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Astronaut For A Day: STS 132 and the Ship Atlantis

By Pete Trubucco

From Left to right MS Garrett Reisman, Shuttle Pilot Tony Antonelli, Pete Trabucco, Commander Ken Ham, MS Michael GoodAs a pilot and space fanatic, I have always followed our NASA space program closely and secretly hoped that one day that I would be able to work with these astronauts in space.  Of course this could never really occur but a funny thing did happen to me on my way to Houston (and Johnson Space Center) not too long ago.  As we all know, the end of the Space Shuttle program is right around the corner.  Due to budget cuts, it looks like after the final mission is scheduled for next June and the program will truly be concluded.  However on a faithful day in March, I did get to play “astronaut in training” with these star voyages and I can tell you, not many things that I have done can top this experience. 

As the Space Shuttle Atlantis was scheduled for its last flight, I got a call from the NASA front office saying if I were able to get down to Houston, I would be in for a real treat. The flight that was up next was designated as STS 132 and the ship Atlantis was scheduled for liftoff (from pad 34A) on May 14, 2010.  This flight marked the 32nd and (at the time) final flight for Atlantis closing almost a quarter century of service for NASA and our manned space program.

For her final mission, Atlantis was commanded by Astronaut Kenneth, T. Ham.  You might recall my last story was covering Ham as he took his first flight (he was the shuttle pilot) into space two years ago on STS 124 Discovery.  This time Ham was the Commander of the mission and he and his crew would deliver an Integrated Cargo Carrier and a Russian-built Mini Research Module to the International Space Station.

Along with Ham were five seasoned astronauts on board for the task at hand. They were Shuttle Pilot, Dominic Anthony “Tony” Antonelli, Commander USN, Mission Specialist and USAF Colonel (MS-1), Michael T Good; Piers Sellers, MS-2; Stephen G. Bowen, Captain, USN MS-3; and in the MS-4 spot Astronaut and U.S. Navy submariner Garrett Reisman.  During this mission, three scheduled EVAs (or spacewalks) were scheduled for Reisman, Good and Bowen and as it turns out for one brief but exciting day, I found myself in the middle of all this training! 

So what’s it like to train for a space shuttle mission like STS 132?  Well, this reporter was invited to the Garn Facility at the Johnson Space Center just six weeks before the flight into space and strapped in with Ham, Antonio, Reisman and Good at their main facility motion-based simulator in Houston, Texas. This motion simulator is a high-fidelity replica of the shuttle’s forward flight deck that can carry five astronauts, mounted on a platform assembly, with seven hydraulic servo-actuators that will pitch the crew and cabin up to 90 degrees from center. Not only does this simulator actually tilt vertically for takeoff, but also simulates the heavy vibration, noise and cockpit views the crew will experience during the shuttle’s takeoff and landing scenarios. However, they make the situation even more intense by throwing every problem one can imagine at the crew. Imagine trying to solve technical and potentially life-threatening scenarios while you are rocking around on your back and warning lights and alarm bells are ringing in your ears. Now you get the picture!

The interior cockpit in NASA’s motion simulator is almost an exact duplicate of the main deck on the space suttle.When entering NASA’s motion simulator, the interior cockpit is almost an exact duplicate of the main deck on the space shuttle.  To the untrained eye (like mine), the cockpit itself looks very similar to that of an airliner. The primary flight instruments on the space shuttle have modern full-color, flat-panel display screens or glass cockpit technology. There is also a HUD or “heads up display” so the commander and shuttle pilot don’t have to look inside the cockpit to get vital information.

Participants are strapped into a seat (one of five on the main deck) and then attached to a five-point “quick release” harness system. They are also given a head set, a microphone and tilted vertically for what can be several hours at a time. Seats are arranged with the commander and shuttle pilot in front and mission specialists 1 through 3 sitting behind.  In the actual shuttle, only two crewmembers sit behind the pilots.

One interesting observation I made was that just like on an airline, the shuttle seats actually recline. Also, those seats must be in a forward and in a locked position for takeoff.  Peanuts are not an option on this flight! It is also interesting to see that both the mission commander and shuttle pilot’s seat can move horizontally and vertically depending on need. Both are in a forward down and locked position (like the crew) for takeoff, but in order to get a better view out the window for landing, their seats can move forward and up hydraulically almost a foot either way. 

Velcro emergency placards (and pens) are strategically placed around the cabin and there are a few stopwatches behind the pilot’s seat that can be utilized as well. I was playing with one of these during our training session and I nearly broke one from overuse. Lastly, I found out one very important lesson when training in the full motion simulator: make sure you remove the contents of your pockets before strapping in.  I made the mistake of having coins, keys and other items on my person, which upon takeoff were shaken and snatched away by gravity.  In addition to the simulation noise of takeoff with everyone concerning this mission training session plugged, the one thing that mission control hears are the unmistakable sounds of coins (much like in a slot machine) plummeting to the floor of the simulator.

