By Steven Siceloff,
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center
Few people truly understand what Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach does, even members of his family.
"My mom, before she died, never quite understood the magnitude of what we do," Leinbach said. "As much as I explained to her, she just never quite saw the enormity of it. My brother-in-law sees it in spades. My wife used to work out here, so she knows."
People he runs into outside of work don't usually get it either.
"They say, 'Hey, you're the shuttle launch director, that must be a cool job.' Yeah, it's a cool job, and it usually stops there," Leinbach said.
All that doesn't matter to Leinbach, who has no doubt his job is one of the best in the world.
"This is America's space program, it's unbelievable to be able to work out here," he said. "I'm one of 15,000 people who think they have the best job in the world."
As chief executive of the launch team, the launch director also is the front man of a band of highly trained engineers and technicians who specialize in one of the most demanding fields in the world: launching people into space on the strength of millions of pounds of fire and smoke.
He bids the astronauts farewell and is one of the first faces they see on the shuttle runway when the mission ends.
"I'm very, very lucky that I get to greet the astronauts when they come home," Leinbach said.
Leinbach's most public role as launch director is to conduct the countdown for space shuttle missions. He leads 460 launch controllers, working in two firing rooms, checking and rechecking shuttle systems before liftoff.
Bob Sieck, a former shuttle launch director whose NASA career began during the Gemini Program, stressed the demands of recognizing the thousands of people who play a role in preparing and launching a shuttle.
"You have to have the attitude that this is a big team and everybody on this team is important," he said. "It isn't just the people in the control room who push buttons."
Both Sieck and Leinbach have seen some odd things during their careers.
Sieck said he saw so many unusual things during shuttle preparations and countdowns that a normal, smooth countdown would have stood out on its own.
"That would have been the strangest thing I had observed," he said.
Leinbach's strangest observation during countdown was when an unlucky buzzard flew into the external tank during liftoff.
A radar now scans the sky around the orbiter for birds.
"At T-minus 1-minute and counting, the chief NASA test director, who has been watching the bird radar, gives me a go/no-go for birds on launch day," he said. "It's a legitimate concern, because, if that bird had hit the orbiter side of the tank it could've caused some real damage. We estimated that bird weighed four-and-a-half pounds."
The launch director's duties extend to other teams, as well. Leinbach, for example, is the chairman of the Rapid Response Team. That means he has to coordinate the network of NASA first responders if a problem develops during liftoff or landing.
It was that role that Leinbach had to embrace as he waited for Columbia's return to Kennedy in 2003.
"That day of Columbia was very tough," Leinbach said. "I always watch the deorbit burn from the firing room and because of my job go out to the Shuttle Landing Facility for landing. So I was at midfield and the first indication of a problem was the loss of communication between the orbiter and Johnson Space Center, and then it was one thing after another."
Leinbach took the first plane-load of Kennedy Space Center folks to the accident site and spent two weeks in Louisiana organizing the first phases of the recovery effort. He came back to Kennedy and led the reconstruction work in order to find out what happened to Columbia.
"It was hard, but rewarding," he said. "Our effort was to determine the cause of the accident based strictly on the debris, and it was an invaluable part of the overall accident investigation."
Leinbach's love for astronauts also extends to the vehicles as well.
"The people that work on the orbiters here feel like they lost a family friend in the orbiter," he said. "Really, it's a beautiful machine and you take so much pride in it, it almost becomes part of you. There's no way to describe it to outsiders."