Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut - Mike Mullane (2006)

Chapter 24. Part-time Astronauts

The shuttle program introduced several new crewmember positions, besides mission specialists, to the business of spaceflight. There were payload specialists (PSes) like Charlie Walker, who operated his McDonnell Douglas Corporation experiment on STS-41D. There were also military space engineers (MSEs), officers the Department of Defense wanted to fly on some secret missions. There were European scientists assigned by the European Space Agency (ESA) to fly as PSes on Spacelab missions. The Canadian Space Agency was supplying the shuttle robot arm, so some of that agency’s astronauts were put aboard the shuttle. NASA was also promising seats to other nations as a marketing tool.Launch your satellite on the shuttle and we’ll throw in a ride for one of your citizens . An example of this program was when Prince Sultan Salman Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia flew as a passenger on a mission carrying a Saudi communication satellite. Another category included U.S. passengers, for example schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. And, finally, there were a handful of politicians who used their lawmaking positions to assign themselves to shuttle missions. What all of these people had in common was that they were not career NASA astronauts and usually flew only a single mission. They were part-time astronauts.*

Training for part-timers was limited to their experiments, shuttle emergency escape procedures, and habitability practices: how to eat, sleep, and use the toilet. Mission commanders provided their own additional training in the form of the admonishment “Don’t touch any shuttle switches!”

Another thing these people had in common was that, to a large degree, they were not welcomed by NASA astronauts, particularly by mission specialists. BeforeChallenger, twenty-two out of a total of seventy-five MS-available seats were filled by personnel who were not career NASA astronauts. That hurt. The line into space was long and these part-timers made it longer. No, they were not welcome.*

While it would be easy to discount MS complaints about stolen seats as nothing more than union-esque protectionism, there was a legitimate reason for us to want the part-timer programs to be canceled. There was potential for these astronauts to imperil us. Imagine being in an airliner and hearing this comment over the intercom: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking. We are cruising at 35,000 feet so sit back and enjoy the flight. Oh, by the way, we have Mr. Jones up here in the cockpit. He doesn’t have a clue what all these switches are for but I’ve told him not to touch any. I assume he won’t. And I don’t really know how this guy would respond in stressful situations since I’ve only known him for a short time. But my airline headquarters says he’ll be fine. Of course, they know him even less than I do, but what the heck, he seems like a nice guy. So don’t worry when you see me step out of the cockpit to use the toilet. Mr. Jones should be fine sitting up here by himself.”

Beginning in 1984, NASA HQ began putting a lot of Mr. Joneses in the shuttle in the form of part-time astronauts and we didn’t really know who they were. I meanreally know. I doubt many of them really knew themselves, at least in the sense of how they might react in stressful, even life-threatening, situations.

Military aviation, the background of many astronauts, is a dangerous and stress-filled occupation, frequently complicated by long separations from spouse and family. It is quick to eliminate the slow and the weak, either through an early death or administrative action. It is for this reason most aviators have an intrinsic trust of other aviators who have survived this winnowing process and a deep suspicion of passengers who, for whatever reason, are given cockpit access. This was the reason most of the military TFNGs had harbored doubts about the post-docs and other civilians when we had first come together in 1978. Who were these people? What stress-filtering processes had they been through? How were they going to react in dangerous situations? They had a lot to prove, and they did. NASA’s astronaut training program made sure they had continuing chances to prove themselves in environments where mistakes could kill. They regularly flew in the backseat of T-38 jet trainers. They experienced sphincter contractions like the rest of us during various in-flight emergencies and bad weather instrument approaches. They went through sea-survival training. They dressed in spacesuits and trained in vacuum chambers where one mistake would give them a few seconds to feel their blood boil inside their body before death came. After several years of this stress exposure, the military TFNGs had come to trust our civilian counterparts. They hadearned that trust. But the part-time-astronaut training program was measured in months and didn’t provide the sustained and comprehensive stress-testing needed to truly evaluate a person’s mettle. Part-timers got a ride or two in the Vomit Comet, a couple rides in the backseat of the T-38, and some sea-survival training. These were helpful evaluation venues, but hardly sufficient. So, it didn’t surprise any TFNG when disturbing stories about the behavior of some of these part-timers began to make their way to the Monday meetings.

One shuttle commander told of being very concerned about his part-timer’s interest in the side hatch opening mechanism. The shuttle side hatch is very easy to open, intentionally designed so because of theApollo I tragedy. The initial Apollo capsules had a complex opening mechanism that is believed to have hindered that crew’s escape from their burning cockpit. Determined not to repeat that mistake with the shuttle, engineers designed its hatch to open with just one turn of a handle. And the hatch opensoutward. Since the shuttle flies in the vacuum of space with the cockpit pressurized at 14.7 pounds per square inch, there are thousands of pounds of force acting to push the hatch open. If the handle was ever turned to the open position in space, the hatch would explode outward, immediately decompressing the cockpit and killing everybody aboard. Knowing this, how would you feel if a personyou really didn’t know took an unusual interest in the hatch opening system? I daresay you would feel as that commander had…very concerned. It was after this mission that a padlock arrangement was placed on the hatch handle and only commanders were given the key.

