For All the High-Tech Equipment, a Shuttle Mission Still Requires People

November 14, 1993|By Ann LoLordo

Johnson Space Center, Texas -- When Neil Armstrong's white-booted foot stepped onto the powdery surface of the moon, America's conquest of space was indelibly imprinted on the world's consciousness. I was reminded of that image recently as I watched another astronaut in white space boots tap his foot while suspended from a lift in a garage-like facility here.

Astronaut Jeffrey A. Hoffman was waiting to be submerged in a 25-foot-deep pool as part of an elaborate and complex dress rehearsal of an 11-day space shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope and repair its flawed main mirror.

The mission -- for which is planned a record number of spacewalks -- poses as great a challenge for NASA as that memorable walk on the moon 24 years ago. With the space agency's reputation suffering from recent missteps and blunders, the Hubble mission -- an ambitious attempt to refit the telescope with specially designed corrective optics -- holds the promise of restoring America's image as a space powerhouse.

But as I stood poolside, watching Astronaut Hoffman's very human response -- perhaps even an unconscious one -- to a delay in the start of the day's simulated spacewalk, I was struck by the notion that for all of NASA's mechanical and engineering might, the success or failure of this mission could well rest with the hundreds of men and women working on the mission, whether they occupy a seat in the control room or aboard the Shuttle Endeavour.

*

The dress rehearsal of the Hubble mission was several hours old when Flight Surgeon Larry Pepper took his place before a console in the control room. There, watching the spacewalkers over closed-circuit television, Dr. Pepper would track their vital signs and monitor the crew's overall health. But first he sprayed his work station with a disinfectant.

It seemed the physician Dr. Pepper is relieving had been sick with a cold.

"I don't want to get a cold this close to the mission," he said. During the simulation, as during the flight, the seven astronauts and the ground crews were working round-the-clock. The mock run simulated the fifth and sixth days of the shuttle flight, including two spacewalks that are crucial to the future scientific health of the telescope. The dress rehearsal was played out at three sites -- the mission control room, an area simulating the cabin of Endeavour, and the pool, known formally as the Weightless Environment Training Facility.

In Building 30, 20 flight controllers sat before consoles, monitoring everything that goes on: the astronauts' underwater activities, the power source that rotates the telescope, the shuttle's position with regards to the sun.

The room, shaped like a half-moon, is filled with four rows of consoles. At the front of the room are four large screens, including an animated map of the globe with a cartoon shuttle flying across it. Plaques marking successful space or shuttle missions operated out of this room decorate the walls here. There are dozens of them.

For every engineer or technician sitting at a console here, there are four or five backup people, experts gathered in another room in Building 30, prepared to offer advice when a problem occurs. Eavesdropping on mission control conversations is like listening to a high-tech party-line. All lines eventually lead to J. Milton Heflin, who as flight director oversees the mission and makes the final decisions on the flight. Information, however, is relayed to him through a strict chain of command.

The behind-the-scene specialists or planners relay their information or data to a specific flight control officer, who then talks to the flight director. Two astronauts among the flight controllers generally are the only people who speak directly to the crew.

In addition, for this mission, specialists at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., which controls the mechanical operations of Hubble, also are patched into this multi-layered communications system.

And while this is a deadly serious business, involving human lives and millions of dollars' worth of sophisticated equipment, space-speak is not all high-tech commands.

"Watch those doors popping open on you," someone cautions Astronaut Kathryn C. Thornton after she loosens the last bolt on the telescope doors and pulls at them.

Upon learning that mosquitoes allegedly have been spotted flying out of the shuttle cargo bin, flight director Heflin asks: "Were they live mosquitoes or dead?"

*

If the control room symbolizes the brain -- and computer -- power of launching a mission such as this, then the underwater activities under way in Building 29 represent the brawn.

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