Authors: David Hitt,Heather R. Smith
Astronaut George “Pinky” Nelson was involved in the development of the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (
), the spacesuit used for conducting activities outside of the spacecraft. “The suit was one of the long poles in getting the shuttle ready to fly,” he said.
The folks in Houston who were in charge of it, [Walter] Guy and his group, were really working hard, and it was a difficult task to get it pulled together.
The suit actually blew up shortly before
1. I was home working in my garden. I was playing hooky one afternoon, and I got a call from George Abbey.
He said, “Where the hell are you?” “Well, I’m home working in the garden.” He said, “Okay. Get in here. We just had an accident with the spacesuit.” They were doing some testing in one of the vacuum chambers in Building 7, and they had the suit unmanned, pressurized, in the vacuum chamber. They were going to do some tests and they were going through the procedures of donning the suit and flipping all the switches in the right order and going through the checklist. There’s a point when you get in the suit that you move a valve. There’s a slider valve on the front of the suit, and you move this slider valve over, and what it does is it pushes a lever inside a regulator and opens up a line that brings the high-pressure emergency [oxygen] tanks on line. You do that just before you go outside. You don’t need them when you’re in the cabin, because you can always repressurize the airlock. When you’re going to go outside, you need these high-pressure tanks. They’re two little stainless steel tanks about six inches in diameter, maybe seven. And it turned out that when this tech did that, he threw that switch and the suit basically blew up. I mean not just pneumatically, but burst into flames [and] got severely burned. It was pure oxygen in there. The backpack is made basically out of a big block of aluminum, and aluminum is flammable in pure oxygen. So this thing just went “whooff,” went up in smoke.
So then I was put on the Investigation Board for that, and spent I don’t know how long, a couple months at least, just focusing on what had caused this and could we identify it and fix it and get it ready so that it wasn’t the long pole for flying
1. So I learned even more about the design and manufacturing and materials and all of that in the suit during that process. It was fascinating. And the
system for handling that kind of an incident really is very good. We’ve seen it with the big accidents we’ve had. They really can get to the bottom of a problem very well.
After that, Nelson said, there weren’t any major problems in the development of the suit. “There were lots of little stuff. The displays and controls on the suit are a challenge because, one, you have to see them from inside the suit, looking down, so a lot of these old guys in the office who were, you know, the stage I am in my life now, where I have to wear reading glasses, couldn’t read the displays because they were close to your face. So we worked on lenses and all kinds of ways to make the displays legible to people with old eyes.”
For all the capabilities built into the vehicle, one of the notorious disappointments of the Space Shuttle program is that launch costs ended up
being much higher than promised. The original appeal of the shuttle was that its reusability would bring launch costs down dramatically, but those dreams were never fully realized. Explained Don Peterson,
The shuttles, unfortunately, are pretty difficult to work on. When the military builds an airplane, it tries to make everything in the airplane designed so that you can remove and replace parts quickly and easily. The shuttle is much more difficult to get to some of the stuff. There’re not big [easily opened] panels on it. You can’t release a few latches and open a big panel on the side of the orbiter. You literally have to take it apart to get into it. You can go in through the inside, through the bay, and get to some of that stuff, but even then you’re removing parts that aren’t designed [for that]. It’s not like opening doors and looking inside.
The military builds a lot of their stuff to be easy to work on, and they really didn’t build the shuttle that way. So the shuttle is more expensive to operate. For example, the little jet engines, there’s, like, thirty-eight of them, I think, on the orbiter that control attitude when it’s on orbit. If one of those engines fails, you can’t just unscrew some things and take it out. You have to cut it out with a torch, and you have to weld the new one back in, because they didn’t build it to be removed. The heat shield is [24,300] little individual tiles, and they’re all different shapes and different thicknesses, and so every tile is like a little individual item. When the shuttle comes back, they have to inspect visually, and with a pull device, every single tile. If any of them don’t pass, you’ve got to cut that one out and clean off the glue and go get the new one and put it all back. Those are very high maintenance items. So the shuttle really wasn’t built to be easy to maintain, and that’s because
has always had, as [former Johnson Space Center director] Gerry Griffin used to say, a standing army at the Cape that did all that, and nobody really worried about it. If you needed something done, you just called and they sent over four or five guys and they fixed it. But that’s expensive.
The shuttle was designed to fly, I think it was fifty flights a year, and they were going to have five shuttles to do that. So each shuttle would fly ten times in a year. Well, right now the whole fleet’s only flying about eight times a year. Well, you’re trying to amortize the cost of the whole program over eight flights. It’s like we’ve got all this capability to repair and replace and analyze and monitor things, and we’re not using a whole lot of it. If you were flying fifty times a year, the cost per flight would go way down because you wouldn’t add that much to the facilities and the maintenance costs. The facilities costs
don’t change much if you never flew. You’ve still got to have all the facilities, and you’ve got to pay for all that. You have to keep this whole group of specialists on, technicians and people, to do the work. With eight flights a year, some of those guys may only get used twice a year, but you’ve got to pay them and you’ve still got to have them there. If you were flying a lot more, the cost per flight would go way down.
George Mueller, the
head of human spaceflight who launched the Space Shuttle program, explained that there were several factors that drove the operational cost of the shuttle up, including many decisions, like the use of solid rocket boosters, that reduced development costs at the outset and presented Congress a lower buy-in budget request to build the vehicle but that resulted in higher operational costs once the shuttle started flying. However, he said, the ultimate problem with the shuttle was that it ended up being designed to use far more people to process it than were absolutely necessary. “If you really want to know why the shuttle failed, it’s because they designed it to use all the people from Saturn and Apollo, to keep them employed.”