After the laughter from certain members of the crew and mission control personnel, I believe the best lines came from Astronauts Antonelli and Ham. They just said, “We take donations for these flights…Thanks again Pete for your generous donation today!”  

The crew was in a word “great” in that I felt extremely privileged to be among them.  Before every mission the crew sounds out so that everyone knows that they are ready for the next sim launch or landing.  You would hear MS-1, MS-2 and so on and I will tell you that since I was sitting in the MS- 3 or the mission specialist third seat, it was great to hear them encourage me to sound out as if I were one of them.  Sometimes I forgot to do so and these guys would kid me to get it right because if I didn’t, they would have to do the entire count over again.  Talk about pressure… The last thing you want to do is miss a count strapped in with these seasoned astronauts while all of NASA was listening in.  

It didn’t take long for one to deduce that the chemistry between the four crewmembers in the simulator was quite good. On this day, not only did the crew train for the mission, but mission control personnel (and flight controllers) were also simultaneously training in the next room, which gave it an even more realistic feel. To watch the crew and mission control work together under stressful conditions (in a closed and moving space) was a sight to see and from my perspective, it looked like they handled every problem thrown at them admirable. Whether it was something as simple as a launch area airplane incursion, or as major as the loss of engines on takeoff, fuel tank rupture in the launch sequence, multiple communications problems, oxygen leaks or loss of electrical power in the cycle, the crew performed flawlessly and as a cohesive unit.  

In a little less than four hours, the crew experienced dozens of potential emergency situations (the warning alarms were going off pretty regularly at one point) and along with their mission control counterparts, were able to work the problem and come up with acceptable solutions. Debriefings (together or over the com system) were established after every scenario.

There were many interesting things to see but the real story here (and the continuing story of NASA) is their ability to put all the pieces of a mission together and work successfully as a team. A good example of this occurred not too long ago when there were personnel changes in the crew of STS 132. Soon after the official flight crew announcement, mission specialist Karen Nyberg would be replaced due to a temporary medical condition. She was replaced by mission specialist and veteran astronaut Michael Good. Although it is true that this occurred early on, it still had the potential to cause problems for the mission.  As Commander Ham put it, “I had requested that Nyburg be on this mission. We had worked together on STS 124 and it was a disappointment that she wouldn’t be going with us,” said Ham. However, Ham was also quick to point out that with the addition of Good, the “transition was a seamless one! The key here is to have a crew that can actually read each other’s thoughts and we have that here,” he added. 

In the simulator, it was clearly evident that this statement rang true. Both Ham and shuttle pilot Antonelli, seemed to know each other’s thoughts and between them were able to quickly handle almost every problem that arose. Reisman and Good were also very active during these sessions and were vital to getting the right information and data to the commander and shuttle pilot when needed. All were looking through their emergency procedure and flight plan manuals making notations and never missed a beat in coming up with the proper data and information.

What was most noticeable was Ham’s (everyone calls him Hock) overall leadership style with his crew. There can be many instances where an experienced commander (in this case a veteran pilot and astronaut) might have a tendency to micro-manage a situation.  It can sometimes be a force of habit towards the pursuit of personal perfection.  That was not the case here. During the several hours spent with the crew, Ham clearly delegated responsibility to all his crewmembers and on certain occasions even stepped back and let them (and mission control personnel) come up with the proper emergency solutions, protocols and procedures.

When asked about the difference between being a crewmember and the commander of a mission, Ham compared the transition as a “natural progression” and one very similar to being promoted from pilot to squadron commander in the military.  “Yes there is a lot more responsibility, but the goal of every pilot and astronaut is to reach this level of achievement,” said Ham. “As a space shuttle pilot (on STS 124) you are only responsible for your own job, but as a commander, the responsibility now extends to not just your job duties on a particular mission but to the overall mission itself,” Ham added.

What was most intriguing to me was the fact that hanging out with this crew onboard the full-motion simulator (back in March in the sim) and knowing what was actually going to happen in the main cabin during the actual takeoff gave me a new perspective on this whole thing as I watched it from the ground.  This is something I will never forget.

Although the future of our space program is unsure, (some say after space shuttle, it might be six years before American astronauts have a vehicle that will get them back into space) one thing is for certain: After spending some time with mission control personnel and four of the six crew members of STS 132, one is struck by the high level of teamwork and professionalism they possess. Individuals who don’t consider themselves heroes but just working Joe’s and Jane’s who do their job everyday not just for NASA but to fulfill a dream for themselves and most importantly for the American people.  This is a dream that they still share with our nation’s youth on each and every mission.  Atlantis was in good hands with these guys and as for me, I can’t think of a finer group of individuals to spend time with especially during the final days of the “Space Shuttle” program.  This is MS-3 (for a day) signing off for now!

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