July 8, 2011

How to Get Out of a Space Shuttle on the Pad in an Emergency

-or- The Pre-Launch Abort Ritual [From February 2009. For now, God bless Atlantis. Come home safe.]

Discovery on launching pad

Two M113 Armored Personnel Carriers (Remember these, they'll come in later)

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 that´ú░channel 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?

Posted by Vanderleun at July 8, 2011 12:36 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

And we are surprised whenever one of these monstrosities goes awry and kills the passengers.

"What could possibly go wrong?"

Well, there you are atop a government run project with equipment supplied by the lowest bidder.

Posted by: Fat Man at February 21, 2009 9:24 AM

Great post!

Now that I know what to look for, I can see the zip lines in the picture.

To other readers...If you get a chance to take an "enhanced tour" of something, pay the money and do it.

I took the "hard hat" tour of Hoover dam, well worth the extra dough.

Posted by: at February 21, 2009 9:58 AM

I wonder if OSHA made them install the saftey escape stuff. Or maybe the insurance company...


Posted by: jwm at February 21, 2009 10:47 AM

Can you wrap your head around the fact of human beings who WANT to strap themselves atop a controlled explosion?

I'm such a nervous Nelly that a commercial airline takeoff taxes my nervous system.

Heck. I'll bet if they had to take that basket ride their pulse wouldn't break 80.

Posted by: Cathy at February 21, 2009 3:57 PM

Did the tour guide say how long this procedure is supposed to take?

The whole thing sounds like a more elaborate version of the Apollo pad escape system. But then there were only three astronauts and the hatch was right over their heads.

On the shuttle, there are up to seven astronauts on two decks and they would all have to get out of one hatch on the side. That sounds unwieldy.

Posted by: rickl at February 22, 2009 2:20 AM

Abort/escape routine is probably just that after several hundred rehearsals. Complicated, yes, but regimented to the second. The training requirements for crew survival are one valid reason for so few space tourists on the U.S. vehicles.

Jumping out of low flying aircraft over unfriendly terrain at night is a harrowing experience. I know several twenty-somethings who have spent the last few years in that line of work, and what they wonder at is that their grandpas worked only by starlight...

Just part of the job.

I've been trying to get my wife to commit to a trip to Florida for one of the last shuttle missions.

Those launches will be the last notable ones in our lifetimes. From U.S. facilities, at least.

Posted by: TmjUtah at February 22, 2009 7:35 AM

I worked on the space shuttle flight simulators at NASA/JSC back in 1979-80, prior to the first actual launch, and occasionally got to speak with the astronauts in training.

Back then, the big issue wasn't what if things went wrong on the pad (I suspect the general consensus was, "You die."). It was, what if you encounter problems after launch but without being able to attain orbit? After all, the shuttle had not yet flown, so there were still quite a few unknowns about how it would actually perform. NASA had several emergency landing sites around the world (Spain, etc.), but the real sticky question was, what if things went wrong immediately, since you had the whole Atlantic between you and the first landing site?

NASA's answer to that was RTLS, or "Return to Launch Site". The astronauts were to turn the shuttle around and head back to the Kennedy Space Center, jettisoning the solid rocket boosters and external tank along the way. The shuttle was known as "The Flying Brick" for its aerodynamics, and I can remember John Young -- designated commander for the first shuttle flight -- expressing in profane terms what he thought of RTLS and his chances of survival in such a situation.

I'm very grateful that no shuttle has ever had to attempt RTLS in the nearly 30 years of shuttle flights and consider it evidence of at least something that NASA has been doing right. ..bruce..

Posted by: bfwebster at February 22, 2009 9:26 AM

That's crazy... I'll leave the astronauting to the professionals!

Posted by: Comrade Tovya at February 22, 2009 12:24 PM

And you go through these 'Procedures' realizing that getting to step 2 was essentially a miracle.
(Keep rolling them dice.)
I once worked with a guy who had been in missle engine testing at Huntsville, AL.
He said they had an emergency evacuation drill (in case a test went bad) called "Feets Don't Fail Me Now".

Posted by: ed in texas at February 23, 2009 6:21 AM

Screw Disney World. I'll take the zip line ride for $58. Then plow around in an armored vehicle at 40 mph.

Posted by: FoamFinger1 at February 23, 2009 9:56 AM

I seem to recall, many years ago, an article describing this procedure as well. I believe the time stated to do this procedure to get out and to safety was just over 3 minutes.

The one difference with Apollo is that it had an escape rocket attached to the capsule that would fire and the capsule would separate and take the astronauts to supposed safety. The Shuttles have no such system. The cost of adding such a far more complicated system to the Shuttle was deemed far to expensive and impractical.

Posted by: Michael Lonergan at June 13, 2009 10:31 AM

The space shuttle was, in some respects, a huge mistake. NASA was hoping that by creating a reusable vehicle, they could cut launch costs and make access to space routine. Instead, they discovered that to make everything work, the system had to be so complicated that it ended up being more expensive with many more failure scenarios. Part of the problem also was the decision to put the shuttle next to, instead of on top of the fuel sources.