Countless technical problems had to be overcome, and ultimately the shuttle’s greatest limitation was that it was designed to be too nice.
director Chris Kraft, however, still speaks highly of the shuttle. “It’s the safest spacecraft we ever built.” Kraft noted that while shuttle crews have been lost because of problems stemming with the solid rocket boosters and the external tank, the orbiter itself has not been responsible for any fatal accidents. “The orbiter itself is flawless, since we’ve been flying. Absolutely flawless.” Rather than retiring the shuttle, Kraft argued,
should have continued to make it better and continued to fly it, adding that many ideas for improving the orbiter were never implemented. “That’s what we should still be doing. We still ought to be improving. We could improve the hell out of it. We could improve the hell out of the thermal protection system, we could improve the control systems, get rid of the
s [auxiliary power units]. All of that has been designed and is ready to be built. You don’t have to stop and redesign it, it’s done.”
’s astronaut corps had seen a large number of departures. Many of the early astronauts who had joined the agency as pioneers of spaceflight or as part of the race for the moon felt like they had accomplished what they had come to do. The last Saturn to fly launched in 1975, the next opportunity to fly was still years away, and some in the corps decided they had no desire to wait.
Only one of the Original Seven astronauts, Deke Slayton, remained in the agency, as did only one member of the second group, John Young. Two members each remained of the third and fourth groups (although only one of those four astronauts would get the opportunity to fly on the shuttle). The fifth group was better represented—eight of the Original Nineteen were still at
—and the majority of the sixth group and all of the seventh were still at the agency, having arrived in the corps too late to be assigned Apollo flights.
With the number of astronauts dwindling, the ambitious plans for the shuttle program required new blood. So in 1976
announced for the first time in a decade that it would be accepting applications for a new class of astronauts, to support the Space Shuttle program.
Astronaut Fred Gregory saw the ad for Space Shuttle astronauts on television. “I was a
freak, and the communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura, Nichelle Nichols, showed up on
in a blue flight suit,” Gregory said. “As I recall, there was a 747 in
colors behind her; you could hear it. But she pointed at me and she said, ‘I want you to join the astronaut program.’ So, shoot, if Lieutenant Uhura looks at me and tells me that, that got me thinking about it.”
Steven Hawley saw the
announcement on a job openings bulletin board while in graduate school at the University of California.
I remember there was this letterhead that said
on it, and I thought, “Wow, that’d be interesting.” I looked at it, and it said they were looking for astronauts.
I had no idea how they’d go about hiring astronauts, and here’s an announcement saying, hey, you want to be an astronaut, here are the qualifications. You have to be between five foot and six foot four, and you have to have good eyesight, and you have to have a college degree, and graduate school counts as experience. You need three years of experience, and I’m thinking, “Well, I’m qualified.” I’ve also told kids that so were twenty million other guys.
Hawley recalled that this was the first time he thought that becoming an astronaut might really be possible for him, because of changes in the selection criteria. “I probably dropped everything I was doing at that moment and set about filling out this application to become an astronaut. I didn’t realize till years later that it’s actually the same application you fill out to be any government employee,
-171. You fill it out and send it in. I even remember sending it by, I think, return receipt request so that I could make sure that this thing got into the hands of the proper people at
Realistically, Hawley said, he didn’t think he would be selected. He realized the pool contained many well-qualified applicants. But even with what he believed were slim odds, he applied anyway. “Why in the world would they pick me?” he said.
I still think perhaps they didn’t mean to, and one day they’ll come and tap me on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me. You’ve got this guy’s desk, coincidentally named Steve Hawley, and he’s the one we meant.” I’ve told kids this, too, that the reason I applied, as much as anything, was because I knew that if I applied and didn’t get picked, and then I watched shuttles launch with people on them and building space stations and putting up telescopes in space, I could live with that, if
said, “Well, thanks, but you’re not what we’re looking for.” But to not apply, to not try, and then wonder your whole life, could you have done it if you had tried, I didn’t think I could take that. So it was okay if they said no, but I didn’t want to go through the rest of my life wondering, had I only tried, would I be able to do it?
had selected five groups of pilots and two groups of scientist-astronauts. The eighth group would be the first mixed class, including both pilots and a new designation, mission specialists.
The new designation was of particular interest to Mike Mullane, who at the time was a flight-test weapon system operator for the air force. “
announced they were selecting mission specialist astronauts, and this was the new thing, because now you didn’t have to be a pilot to apply to be an astronaut. So this dream of perhaps being an astronaut was now back open to me. In fact, I remember that night that they announced it. This was big news at Edwards, because virtually everybody at Edwards Air Force Base wanted to apply to be an astronaut.”
The new class would be the largest group of astronauts yet. More than eight thousand applications were received. In 1978
announced the first class of shuttle astronauts, dubbed
, an acronym given multiple meanings, most politely, “thirty-five new guys.”
Among the new class were, of course, test pilots from the navy and the air force, many of whom knew each other and had trained and served together. Rick Hauck was on his second cruise as a navy pilot on the
when the announcement came out. “There was a flyer from
saying they were looking for applicants for the astronaut program to fly the shuttle and, in fact, four of us on the
wound up in my astronaut class: myself, Hoot Gibson, Dale Gardner, and John Creighton. Three of the fifteen pilots were from that air wing. Dale Gardner was a mission specialist. Which is really kind of interesting, three of fifteen. What’s that? Twenty percent came from that ship.”