Goddard workers celebrate mission

Technicians, engineers burst into applause as Discovery touches down

August 10, 2005|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

In the minutes before the shuttle Discovery landed at a California air base, just before the handshakes and sighs of relief, an unaccustomed silence descended on the Flight Dynamics control room at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Technicians and engineers who had spent more than two years working on the shuttle's tracking and communication systems stopped chatting and peered up at large-screen TV screens where Discovery hurtled toward Edwards Air Force Base in a steep glide, approaching a dimly lit runway at 200 mph.

The workers had spent most of the early morning yesterday huddled over computer screens filled with numbers and charts, calmly collecting reams of data beamed from the shuttle to an array of satellites and transmitting it to NASA's mission control center in Houston.

But when Discovery touched down shortly after 8 a.m., the room's sleep-deprived occupants - and employees peering in through hallway windows - erupted in spontaneous applause. More than 2 1/2 years after the Columbia broke up on re-entry, killing its crew of seven, they were again part of a shuttle success story.

"I think this is just as exciting as the very first shuttle mission, back in the 1980s," said Milton Slade, a spacecraft analyst and one of several contract employees watching his colleagues through the control center windows.

For many at Goddard, the landing was a fitting payoff for more than two years rehearsing the shuttle's return to space.

Pepper Powers, a 45-year-old systems engineer for a.i. solutions, exchanged handshakes with co-workers, breathed a sigh of relief and beamed a relaxed smile for the first time in days.

`Extremely relieved'

"I feel extremely relieved," said Powers, of Odenton. "It's good to be back in space again."

Powers is among the many contractors' employees who work for NASA at Goddard, managing communications for the International Space Station and all shuttle missions. They also handle communications for dozens of ummanned rocket and satellite launches.

For the Discovery mission, they monitored dozens of satellites and ground-based antennas around the world that were pointed at the shuttle to provide information about weather and the shuttle's exact location.

"What we're always doing is focusing all these antennas, kind of like the aiming of a TV satellite dish at your house," said John Bez, 52, a software and satellite operations manager from Columbia.

Discovery's landing was one the few tense moments in a long, early morning shift. For most of it, engineers and technicians kept their eyes on their consoles, but took periodic breaks and chatted amiably.

When Discovery re-entered the Earth's atmosphere - the most dangerous phase of the trip because of the 2,300-degree heat - the only response in the Flight Dynamics control room was a thumbs-up from Powers.

No one at Goddard seemed particularly disappointed when bad weather in Florida forced NASA to postpone the original landing Monday morning at Kennedy Space Center. Nor were they upset when continuing bad weather yesterday prompted NASA to land the shuttle at Edwards instead of Kennedy, extending the trip by about three hours.

"You have to look at the safety issues, and from that aspect, I think they made the right decision," said James A. Bangerter, mission manager at Goddard's Network Integration Center, across the Greenbelt campus from Flight Dynamics.

Nerly 14-day trip

Discovery's 13-day, 21-hour trip was the first shuttle mission since the Columbia broke apart during re-entry Feb. 1, 2003. The break-up was traced to a piece of foam that broke off during Columbia's launch, damaging a wing and allowing superhot gases to penetrate the wing during re-entry.

To prevent a similar tragedy, the Discovery mission was designed with dozens of new cameras and monitoring devices - the most detailed in-flight inspection system in the shuttle program's history.

Despite NASA's efforts, a large piece of insulating foam broke off an external fuel tank during Discovery's launch. Although the foam did no apparent damage, the incident led NASA to announce that it was grounding the shuttle fleet until the problem is fixed.

Many at Goddard yesterday said that while they harbored sad memories of Columbia, they were confident that Discovery would return safely.

"Everybody here is really up for this. Everyone always takes these things seriously, but they seem to be taking things a little more seriously, since it's the first shuttle to go back," said Syed Hasan, 24, a systems engineer for Honeywell Technology Solutions from Silver Spring.

Many Goddard workers said they saw a particular importance to Discovery's mission, resupplying the International Space Station and helping ensure the future of the station - which itself is under fire as being too expensive and out of date.

"I think it helps to have that passion and that drive. You have to want to be here," said Nikki Matharu, 32, a missions operations analyst from Ellicott City.

But many Goddard workers said that Discovery's safe return was particularly signicant because of Columbia's legacy.

"To us, all of the launches are big deals. But because of the Columbia accident, the return to flight was considered a really big deal," said Susan L. Hoge, operations director of flight dynamics.

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