STS-130 Commander George Zamka gets into his seat with the help of one of the astronaut support personnel on launch day. Photo credit: NASA TV › Larger image
Chris Hadfield served as an Astronaut Support Personnel, or ASP, before he made his own flights into orbit. Photo credit: NASA › Larger image
The shuttle is at a different angle when it's on the launch pad, so the astronauts and support technicians have to adapt to the tilted environment. Here, Nicole Stott and Michael Barratt practice launch day procedures before the launch of STS-133. Photo credit: NASA › Larger image
Astronauts climbing into a space shuttle are typically thinking about lots of things, from trajectories and abort scenarios to systems and when to talk to the launch team and mission controllers. Not to mention the pure excitement that comes with getting ready to go into orbit.
They might not be thinking so much about strapping themselves into the seats on the shuttle.
"You've got your mind on a lot of stuff when you're getting into the shuttle and getting ready to launch into space," said astronaut Stan Love, a mission specialist on the STS-122 mission. " And hooking up connections isn't always top of your priority list."
That's why the crew gets help from other astronauts who get into the shuttle with them but have no intention of flying that day. Those astronauts are known formally as Astronaut Support Personnel, but they go by several names, including ASPs, Cape Crusaders because they are assigned to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, or just C-squareds.
Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who flew on STS-74 and STS-100, worked as an ASP before his first flight. He credits the experience with teaching him the details of launch day.
"Working at the Cape as a Cape Crusader, C-squared, whatever you want to call it," Hadfield said, "I learned so much about how the vehicles get ready, about the attitude at KSC, and about what it is to be one of the crew members getting in and out of the vehicle."
It's not as easy as putting on a seatbelt, after all. For one thing, on launch day the shuttle's nose is pointed skyward, so the crew really does have to climb into their seats because they are tilted 90 degrees. Getting in place means wriggling in on their backs and lifting their legs over their heads.
There are plenty of things to get used to the first time an astronaut gets in a shuttle seat to fly, said Steve Swanson, a mission specialist aboard STS-117 and STS-119.
"The first time you get in there for real, it's amazing," Swanson said. "You’re walking on the back wall, you consider that that's the actual ground now. You have to really figure all that out. That's the first time you really get to do all that."
Plus, the astronauts are wearing partial pressure suits -- the bulky, orange flight suits that are designed to help the crew survive an emergency. The ensembles are more commonly referred to as "pumpkin suits" and they have numerous fittings and connections that have to be prepped before liftoff.
The ASPs work closely with the Closeout Crew -- a team of technicians who work through the choreography to get six or seven astronauts in place quickly and precisely.
"It's a very well-polished process," Hadfield said. "The Closeout Crew up in the White Room really know their job. They're expert and see us astronauts roll through and they take good care of us and they make sure we don't miss a step. And you as the Astronaut Support Personnel, you're helping with that process, but really those guys have the responsibility."
Because everyone going to the crew compartment is standing on a wall instead of a floor and reaching toward areas they aren't all that used to, the switches throughout the orbiter have to be looked after, too, to make sure they are in the right position.
"We couldn't get in without them," Swanson said. "We pretty much say we just lay there and they do all the work for you because if you try to help, you actually hinder them, one of those type of situations."
In space, when the crew is getting ready to enter the atmosphere and land, one of the crew members has to make sure the rest of the astronauts are secured in their own seats. Love had that role during STS-122.
The strapping in is not done lightly or necessarily for comfort, Love said.
"Especially since Columbia when it became evident that being strapped securely into your seat would improve your chances of survival if something bad happened," Love said. "And they are big guys and they are pulling hard. So you're really in that seat."
Helping crews get ready for their own trips into orbit made his own trip that much sweeter, Hadfield said.
"It's really nice when it's your turn to be wearing the pumpkin suit and standing there and have those guys joke with you as they put all the harness and everything on and crawl in on your hands and knees and spin yourself around and get on your back and have yourself basically bolted into the vehicle to get ready for launch," Hadfield said.
Hadfield said his appreciation of his own launch days was heightened by his time as an ASP.
"Having worked here as an astronaut support crew, if anything, it gives you more confidence, more understanding," Hadfield said. "It therefore makes your readier for the time when the engines light."
Steven Siceloff NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center