis, 2 engine TAL.” Houston sends up.
“Confirm we’ve lost audio and video signal.”
This generate an interest in us. Video and audio feeds don’t just cut out on their own.
“Confirm loss of signal.”
“I can confirm as well,” my boss says, “We’re out of ran—-“
“—-Copy,” I butt in, “Telemetry is still on.”
“Copy, go again.”
“Telemetry is still on. We are on the line. Signal issue with the video. Telemetry still on and we are on the line,” I’m stern this time.
“Copy, we read telemetry. KSC is working on the video fix.”
It’s not unusual to lose a video feed on launch. It is unusual to lose audio. It’s extremely unusual to lose some video and audio feeds.
But we’ve absolutely never lost ALL video and audio feeds before, hence the slight calm panic we all went through.
“Confirm that we are now switching to 1 engine TAL 104.”
“Copy,” the telemetry is looking perfect. Minimal adjustments. All that extra work is showing.
“What the fuck. That “D” is back. Get that shit off of there. No one wants to see that! NO ONE!”
“Atlantis, press to ATO.” Houston calls.
“Press to ATO.”
Now T+5min in the ascent, Atlantis can make minimal orbital requirements. In this time it’s traveled the equivalent of Los Angeles to San Francisco in 5 minutes.
“We are go for rollover,” I call out, telemetry is so smooth, I’m beginning to wonder if I even needed to come in for the launch, but then mentally slap my wrist: It’s the last you idiot.
“Atlantis, single engine OPS-3.”
“Single engine OPS-3.”
Atlantis’ SSME’s swivel and she rolls over to a heads-up position.
Since the ISS had recently performed an orbital altitude boost, the pitch of the Shuttle is much higher than I ever remember seeing for a ISS ascent.
“Looks like we’ve got enough power to make it to orbit. Looks good,” I call out, the little red line following the fat blue-line of the planned trajectory.
“Atlantis, press to MECO.”
The final roll completes.
“Press to MECO.”
Furgeson isn’t too talkative.
Once we hear from Houston, “Go for plus-x, go to the pitch.”
We know their isn’t much left for us to do. I’m now watching data streaming in live from a machine moving at 12,000mph. There’s still a minute let, and in those 60 seconds the Shuttle will gain nearly 5,000mph.
“Telemetry showing no OHMS 1 needed. OHMS 2 yes.”
We all fall silent just as MECO occurs, the massive disruption of the smooth engine plume evident.
“We have MECO,” likely the last thing I’ll ever say involving the Shuttle during a mission (I wasn’t sure then and still don’t know if I’m working re-entry).
Atlantis detaches from the ET, and that’s it. Our job is over.
It’ll take a few days for the data to come in completely and be throughly analyzed before we know just how well of a job we’ve done, but it looks like we may have had a perfect launch.
It’d be a fitting end.