The next U.S. crewed launch vehicle (the Ares I, unless the decision is made to change direction), will go back to an Apollo/Saturn configuration, with much less reusability. Still, that they got the shuttle to work at all is an engineering marvel.

Posted by: mermaldad at June 20, 2009 4:38 AM


If I can recall, it is not 1 mile, but 3 as the security barrier.


Posted by: Carlos at June 20, 2009 1:22 PM

Old astronauts never die, they just lose their space in line.

Posted by: MGL at June 21, 2009 2:50 PM

The last long sentence before the list made me shoot quesadilla thru my nose onto my monitor. I was born in Cocoa Beach and have been a 'space nerd' my whole life (dad worked on the Apollo program). I've known about this 'escape scenario' for many years, and it is definitely one of the shortcomings of the shuttle's safety routines. As mentioned, fortunately no ones ever had to use it. How the fuck are you supposed to get out of an exploding space vehicle, regardless of whether it's been launched or not, other than being forced out by the explosion (and probably into small burning chunks)? The idea that you would have 3 minutes to GTFO, or even 3 seconds is improbable. If they'd substitute a parachute for the goddam life raft and could provide a subzero-exploding-liquid-propellant-proof spacesuit...well, just call 1-800-555-IGFD (I'm gonna fuckin die). High order impact, probability zero. Have a nice day.

Posted by: larry at July 15, 2009 1:20 PM

Ah, Gerard, you forgot where the fueled up shuttle sways and gigs while waiting for launch. With all those cryogens and thermal stresses it doesn't just sit there, it moves. Or so I was told by one of the astronauts.

Posted by: chuck at July 15, 2009 6:40 PM

Not only the 'right' stuff but very 'different' stuff from that of which I am assembled.

Larry's delicate explanation of the astronaut's inevitable demise in the event of a serious glitch - elicits terror in us average folk, but apparently yawns from those brave voyagers.

Posted by: Cathy at July 15, 2009 7:40 PM

Can't place the astornaut author's name, but I strongly recommend reading "Riding Rockets", the story of a space-shuttle astronaut. The nitty-gritty about all the scary parts, the problems of human waste elimination in orbit, which heroes and heroines are actually dickheads, and funny as hell to boot.

Posted by: sherlock at July 16, 2009 12:25 PM

32 years ago, I worked on the Space Shuttle flight simulators at NASA/JSC (I worked for Singer/Link, one of the three major contractors, along with IBM and Ford) (yes, Ford). This was prior to the first shuttle launch, and besides my actual coding work, I spent a lot of time studying the shuttle and shuttle-related manuals. One of the controversies at the time -- at least among the astronauts who were going to to fly the first several shuttle missions -- was NASA's plan for a post-launch abort (i.e., vs. trying to make orbit). The maneuver was called RTLS.

"Return to launch site."

Yep -- the post-launch abort plan was to turn the shuttle around and fly it back to NASA/KSC, shedding solid rocket boosters and the external tank along the way. As I recall, John Young -- commander of the first shuttle flight -- thought RTLS was absolutely insane; he wanted to 'abort' across the Atlantic and land in Spain or thereabouts. I have no idea if NASA stuck with RTLS or went with 'abort forward' instead.

I will note that in one of my few chances to actually fly the (non-motion-based) shuttle simulator, I attempted an RTLS or something like that -- I put the shuttle through a loop.

I crashed, quickly. ..bruce..

Posted by: bfwebster at July 8, 2011 3:04 PM

I had a Twilight Zone moment just now.

I left a comment this afternoon. I came back to read other comments, saw my own comment and thought, "Wait! That's not what I wrote this afternoon. Did someone edit my comment?" (Couldn't imaging Gerard doing that.) And then I saw my comment from this afternoon further down and got really confused. And then I noticed that the first comment was posted around 9 am, well before I had read the post.

Nee-nee-nee-nee Nee-nee-nee-nee.

Finally looked at the dates of the comments (not just the times) and figured out that the original post was made in Feb 2009, which is when I had made my first comment. Thought I was going nuts there for moment. ..bruce..

Posted by: bfwebster at July 8, 2011 7:19 PM

Regarding the last flight of the Shuttle, I have a number of comments and links I gleaned from elsewhere over at It's about Liberty.

Rather than repeating them all here, I'll just direct you there.

Posted by: rickl at July 8, 2011 7:29 PM

A more realistic drill, considering the time available between "Ooops" and "ka-boom" would be:

1. Unstrap shoulder harness;

2. Remove helmet;

3. Bend forward at the waist;

4. Kiss it goodbye.

Posted by: BillT at July 9, 2011 3:45 AM

That zip line thingie makes me think of "to hell in a hand basked" ??

Posted by: wesF at July 11, 2011 11:42 PM

That zip line thingie makes me think of "to hell in a hand basket" ??

Posted by: wesF at July 11, 2011 11:42 PM

That's OK Bruce. Have a cookie. Unfortunately, there is no hope for wes.

Posted by: Casca at July 12, 2011 12:13 PM

Or more succinctly:

Remove sharp objects from your pocket
Sit down
Loosen up your tie
Put your head between your knees
And kiss your ass goodbye...

Posted by: Rich at July 28, 2011 7:25 PM