Essex astronaut's heart knew liftoff was scrubbed

September 01, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

For astronaut Tom Jones, the final seconds before being blasted into space aboard the space shuttle Endeavour are measured in heartbeats.

When too many heartbeats passed between ignition and liftoff on Aug. 18, the planned start of his second orbital mission in four months, the Essex native knew something had gone wrong.

At the last instant before liftoff, an on-board computer sensed a high temperature reading in one of the shuttle's main engines and automatically aborted the launch. That scrubbed Endeavour's 11-day scientific mission for more than six weeks.

Dr. Jones, a graduate of Kenwood High School in Essex and the U.S. Air Force Academy, was strapped into his seat on the shuttle's mid-deck when the countdown reached zero. He was determined to watch whatever he could see through the hatch window to his left.

"I could see the launch tower," he recalled Monday in an interview from the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston. "So when the [main] engines started, I could see the reflection, an orange-red glare off the steel structure. I could see it very vividly. I said, 'Hey, they're lit, and we're going to go.' "

The next sensation, he said, should have been "the big shove" from ignition of the shuttle's twin solid-fuel booster rockets.

"Time seems to slow down a little bit, waiting for these heartbeats while the [main] engines run to full power, and then a couple more waiting for the big shove," he said. "We were ready to go into space, that's for sure. I was all keyed up."

But he quickly realized that too many heartbeats had passed, and almost immediately, alarms began going off in the shuttle and over his headphones.

Oxygen flowing to one of Endeavour's three main engines had overheated, reaching a temperature beyond the limits allowed by launch safety computers. That automatically stopped the solid-fuel boosters from firing and shut down the main engines.

NASA spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said Monday that all three of Endeavour's main engines are being replaced in anticipation of a new attempt, on Oct. 2, to launch the mission.

The mission is to be a follow-up to Endeavour's last flight, in April, to test the international Space Radar Laboratory. The SRL carries radar equipment that eventually will be launched on unmanned satellites to study changes in the Earth's environment.

What followed the main-engine cutoff was a preplanned cascade of system shutdowns and "safing" procedures. Over the astronauts' headphones came "a flood of information from launch control and flight control," Dr. Jones said.

While that was under way, Endeavour commander Michael A. Baker ordered his crew to unstrap themselves from their seats "to make sure we could get out in a hurry," Dr. Jones said. If their lives had been threatened, the crew would have left the ship through an emergency hatch, entered a steel gondola and slid down a cable to a safety bunker on the ground.

"That's what you're spring-loaded to do," he said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Jones' companion on the mid-deck, physicist Peter J. K. Wisoff, reminded him that they could leave their parachutes behind.

"We also had our visors closed and locked, and we were breathing oxygen," he said. "Within a minute they announced they had no signs of fire . . . so we were not too worried," Dr. Jones said. The whole procedure had been rehearsed, "so that was pretty routine. . . . Emotionally, you're crashing, but the technical stuff is being taken care of."

The atmosphere in the shuttle's cabin was "very orderly," he said. "It was more in the vein of, 'The safety system has kicked in, and let's find out what it was.' "

The crew was reassured by the knowledge that past shuttle problems that have cropped up before liftoff have never ended badly for astronauts, he said. The Challenger accident in 1986, which killed seven astronauts, resulted from a failure in one of the solid-fuel boosters more than a minute after launch.

Only after Endeavour was shut down and secured, Dr. Jones said, did launch officials take several minutes to tell the crew what had happened.

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