-or- The Pre-Launch Abort Ritual [From February 2009. For now, God bless Atlantis. Come home safe.]
A couple of weeks ago I was on a bus tour of the space shuttle launch area at the Kennedy Space Center Florida. For $58 you can ride a bus past some of the outlying security barriers and get within about a mile of the Discovery on the pad. This is about as close as an ordinary citizen can get without being asked serious questions by men with automatic weapons.
It was an impressive tour in all respects, but this story today brought back a part of the tour related by the guide: NASA Delays Discovery Launch Fourth Time
An all-day review of the craft's readiness for launch left managers still under-confident about the operations of three hydrogen control valves thatchannel gaseous hydrogen from the main engines to the external fuel tank. Engineering teams have been working to identify what caused damage to a flow control valve on shuttle Endeavour during its November 2008 flight. NASA managers decided Friday more data and possible testing are required before launch can proceed.That's a good call. We can all remember what happens to a shuttle when damage to the surface of the shuttle reacts to the incredible heat and stress of re-entry: it becomes a very unpleasant low-earth orbit comet, kills everyone on board, and litters a vast swath of the southwest.
But what happens when something goes wrong while the crew is in the shuttle but the shuttle has not yet been launched?
When a shuttle is fueled up and ready to go it is essentially a large semi-truck with a couple of solid fuel rockets strapped to the sides, each one containing 1,100,000 pounds of propellant, and one giant tank containing 535,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen bolted onto the belly. Not a truck you want to be in should anything go amiss.
Fear not, NASA is on the job. NASA has a plan for getting you out (Assuming there is time to get out, of course.) Here, according to our tour guide who had been working at NASA for several decades, is how you "exit the vehicle" should disaster warning bells start to ring before lift-off.
First, consider your situation inside the shuttle before launch. There you are in your seat inside the shuttle all dressed up and ready to go. This means you are sealed in your bright orange space suit, boots, gloves, helmet and all. This is known, optimistically, as the Advanced Crew Escape Suit. It weighs about 80 pounds. The suit comes complete with a "survival backpack, which includes a personal life raft, that is donned before entering the orbiter." In addition there is your "undersuit:"
Underneath the suits, astronauts wear "Maximum Absorbency Garment" (MAGs) urine-containment trunks (resembling "Depends" incontinence shorts) and blue-colored thermal underwear, which has plastic tubing woven into the garments allowing for liquid cooling and ventilation, the latter being handled by a connector located on the astronaut's left waist.Comfy, right?
You are also strapped into your seat. Various oxygen hoses and other attachments connect you to the shuttle. Did I mention you are sitting in a chair, but since the shuttle is in the vertical you are lying on your back in this rig with your knees kipped up like some bizarre Pilates exercise? Well, you are.
The main hatch through which you came into the crew area is somewhere behind you. It is dogged down and sealed to keep air and pressure in and the vacuum of space out. A good idea if you are going into orbit I'm sure you will agree. And so there you are sitting in the shuttle and in, say, final countdown mode waiting for lift off.
"Final countdown mode" means that everybody not inside the shuttle who wants to live (or at least keep their ears functioning) has long since left the area around the shuttle and gone several miles away. Several long miles away. And they're still going to put ear protection on when the shuttle blasts off. They would very much like to not come back to the launch area until the shuttle is long gone.
There you are, you and your crew mates, all by your lonesomes. Space bound at last. Final countdown and all that sort of thing leading up to lift off.
And then something goes wrong.
I know, I know, you are asking yourself, "What could possibly go wrong?" But suppose, just suppose, something does go wrong and Mission Control informs you that according to their best estimates the chances of the whole thing blowing up are tending towards the highly probable and you would be well advised to get the fuck out.
Here's, according to our guide, is all you have to do to save your butt.
1) Unplug everything and get the straps off you.
2) Get to the sealed hatch and unseal and open it.
3) Leave the shuttle and stand up on the gantry. Then cross the gantry, avoiding the elevator that brought you up.
4) On the far side of the gantry is an open platform with slots in the floor below and a lot of cables slanting down and away from the whole shebang. These cables are called "Zip lines."
5) Suspended underneath these zip lines at floor level are wicker baskets. You will climb into these. (Tick, tock, tick, tock... time's a wastin'.)
6) Did I mention you will get into these wicker baskets backwards? You will. Then you will release the basket.
7) Upon releasing the basket you will be propelled backwards and downwards at a very high velocity along the long slanting cable for some distance towards a massive pile of sandbags.
8) Assuming everything's been calibrated properly your basket will shoot through an opening in the sandbags and come to a stop next to the entrance to a highly armored and sealable bunker at the bottom.
9) You will then haul your space-suited self out of the basket, open the door to the bunker and go inside. You will close the door leaving it to any of your more tardy fellow astronauts to open and enter the bunker if their "slide for life" has worked out.
10) Once inside the bunker, which is still relatively close to the now about to explode Space Shuttle, you have to ask yourself one question, "Do I feel lucky?"
11) If you do or do not feel lucky, you can either sit in the bunker and hope for the best, or decide to take Option B.
12) Remember those armored personnel carriers above? They are Option B.
13) Should you select to "move away from the vehicle" you, and any other fellow astronauts who have gotten this far, will go out the back door of the bunker and jump into one of two M113 Armored Personnel Vehicles (Vintage 1960s models, low milage). These are buttoned-up, fully-fueled, keys-in-the-ignition, and engine-running set ups. First astronaut in is the driver.
14) Throw it into gear, pedal to the metal, and you are out of there at a top speed of around 40 miles an hour.
And that's all there is to it. What could possibly go wrong?