Shuttle workers were prepared to support an emergency landing at any time. One such moment came Dec. 1, 1991, with STS-44, when Atlantis landed at Dryden three days early. (NASA Photo) › View Larger Image
Ever Ready: Workforce Was Always Ready To Host A Landing, Even If One Didn't Happen
Between the time when a shuttle was launched into space and it was safely on the ground, Dryden was ever ready in case a situation arose that would require the orbiter to land at Edwards Air Force Base.
An often-unsung workforce gave up weekends, holidays and even family vacations when the nation needed them to be at their posts to support the space program and ensure the safety of astronauts in flight.
Dryden Center Director David McBride said the shuttle team was always ready to step up when the call to action came for a California landing.
"This team has been ready for any shuttle configuration and contingency. They have handled with grace and skill dangerous propulsion components and fuel, and payloads from delicate scientific and medical materials to Buzz Lightyear," he said.
Dryden hosted 54 shuttle landings, but there hasn't been a landing here since 2009. Regardless, shuttle managers usually began planning for potential landings a month prior to an orbiter launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
A small but dedicated crew of about 75 at Dryden worked year around, regardless of how many landings there were, to maintain the equipment and facilities that would be needed if the shuttle landed. They also trained with U.S. Department of Defense personnel from the Air Force Flight Test Center, the China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center near Ridgecrest, Calif., and Fort Irwin, near Barstow, Calif. When a shuttle landed at Edwards, 116 Dryden employees and 159 DOD employees supported it.
"We never had a failure on any landing here of any of this [shuttle] equipment, which is a tribute to the professionalism and the care that the Lockheed Martin and Kay & Associates technicians had for this old equipment that was well past its life expectancy," said Larry Biscayart, shuttle program management consultant and a Kay and Associates employee. He started working on the shuttle program in 1980 prior to the first shuttle mission, in April 1981, and continued until the program's conclusion, minus a few years of retirement in 2004.
George Grimshaw, Dryden space shuttle operations project manager, said it takes a whole team to continually verify that equipment is ready for the day it is needed. Grimshaw started supporting the shuttle program in 1979, when he worked at the AFFTC mission control center. He helped relocate that facility in December 1980 to the Ridley Mission Control Center, also at Edwards, where he supported the first shuttle missions. He started working at Dryden in 1984.
In addition to Dryden's work force, dedicated contractor teams from Lockheed Martin, United Space Alliance, Computer Services Corp., Kay & Associates, Arcata Associates, Tybrin Corp. and EMCOR Government Services provided day-to-day support for shuttles in orbit as well as on landing, during recovery and with turnaround facilities and equipment.
"The bulk of mission preparation began about a month before the mission," Grimshaw explained. "That's when annual validation and periodic maintenance of facilities and equipment were accelerated for those assets required during the mission. That work had to be complete two weeks prior to the launch, or waived until after the mission."
During the two weeks prior to launch, preoperational checks were completed. At that point, shuttle staff members at Dryden and Air Force Flight Test Center partners on Edwards intensified planning and communications. Dryden and AFFTC preparation involved facilities, information technology, fire, security, range, safety and mission assurance, public affairs, medical operations, air ambulance, search and rescue, and mission and runway support.
The AFFTC played a critical role by providing landing contingency support. If something went wrong, the AFFTC was tasked with and prepared for responding immediately within 25 miles of Edwards. Fortunately, astronauts landed safely throughout the program and did not require the emergency services the Air Force always stood ready to provide.
"Nothing we have done with the space transportation system would have been possible without the assistance and cooperation of the Air Force and the Edwards community. Our heartfelt thanks go to Brig. Gen. [Robert C.] Nolan II and his predecessors for their full support of NASA, the STS and the Dryden Flight Research Center," McBride said.
A day or two prior to a launch a site-readiness report was completed and submitted to the Kennedy Space Center convoy commander to verify that all Dryden and Edwards elements were in place and ready to support a shuttle launch and potential early emergency landing. If anything broke, it was reported, and potentially threatened the launch.
Additional staff also came to Dryden prior to a launch. A 30-person United Space Alliance contingent from Kennedy traveled to Edwards and stayed throughout the entire shuttle mission. Another 30 people were sent to Dryden two days prior to landing. In the event of an Edwards landing, a team of another 100 USA staff from Kennedy would come to prepare the orbiter for return to Florida.
