Discovery Departure (Part 1)

Doug arrived in Florida in the wee hours of Saturday morning after a red-eye flight from John Wayne airport by way of Phoenix. Anna is making her way to the Space Coast separately on Sunday evening. Sleep-deprived, but anxious to get started, Doug went on muscle memory established from our previous trips: rental car, tollway, badging station, and finally the NASA press site.

Saturday’s only schedule press event was watching the process of Discovery being attached to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), a heavily modified Boeing 747, in preparation for Discovery’s voyage to the Udvar-Hazy center. Attaching the shuttle orbiter to the SCA takes place at the Shuttle Landing Facility—or in traditional three-letter-acronym (TLA) NASAese—the SLF.

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One of the things that always strikes us about shuttle operations is their likeness to manufacturing, to industrial processes. This particular operation takes place in a machine, the Mate-Demate Device (MDD). The KSC MDD (there are two more in California) is a gigantic hoisting device consisting of three fifty-five ton cranes, one for the orbiter’s nose and two at the rear. For all of our hi-tech notions of space travel, hoisting the shuttle so that it can be mounted on the back of the SCA is a low-tech, hands on process: there are bolts, gobs of dark steel in the supporting structure, and dozens of people involved. The wind was gusting, and some of the chains–workers wrestling with them for a tiny piece of the larger operation–clanked endlessly against the steel supporting structure.

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Former Lofty Ambitions guest blogger and current KSC employee, Omar Izquierdo, was there and related to Doug that, as far as he knew, the process often took twelve to fifteen hours. Despite the obvious motion of the workers and their serious demeanor as they passed by, to the inexperienced eye, progress was measured in inches. While Doug was there, Discovery’s nose wheel was lifted three feet off of the ground. The veteran photographers and journalists that Doug shared the SLF media viewing area indicated that this was as a sign of progress being made.

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NASA made various people associated with preparing the shuttles for the futures as museums pieces available for interviews. Stephanie Stilson, NASA Flow Director for Orbiter Transition and Retirement and a former subject of a Lofty Ambitions interview, was one of the people speaking with the press.

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As the assembled media folks began to pack up and prepare to head back to the buses, a tiny, dart-like T-38 trainer zoomed over our heads. Astronauts train to maintaining flying proficiency in the T-38. A NASA employee leaving the SLF building, casually mentioned that two astronauts, Jack Fischer and Dr. Serena Auñón, would be landing the T-38 in just a few moments. They were flying in to appear at the KSC All-American Picnic.

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One aspect of KSC that has consistently amazed us is the abundant wildlife that coexists with the NASA facility. It’s the dry season on the Space Coast, and the waterways that track and follow the KSC road system are much drier than in our previous visits. Perhaps because of the low water levels, the KSC animal life is moving about, seeking water. For whatever reason, there have been more roadkill on this trip than any other. In this part of Florida, roadkill brings vultures.

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Doug spent the second half of the day taking a special public tour: the Apollo 16 Anniversary tour. Apollo 16 launched from KSC on April 16, 1972, forty years ago tomorrow. The crew consisted of John Young, Charlie Duke (another Lofty Ambitions video interview), and Thomas “Ken” Mattingly II. As a part of the events honoring this mission, KSC offered a special astronaut-led tour on Saturday. Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell was the tour guide for Doug’s bus.

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Capt. Lovell, hale and hearty at eighty-four years of age, provided the tour group with engaging recollections of his time at NASA, and even brought up the reason that he was the only person dropped from the final group of thirty candidates (for the seven available Mercury project slots) for a failed medical exam: a high bilirubin count. This physical failure apparently wasn’t an issue for the medical board selecting for the Gemini program, both Lovell and his Gemini 12 crewmate Buzz Aldrin shared this medical issue. The caricature of fighter pilots is that they talk with their hands. Capt. Lovell must have been some kind of fighter pilot because his hands never stop moving and become particularly animated when he talks about something that he feels passionate about, like NASA’s responsibility to excite the imagination of the next generation of scientists and engineers. We recently wrote about having a writerly dinner at Lovell’s of Lake Forest.

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The Apollo 16 Anniversary tour concluded with a panel discussion involving Charlie Duke, Apollo 14 moonwalker Edgar Mitchell, and Lovell’s Apollo 13 crewmate Fred “Fredo” Haise.  Haises’s participation in the event was one of those moments of serendipity that we love so much here at Lofty Ambitions. Haise was a test pilot on Enterprise, the shuttle test vehicle that is being moved out of Udvar-Hazy so that Discovery can take its place later this week.

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2 thoughts on “Discovery Departure (Part 1)

  1. Always a walk down memory lane as the astronauts and engineers of past flights become the guides and historians for today’s space enthusiasts.

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