NASA Tweetup Epilogue: A Visit with the STS-135 Crew

Quick quotes of the day:

There’s flame coming out, it’s breathing and wheezing and whining, you realize the vehicle’s alive. It’s just hanging out there full of 3 1/2 million gallons of rocket fuel, ready to take flight.
—STS-135 commander Chris Ferguson on arriving at the pad on launch morning.

It starts out as this teeny tiny point of light. As you get closer and closer, it keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Even if you’ve seen it before, you keep wondering how much bigger is it going to get?  This thing is huge! Oh my gosh. It’s a building, and it’s running around our planet in orbit every ninety minutes.
—Mission specialist Sandra Magnus on approaching the International Space Station.

Yep. The crew signed my NASA Tweetup badge.

Yep. The crew signed my NASA Tweetup badge.

I was invited to cover today’s meet-and-greet with the STS-135 crew held at Stennis Space Center (SSC). Shuttle commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Dr. Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim came to personally thank the employees at Stennis for the role they’ve played in fulfilling the shuttle program’s mission. If you’re not familiar with the Stennis Space Center, it’s the facility in southern Mississippi built for static testing of the Apollo program rocket engines, and has since tested all of the shuttle’s main engines to ensure they were flight-worthy.

Stennis director Patrick Scheuermann explained that unlike the Michoud Assembly Facility a few miles away in New Orleans, SSC has a relatively bright future even with the shuttle program coming to an end. Michoud built the non-reusable main fuel tanks for the shuttle and has wound down operations for the most part. Stennis, on the other hand, has been testing the next generation of engines for NASA and has been hired to test engines built by commercial ventures as well. Sheuermann expects that not only will Stennis not lose any employees, it may gain some in the near future.

Chris Ferguson presents SSC Director Patrick Scheuermann with mission photos and a flag that was brought into orbit on STS-135.

Chris Ferguson presents SSC Director Patrick Scheuermann with mission photos and a flag that was brought into orbit on STS-135.

Signs on the interstate as you approach Bay St. Louis state you’re entering Stennis’ buffer zone. Use of the 125,000 acres surrounding the facility is limited due to the noise generated by testing the big-ass rocket engines. I can personally vouch for that. On occasion when I was living in Slidell, about 20 miles away from Stennis, I would here what sounded like thunder, although it was more like a low roar that went on for a time, like a plane passing overhead. The first time I heard it, I asked my neighbor, “What the hell was that?” He replied with one word: “Stennis.”

Despite the curiosity that raised, I’ve never visited Stennis before today. I was one of the many people who, as Scheuermann pointed out, zip by the big green sign on I-10 without a thought. A new visitor’s center is under construction now right at Exit 2, where visitors now must park and be bussed in for tours of the present visitor’s center on site in the test area. It is worth the trip, though, with a surprise attraction: the re-entry scarred command module from Apollo 4 (an unmanned test mission).

"Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened." STS-135 crew members Ferguson, Hurley, Magnus and Walheim at Stennis Space Center.

"Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened." STS-135 crew members Ferguson, Hurley, Magnus and Walheim at Stennis Space Center.

After a video presentation of the mission, the astronauts gave their personal observations and fielded questions from the audience. Ferguson talked at length about the mission and shuttle program in general. He said this of the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME):

They are one of the true success stories of the program…

Someone likened the SSME to a 7000-pound Swiss watch. If you look at it from the operating temperatures and pressures at which it runs, it is an incredible piece of machinery and it’s one thing I brag about everywhere I go. The amount of horsepower you can generate from a 400-pound LOX or hydrogen turbopump is just incredible.

When you start talking numbers like that to young men who are interested in Camaros and tell them, ‘I can give you an engine that puts out 85,000 horsepower as opposed to your 400 horsepower,’ they’re going to be suitably impressed. And they are.

Hurley told the Stennis crowd that in 135 flights, there were no SSME malfunctions, “A flawless, flawless, 135 flights and everyone in here should be very proud of those engines and what they’ve done.” He also went through the launch from a pilot’s perspective. After going through ignition, lift-off and throttle down, he said:

Throttle-up is just like a catapult shot for us Navy/Marine Corps guys who got to do that. You get kicked right in your bottom side and get headed towards the space station at that point. As we go towards MECO [main engine cut-off],the engines start throttling as the orbiter builds G’s. That really does feel like someone sitting on your chest. And then, boom! Cutoff, and you’re floating in your straps instantaneously.

Ferguson went on to talk about the last shuttle launch, STS-135, which I witnessed in person, thanks to the NASA Tweetup program, in particular what happened when the countdown stopped at 31 seconds:

The age-old question of, what happens to the astronauts when the clock stops at 31 seconds? The image probably is, we’re very professional, we know exactly what to do, we have checklists, we have switches to throw…in reality, we all looked at each other and said, “Huh?”

We really don’t practice things like this, but I was absolutely amazed at how quickly the launch team was able to identify the problem. From the time you realize has started ticking again from 31 seconds, it takes about ten seconds to realize that, “Whoa! Maybe we’re not going to be here in ten minutes, we’re really going to be in space.” The engines start at 6 seconds so that leaves you with 15 seconds to come to terms with the fact that you’re leaving. Considering that just a few short seconds earlier you had an abort/recycle procedure open and you were ready to start shutting the vehicle down, it happens really quick, 3,2,1…boom! You’re on your way. I think I launched with the abort procedures in front of me.

Sandra Magnus answered a question from a young lady (about 10 years old, I’d guess) about being the only woman on the mission by saying the guys had become like brothers to her, and, like the young lady would know, “Sometimes you have to keep your brothers in line.” She also fielded a question about the effects of zero-g living on the body and provided her insight:

Bone loss starts after about 2 weeks. Exercise is the key. For longer missions, you must exercise. We exercise 2 hours a day. We do a cardiovascular-type exercise on a bicycle or a treadmill; you strap yourself into a treadmill, and get some cardio and it loads your bones somewhat, too. We have a resistive exercise device on station that really loads your bones and your muscles. If you do that religiously, faithfully, 2 hours a day the way you’re supposed to, you can come back and be strong.

The other thing you have to deal with when you come back from spaceflight, whether it’s a long stay or a short stay, is neurovestibular effects. The fluid in your inner ear uses gravity to figure out your orientation. When you get into orbit, that gets completely messed up.

The minute you get a 10th of a G or 2 10ths of a G when re-entering, you feel it. You feel heavy. It’s amazing what gravity’s doing to you just this minute; it’s pressing you into your seats. You don’t realize it because you’re used to it. But, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, this is just horrible.”

I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t get enough of these space travel anecdotes. I’m going to stay tuned for future NASA Tweetups, and Ferguson said that hopefully there will be U.S. manned spacecraft launches starting in 2016. Meanwhile, missions to the International Space Station will continue, although we’ll have to rely on the Russians to get us up there until the next gen of U.S. rockets (tested at Stennis, of course) are in service.

Note: for more coverage of today’s event, see NOLA.com’s write-up and photos.

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2 Responses to NASA Tweetup Epilogue: A Visit with the STS-135 Crew

  1. Tom Farrar on December 24, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    I came across the photo you took of your NASA Tweetup badge from STS-135. The photo they used on that badge was a photo I shot from a prior mission. I shot another one, from that same position, for STS-135.

  2. Pete on December 24, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    Thanks, Tom. It truly was a memorable experience. I’ll treasure the badge, and your photo, forever.

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