'We Provide the Ride'
Without Payton "Chuck" Jones and his co-workers, Space Shuttle Discovery and its Return to Flight mission wouldn't even get off the ground.
"For Return to Flight, I feel my job is very important because we provide the ride," Jones says with a proud grin.
Image to left: Chuck Jones, a technician with United Space Alliance, inspects a recently stacked Solid Rocket Booster segment. Credit: NASA
Jones, a United Space Alliance technician at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is part of a team working to assemble and test the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) that will send Discovery into orbit on a mission to the International Space Station. Discovery's launch is being planned for May 2005.
The Space Shuttle uses the largest solid rocket motors ever built and flown. Each reusable booster contains 1.1 million pounds of propellant, in the form of a hard, rubbery substance with a consistency like a pencil eraser. The twin set of boosters provide 80 percent of the Space Shuttle's launch thrust, assisting the orbiter's three main engines for the first two minutes of flight. At that point, the SRBs are jettisoned into the Atlantic Ocean. The spent boosters are later recovered, cleaned, taken apart, refurbished and reused.
With Return to Flight approaching, Jones spends his days connecting each booster segment to the others, or "stacking." Typically a two- or three-week process, stacking takes place vertically. Each booster segment is brought in and hoisted atop the segments already in place on the Mobile Launcher Platform. Over the following two weeks, leak checks are performed to ensure each joint that connects the two segments, is watertight.
Image to right: This perspective reveals the height of the starboard Solid Rocket Booster as it is being stacked in the Vehicle Assembly Building. At the top, technicians work to attach another booster segment. Credit: NASA
SRB stacking and close-out work takes place inside the Vehicle Assembly Building, a 525-foot-tall building where the inside environment often mirrors conditions outdoors. "If it's cold outside, it's cold in here," says Jones, while wearing a sweatshirt to stay warm on an unusually chilly Florida morning. "The conditions come from the weather."
In some areas, such as where the SRBs are connected to the large, orange External Tank, Jones and his teammates often find themselves on their knees or backs, squeezing into small workspaces. "It's hands-on work," he says, proudly waving an arm toward the booster segments towering behind him. "From one end to the other, we do it all."
Image to left: In a Vehicle Assembly Building high bay, an aft center segment of a Solid Rocket Booster is lowered toward a segment already in place. Credit: NASA
According to Jones, the best part of his job is being a part of a one-of-a-kind program -- and sharing the experience with an equally dedicated group of co-workers. With the Vision for Space Exploration calling for new journeys to the Moon, Mars and beyond, he knows the importance of working together to fulfill each mission.
"It's teamwork from beginning to end," he says. "If I don't get my job done, an astronaut can't get his job done."
Jones emphasizes there's nowhere else in the world to train for stacking SRBs.
"It's something that no one else does but a select few people," Jones says, "so I consider it a privilege."
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center