Were You Afraid?
That is one of the most frequent questions I am asked about my Space Shuttle launches. Would you be scared perched atop four and a half million pounds of explosives with someone about to light the fuse?
I had been named as a crew member on a flight that was to launch in June, 1984. Through many twists and turns in NASA’s schedule, I ended up training for three different flights until an April 12, 1985 launch date was locked in. We had practiced the flight in every way possible. The simulators at the Johnson Space Center could be rotated so we were lying on our backs. Shaking like crazy with a simulated roar through our headsets, we rumbled into a pretend lift-off.
We listened as previous crews debriefed our office on surprises: the unexpectedly loud explosion that separated the boosters, the sudden smoothness of the ride when only the main engines were pushing upward, the developing blackness of the sky as the Shuttle raced above the Earth’s atmosphere, the lurch as the engines cut off and everything began to float, from dust particles and errant bolts left by the engineers behind the panels, to untethered pens.
Since the Shuttle reached a maximum of 3 g’s—or three times the force of gravity—for about 30 seconds as it approached orbit, we were sent to ride aboard a centrifuge in San Antonio to experience what that felt like. Straining to breathe, it illustrated how difficult it would be for us to reach switches or retrieve items we dropped during this phase of flight. It was another way we could understand and become comfortable about the ride to come.
As the launch date approached, we traveled to the Kennedy Space Center for a count-down practice.
We learned what it was like to strap into the orbiter on the launch pad. It looked quite different with its nose aimed skyward. We had to crawl through the small hatch and work our way to our assigned seats. Fully suited in our launch garb, we learned to connect ourselves to communication and breathing lines and fasten ourselves snugly to our seats…all while laying on our backs. Then we practiced scrambling out of the vehicle in case of a launch pad emergency. We thought we understood what the “real thing” on launch day might feel like.
Because of these many practice sessions, we gained confidence. We felt that we knew what would happen, lessening any potential anxiety. What all of us feared most was that we would not do our jobs well. Yes, we were excited for what lay ahead, but as the time for our launch approached, we simply wanted to get it done. After years of preparation, eighteen months of training as a crew, and multiple simulations, we were as ready as we could be.
I don’t remember being afraid as my first launch on STS 51D approached.
The boosters fired. And with tremendous noise, vibration, and acceleration, we were off. In eight and a half minutes, I became a real astronaut. Things would be different for my next flight. I’ll talk about that next time.