All that preparation didn't mean a shuttle mission would land at Dryden. That call did not usually come until about 90 minutes before landing.
"There were many times we would roll our convoy to the end of the runway due to bad weather at Kennedy; in most cases, they would find a hole in the cloud deck and go to Kennedy, but we were stirred up and ready to go. And many times, just when we didn't expect that it would come here, weather didn't improve at KSC in the final moments prior to de-orbit burn and, at the last moment, it came here," Biscayart said.
The Mate/Demate Device that lifts and lowers the space shuttles onto the back of the NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft also was reliable.
"We never had a failure in 35 years. The time to find something wrong was not when you were lifting an orbiter," Biscayart said.
The NASA 747s have a near-flawless operation record as well and have been workhorses for the shuttle program, Biscayart said. Computer Science Corp. employees based at Dryden, but who are employees of Johnson Space Center, Houston, maintain those aircraft.
A dedicated workforce
Being a space shuttle worker did have its setbacks.
"During a mission, [shuttle employees] change their schedule to meet the potential for a shuttle landing. After launch, it can land here four hours out of every 24-hour period. We had landing opportunities here, so our people shifted their schedules to be here two hours before the first potential landing.
"In the event something was to happen, people would be here," Biscayart said.
After a shuttle launched, there was a potential for an emergency landing in the early part of the mission, which meant Dryden staff had to be on site to assist in clearing runways, preparing the microwave landing systems and shuttle-specific runway lights and alerting Air Force contingency forces.
"We used to tease that the shuttle was a holiday-seeking lawn dart because it seemed the missions would always shift to a holiday. For every holiday when the shuttle flew or was in space, our people were here to cover those potential landings," he said.
"People would set vacations and then, at the last minute, have to change their plans to be here. They would try to plan a vacation around a mission. They did their very best to plan. Talk about professionalism and dedication – it would affect families, when we would be here on Christmases, Thanksgiving and a lot of other traditional holidays. But again, this job was more important than any individual, and that's the dedication that I think employees and families understood," Biscayart said.
When it was needed
All of the work, all of the preparation and all of the coordination came down to single moments.
One such moment came on STS-44 Dec. 1, 1991, when Atlantis had to land three days early at Dryden. It was also the last lakebed landing. The shuttle, commanded by Fred Gregory, had experienced an on-orbit inertial measurement unit problem. The shuttle had three of the units that fed data into the flight controls, but the failure of one unit caused the orbiter to come back early.
The units functioned together to provide location information, much as a global positioning system works. Both can tell a person where they are, but with the IMU, a person had to input precise location data so the system would know where it [the system] was, Grimshaw said.
"You would not want to get down to one unit," Biscayart said. Another issue arose that was notated as a braking test, he added, and as a result of the two anomalies the shuttle landed on the lakebed. Because the orbiter rolled and rolled on landing, the convoy of vehicles raced after it.
Getting the runway ready
Endeavour landed on Nov. 30, 2008, on the then new Edwards temporary runway. As a result of a well-coordinated effort, it was possible to land on the new asphalt runway, which was only half as wide and 2,500 feet shorter than the original main runway, which was replaced due to its age.
Contingency plans had been made in the 1990s for the possibility of a landing on a temporary runway in the event that the main Edwards runway was under construction. In 2007, parallel preparations were ongoing for having both runways ready in the event of a shuttle landing.
When Grimshaw began heading shuttle operations in 2007, implementing the final planning for the runway was at the top of his to-do list. Biscayart had returned from his brief "retirement" and was instrumental in planning for the runway move. But even with the help of Biscayart and Lance Dykhoff, Lockheed Martin site manager for shuttle operations, it was a tough task, Grimshaw said.
To be operational for a shuttle landing, the temporary runway needed a redundant Microwave Scanning Beam Landing System, or MSBLS. The system, which had been tested, validated and first installed at Dryden, provided the commander and the pilot with precise instrument-landing system information needed to fly the shuttle on the correct landing approach.
Also of note, the 750-million-candle-power Xenon lighting that guided the shuttle during night landings was designed at Dryden. Former Dryden employee Charlie Baker was awarded the Federal Incentive Awards Program Presidential Commendation in 1986 for his idea, which led to the lighting's development.
