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Closing Out for Flight
TRAVIS THOMPSON/CLOSEOUT CREW LEAD: Closeout Crew is not special. There's thousands of people out here that have thousands of jobs. You know, and each one's equally important. The only unique thing about us is we have the last hands-on job before the bird flies.
The Closeout Crew is the last to shake the gloved hands of space shuttle astronauts before they rocket into orbit from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
TRAVIS THOMPSON/CLOSEOUT CREW LEAD: We close the vehicle out for flight, which means we take out anything that doesn't fly. We put in what needs to fly. We put the astronauts in, strap them in, and we close the hatch for flight.
The team is made up of NASA and United Space Alliance workers from Kennedy and the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The Orbiter Closeout Crew Chief coordinates launch-day activities and communicates with the Firing Room via radio. He goes by the call sign "OVCC."
Two technicians are experts at the shuttle crew module's side hatch, and two insertion technicians specialize in helping the astronauts strap into their seats.
An additional astronaut joins the Closeout Crew as the prime astronaut support person -- with the call sign "ASP."
A NASA Quality representative rounds out the team.
Twenty people are certified to work with the Closeout Crew -- but only a few serve at a time.
TRAVIS THOMPSON/CLOSEOUT CREW LEAD: So on launch day we all come together to make one team. That's only seven out of 20 that would support a launch, come up here as a prime team.
It all happens at the 195-foot level of the shuttle launch pad, where the orbiter access arm leads to the climate-controlled White Room.
The Closeout Crew reports to the launch pad shortly after the shuttle's external fuel tank is filled with propellant several hours before launch.
The team sets up its own rescue gear and takes care of some pre-boarding housekeeping duties.
Then the astronauts arrive -- and suddenly, the White Room gets a lot more crowded.
TRAVIS THOMPSON/CLOSEOUT CREW LEAD: Once the crew gets here, naturally, I can't put all six or seven in the ship at one time. So the commander's always first.
The countdown allows 50 minutes to get everyone strapped in, with their gloves and helmets on.
The astronauts need help putting on their parachute harness and communication gear before climbing aboard.
After a round of communication checks, anything not needed for flight has to come out -- including the Closeout Crew.
TRAVIS THOMPSON/CLOSEOUT CREW LEAD: So we go to close the hatch, pressurize the cabin, do some last-minute things. Takes us roughly an hour after we close the hatch to get out of here.
But before they go, the White Room must be partially taken apart so it can swing back into position beside the shuttle if there's an emergency -- even if the astronauts have already opened the hatch.
TRAVIS THOMPSON/CLOSEOUT CREW LEAD: You can see these billows behind me. We deflate those. And this White Room has hinges, and so we would swing one door out, swing this piece -- comes this way. So there's a big, gaping hole right there.
When everything is cleaned up and strapped down, it's time for the Closeout Crew to leave the astronauts alone at the launch pad.
They've got it down to a science -- but with so many tasks involving so many pieces of shuttle and ground hardware, things don't always go according to plan.
From burned-out light bulbs on cockpit switches to problems with the hatch, the Closeout Crew has seen it all -- and had to fix it fast.
So they bring two boxes of tools to the White Room, with even more in their truck down by the elevator.
TRAVIS THOMPSON/CLOSEOUT CREW LEAD: You know, you can't always think of everything, but these guys are very good at improvising.
When the shuttle is fully loaded and ready to fly, everyone in or near the vehicle is working in a hazardous area.
The Closeout Crew and the astronauts practice escaping the launch pad, in case there's ever an emergency.
Everyone has to learn how to move from the White Room to the slidewire baskets that would whisk them away from the pad, down to a nearby bunker.
In an emergency, a series of overhead sprinklers -- called the Firex system -- would activate, and lights would come on, showing everyone on the 195-foot level the way out.
TRAVIS THOMPSON/CLOSEOUT CREW LEAD: So we have this painted yellow with black chevrons. We call it the Yellow Brick Road. And that's because you basically can't see anything but your feet. So you follow the chevrons out to your primary egress route to the slidewire baskets.
One of the benefits to being part of the Closeout Crew is working closely with the astronauts.
TRAVIS THOMPSON/CLOSEOUT CREW LEAD: It's a unique gift, I think, that we get to know them personally. We get to shake their hand right before they go in. Some of the astronauts on the Closeout Crew actually fly. So you know, one time supporting a mission they'll be wearing a white uniform with us, and the next time they'll be wearing an orange uniform, getting ready to fly themselves.
As the program draws to a close, many space shuttle team members are making the most of the final flights.
And of course, that includes the Closeout Crew.
TRAVIS THOMPSON/CLOSEOUT CREW LEAD: I'll probably just stand over there in the corner and soak it in, and try and remember as much as I can, and hope that another program comes along and I get to do this again.
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