Out of the Blue

Nobody had any idea. It was a freaking picture perfect flight. Trajectory was spot-on nominal. Until it just stopped.

I was sitting in Mission Control with the usual cast of characters who support the Shuttle’s critical flight phases for the various flight critical systems, watching a perfect ground track and watching two clocks — the countdown to AOS for the C-band tracking station MILA, and the countdown to touchdown itself. When the first clock counted up to zero and went positive, we worried that the C-band radar at MILA was bad somehow, because it couldn’t lock onto a signal. We didn’t register that the loop chatter about hydraulics and tire pressure were connected to the fact that the groundtrack had stopped over Texas. There was a horrible, confused, minute while each of us, sitting in stunned silence put two and two together in our heads. The touchdown clock counted up to zero and then went positive. No Columbia.

And then the contingency procedures kicked in.

If had any doubts about the dedication and consummate professionalism of the people I work with in the space program, they’re gone now. Everyone went into the procedures they had trained for and drilled over and simultaneously dreaded and had faith they’d never have to do. They worked the contingency checklist with the utmost efficiency, all the while wiping tears from their eyes. I could feel the shock and stunned sadness in the air. But I could also feel the hardening resolve and the pulling together.

From the cafeteria people who started churning out free food to the Control Center personnel who had been up all night and were suddenly facing a very long day, to those of us who came in to babysit systems that worked so flawlessly that they hardly ever needed babysitting, everybody sprang up to do whatever they could to help. And for most of us, helping meant staying out of the way of the people in the headsets, who were rushing around with moist eyes, set jaws, and resolute stares. Paying attention in case our little part of this mountain of Shuttle technical support is needed for something — anything that could help.

But all most of us could do was watch and pray. I poked my head in on the NAV console a few times. Nope, Trajectory Server was working great. One of the controllers told me that my tracking data table had logged over a thousand batches of data and rolled over succesfully for the second time in the Shuttle Program’s history. (When the shuttle passes over a tracking station or within reach of a tracking sattelite, it produces a “batch” of data that navigators use.) I told him, “That’s great, but I’d give anything to have that last goddamned batch.” That C-band batch that was supposed to be over MILA.

I still can’t believe it. I’m still in shock.

Pray hard.

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