In addition, two visual landing aid systems, the precision approach path indicator, or PAPI, lights and a ball-bar light system were required. These visual reference systems provided a series of lights that guided shuttle pilots to the proper landing destination.
Additional MSBLSs for the new runway were obtained from Kennedy and the White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico. Additional ball-bar and PAPI lights were obtained from Kennedy. The newly acquired equipment was prepared and installed on the new main runway, which then had a full complement of PAPI lights, ball-bar lights and microwave landing systems.
Because of the preparation activity, the Federal Aviation Administration flight-certified the MSBLSs on the temporary runway. In May 2008, the MSBLSs on the new runway were ready for FAA testing and fully certified. The navigation aids were ready, power systems were up, and operational checks were completed with the use of the shuttle training aircraft.
On the air field
Coordination was always important in having people and equipment in place and ready 24-hours a day, seven days a week, to be ready for an Edwards landing.
A convoy of vehicles was required for servicing the shuttle when it came to a stop after landing and to assist astronauts in exiting the orbiter. The convoy was assembled at Dryden's Shuttle Area A on the day of a scheduled landing. The convoy moved along the flight line to base Fire Department facilities, where the U.S. Department of Defense on-scene commander and forces and vehicles gathered with base fire and medical personnel for a final briefing by the NASA convoy commander.
From there, the forward convoy elements moved to the end of the selected runway and the other convoy elements deployed to the center taxiway, where they were in place for a landing.
Following the landing and the shuttle coming to a complete stop, the first group of vehicles moved in to a safe distance, 1,300 feet, from the orbiter. An assessment team checked for the possibility of hazardous gases emanating from the orbiter, to determine whether it could be safely approached and astronauts could begin preparations to disembark.
The convoy's command vehicle, a "purge" vehicle and a mobile cool unit were key components of the first group of vehicles. Both the cool and purge units were hooked up to the orbiter and provided power, purging and cooling for the orbiter during preparation and transport to the shuttle processing area. The purge system extracted residual hazardous gases in the lines, while the cooling system kept the shuttle systems from overheating while the orbiter was powered up.
When it had been determined that the orbiter and the area surrounding it were safe, the rest of the convoy moved forward with a mobile "white room," and a staircase unit was positioned next to the orbiter side hatch. Once the staircase was in place, the crew transport vehicle was elevated to the staircase and attached. Upon exiting the orbiter and entering the transport vehicle, the medical team gave the astronauts an initial post-flight checkup. Later, the crew was taken to another medical facility to undergo more detailed evaluation prior to their flight back to Houston.
Return to sender
Once the orbiter had been towed from the landing site to the MDD, further post-flight servicing in preparation for ferrying the orbiter back to Kennedy took place.
Processing of the orbiter for turnaround took about seven days. During that time, information stored on the orbiter during the mission was sent to Kennedy electronically, toxic fuels were removed and preparations were made for the cross-country transport flight.
On day five, hoisting the shuttle above the NASA 747 began. The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft was positioned beneath the shuttle, the orbiter was lowered onto its back and the shuttle was secured. The shuttle was lifted so slowly that the subtle movement was barely discernable.
Once the orbiter was positioned atop the SCA, the ferry flight to Kennedy was ready to begin.
It normally took two to three days to ferry the orbiter across the U.S. back to Florida, depending on weather. The mated SCA/orbiter had to steer clear of rain showers or turbulence during the ferry flight. A "pathfinder" aircraft flew ahead of the mated pair by 20 to 30 minutes. Together, the weight of the orbiter, the outside air temperature and density during takeoff and a standard cruising altitude of 15,000 feet meant several refueling stops. Ferry stops were made at civilian and military airfields.
No matter what time of day or night, or the emergency requiring it, Dryden crews were always ready to support the space shuttles. Workers surrendered their schedules – and sometimes holidays and vacations with their families – because they felt a part of something bigger than themselves.
"We were fortunate to have played such a major role in the program, and so many Dryden personnel and their families were also fortunate to have been able to witness such an historical event as a shuttle landing here at Edwards," Biscayart said.
Now, the nation will wait until a new vehicle is ready to travel to the stars – when a new generation will contribute to a program that will change the world again.