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Closing the Hatch


René Arriëns knows the mix of excitement and tension the STS-114 astronauts will feel as they make their way to the Space Shuttle Discovery on launch day.

He's stood at the base of the launch pad and looked up to see the Shuttle looming above. He's navigated through the shroud of cool mist hovering above the "yellow brick road," the egress route painted on the walkway leading to the White Room, where the astronauts board the Shuttle. He's grown accustomed to the strange sound effects made by the pad's metal structure as it comes into contact with chilled air, cooled by the super-cold propellants within the Shuttle's massive External Tank.

STS-114 Mission Specialist Steve Robinson with members of the Closeout CrewArriëns isn't an astronaut. But as a Shuttle Closeout Crew member with United Space Alliance (USA) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, he is one of the last people the STS-114 crew will see before they leave Earth for the International Space Station.

Image to left: During a launch rehearsal, STS-114 Mission Specialist Stephen Robinson poses with Closeout Crew members René Arriëns (left), USA; Dennis Sparks, NASA; Tim Seymour, USA; and Travis Thompson, USA. Image credit: NASA/KSC

On launch day, the seven members of the Closeout Crew help the astronauts strap into the Space Shuttle's crew module and take care of any other last-minute needs that arise. Ultimately, they close and seal the crew access hatch and leave the astronauts behind.

This elite team comprises two USA suit technicians from Johnson Space Center in Houston, along with an Astronaut Support Person, an active astronaut who is not on the flight crew. There are three additional USA employees from Kennedy as well as a NASA quality inspector.

Along with his teammates, Arriëns begins work long before the day of liftoff. As a spacecraft technician and operator, the busiest time begins when the orbiter is mated to the External Tank and twin Solid Rocket Boosters, and the pace picks up when the assembly reaches the launch pad.

Space Shuttle Discovery on the launch pad"When there's a Shuttle on the pad, the orbiter forward crew module is my work area," Arriëns explains.

He and his colleagues spend so much time at the pad that they've become intimately familiar with the pad's structure, the various pad facilities that support the orbiter, and even the orbiter itself. This expert knowledge serves the Closeout Crew well when launch day arrives.

Image to right: Space Shuttle Discovery sits poised for launch on mission STS-102 in 2001. The orbiter access arm is extended to the orbiter. An environmentally controlled chamber known as the White Room is at the end of the arm, providing entrance for the astronaut crew into the orbiter. Image credit: NASA/KSC

They gather about three hours before they're due at the launch site to prepare their emergency air rescue packs and make sure their communications equipment is working properly. During the T-3 hour built-in hold, they ride to the pad in a van specially equipped to meet virtually any need. After the elevator ride up to the 195-foot level, they arrive in the White Room, an environmentally-controlled chamber that provides access to the crew module.

Due to the White Room's small size, there's only room for one or two astronauts at a time. With assistance, each member of the flight crew dons a parachute pack and crawls through the open hatch and into the Shuttle. It's important to Arriëns and his colleagues that they make each astronaut as comfortable as possible, from keeping them cool inside their bulky suits to braiding their hair to keep it from getting stuck in the suit collar.

Arriens assists astronaut James Newman before launchImage to left: STS-109 Mission Specialist James H. Newman (right) is helped with his launch and entry suit by René Arriëns (left). Image credit: NASA/KSC

Once the crew is safely inside, the Launch Control Center gives the Closeout Crew a "go" to close the hatch. They'll check the hatch seal for leaks and wait about 20 minutes to ensure the pressure remains at the proper level. Then it's time to retract the White Room, leaving the astronauts on their own as the countdown clock marches toward liftoff.

The Closeout Crew departs the pad for a fallback area about three miles away, where they listen in on the countdown and watch the launch.

As the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery draws near, Arriëns looks forward to the emotional release of finally seeing the liftoff -- especially after two years of hard work and personal sacrifice on the part of the entire Space Shuttle team.

"It's one team and one mission, contractor and NASA alike, and everybody's focused on getting it right and flying it right and doing it right the first time."

Anna Heiney
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center

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