I overslept this morning and missed BAFT’s 25-mile ride. I guess I was pretty worn out after the long week and the excitement of last night.
I’m so happy today. Last night I finally got to be where I wanted to be. I’m not sure I actually realized that until the engines stopped, I heard “MECO confirmed,” and I slumped in my chair, letting out the breath that I swear I’d been holding for the entire eight and a half minutes since engine ignition. But I was right where I wanted to be, even if it took 5 years to get there.
I don’t know if I’ll stay at NASA when the shuttle stops flying, and I don’t have any idea what kind of career I might have going on in another 5 years. But last night was awesome.
I arrived on console at 11:00 and though I didn’t leave until almost 8:00, it felt like no more than a couple hours. The first few hours were calm. I didn’t have any immediate actions since everything had already been fully checked out the day before, so I spent the time organizing my data and reviewing all of my procedures, with special attention to the particularly complicated cases. I couldn’t help but think that while everything was likely to go extremely nominally, I certainly didn’t want to be the weak link on the one day that something did go wrong. I got my brain up to speed and working and felt much more confident.
Around 3:00, we got the final numbers on how much oxygen and hydrogen was actually loaded into the external tank. The actual numbers are always slightly different than the predicted numbers, and I have to make some adjustments to the ARD to account for that.
An hour and a half later, there was another flurry of activity as we got the final updates to the ascent trajectory. The first stage trajectory, before the SRBs are jettisioned, actually changes based on the winds and atmosphere in Florida as measured by weather balloons. Those last-minute trajectory changes have to get into the ARD as well.
Next thing I knew, we were coming out of the T-9:00 hold! As the countdown neared zero, my heart was pounding so hard that I could hear it in my ears. If I’d been wearing a heart rate monitor, I’m sure it would have been off the charts. I was certain I was going to have a heart attack right then and there!
I stared at my displays, watching the numbers, making sure they all were what I expected. There was a TV right in my peripheral vision tuned to NASA TV, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the flash of the engines lighting at liftoff.
Inside my head, I was incredulous. “Holy crap! Holy crap! Holy crap!” went my internal monologue. “This is for real! Holy crap!”
At 20 seconds, we got the indication of how the SRBs were performing via a TDEL, or time measurement between when we expect to reach a given velocity and when we actually do. Anything between -0.21 and 0.21 is nominal, and every time we saw a nominal value in the pre-flight sims, it was 0.072. It’s just a peculiarity of the sim that it always shows the same number for nominal.
Yesterday that number was 0.112. For a moment, I scrambled, scanning my chart to see how our throttles would change because the SRBs were a bit hotter than expected. But wait! 0.112 is less than 0.21! It’s a nominal bucket! I made my call: “Nominal bucket.” The engines throttled down, and back up, and all was well except the pounding in my chest.
The SRBs separated and I made my standard checks. Our targets were good, and the OMS Assist started as scheduled. We looked at the thrust update calculation, which gives us a measure of how the shuttle is performing compared to our model of it, and it was -2, with a thrust update of -99. “Go flag -2,” I called. Pound, pound, pound went my heart.
The thrust trend continued to go slightly down, and I called TRAJ to make him aware of it. We only shared a few words, but as I pointed out a minor correction to something he’d said, suddenly, something clicked inside my head.
It no longer felt like a real launch. It felt like a sim! A very nominal sim.
My heart rate slowed down immediately. I fell into my normal rhythm. And everything after that was cake.
“MECO confirmed.” I sat back in my chair, let out a big breath, smiled, and turned to my mentor, who had been there the whole day as an observer, standard procedure for someone working their first flight.
“That just made everything worth it.”