Another part-timer story involved a PS on a mission from hell. First, he fell victim to space sickness. Then, his experiment failed. After years of peer reviews and shuttle delays, he was finally getting his one and only chance to operate the device in space. Its failure severely depressed him and he surrendered to episodes of crying. But this was just the beginning of his torture. He turned out to be a cleanliness freak. What he imagined life would be like aboard the space shuttle for two weeks with possible vomiting, no running water, and few changes of clothes was anybody’s guess. Living aboard the shuttle doesn’t leave its occupants feeling springtime fresh. If the toilet had functioned normally, the part-timer in question might have had a chance. But as luck would have it, the commode suffered a low-airflow malfunction. In his debriefing the commander had explained the situation: “We had to use our glove-wrapped fingers to separate the feces from our bodies.” The already stressed-out PS now faced another significant challenge. His solution was to refuse to allow himself a BM. Over several days he miserably constipated himself, which aggravated his depression. A doctor aboard eventually convinced him to take a laxative, but afterward he refused to eat any solid foods to avoid more BMs. This lack of nutrition further compromised his mental and physical health. In debriefing, the mission CDR summarized the situation he had faced: “I had a depressed, crying, constipated PS on my hands. I thought I was going to have to place him under a suicide watch.” It was only by the grace of God that some of these part-timers didn’t cause problems that would have jeopardized mission success or worse.

STS-51G, which included the Saudi prince and a Frenchman, provided another part-timer story. (Among TFNGs, STS-51G was known as the “Frog and the Prince” mission.) Prince Al-Saud brought a handful of experiments from Saudi universities to fly into space along with a request to observe the new moon, which would be visible at the end of the flight. NASA approved this request and included it in the Crew Activity Plan (CAP), giving it the label LCO, or Lunar Crescent Observation. The LCO was actually religious in nature. The mission was going to occur in the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, the fast of Ramadan. This period of fasting and spiritual contemplation ended at the sighting of the new crescent moon. Prince Al-Saud just wanted to be a space observer to the end of the fast of Ramadan. The new moon–observation request was apparently approved by HQ without knowledge of its religious importance. When the mission commander, Dan Brandenstein, later learned of its significance, he was concerned the prince might be planning to use the shuttle as a 200-mile-high minaret to make a religious announcement over the radio. If that happened, the American press would fillet NASA for allowing a U.S. spacecraft to be employed by a foreign national for religious purposes. Knowing he would be at the center of that shit-storm, Brandenstein confronted the prince and made him agree on the exact wording he would use if he discussed the moon observation on the air-to-ground link, wording devoid of anything religious. While this issue was merely a distraction for Brandenstein, it was one he didn’t need. Shuttle commanders had enough on their plate getting ready for a flight. They didn’t need to be worrying about what passengers might say over the radios.

It wasn’t just mission commanders who were bothered with part-timer issues. While I was a CAPCOM for the Frog and the Prince mission, Shannon Lucid’s bare legs were an issue that came to my desk. (Shannon was an MS on the crew.) Like most crews, the STS-51G astronauts had changed into shorts and golf shirts for their orbit operations. There had been several TV downlinks in which Shannon had been seen working in her shorts. Prior to the orbit news conference, the public affairs officer sent the flight director a note requesting that the crew “dress in pants for the press conference.” When the note came to me I understood its intent. Public affairs was concerned the Arab world might find it offensive for one of their princes to be seen hovering in midair with a woman’s naked legs prominently displayed next to him. I tossed the note in the garbage. HQ could fire me but I wasn’t going to tell an American woman to modify her dress to accommodate the values of a medieval, repressive society where women couldn’t drive cars, much less fly space shuttles. I wanted to call Shannon and tell her to wear a thong for the press conference. The irony wasn’t lost on me. I was taking a stand for women’s rights! Feminist America owes Mike Mullane one. As it was, the framing of the camera for the press conference only captured the crew’s upper bodies. Shannon’s legs, covered or not, were not visible.

Other cultural issues with foreign nationals surfaced. One guest crewmember told his CAPCOM he wanted the national anthem of his country played every morning as the wake-up music…and he wasn’t joking. The request was denied. Another foreigner provided the name of the immediate family member he wanted on the LCC roof to watch his launch. NASA assumed the woman was his wife but it turned out to be his mistress. He had left his wife at home.

Another example of the negative impact of the part-timer program on mission operations occurred with the fatalChallenger flight. The primary objective of that mission was actually to launch a several-hundred-million-dollar communication satellite that was critical to NASA’s and the U.S. Air Force’s space operations. But an outsider would never have known that from the way HQ acted. In their eyes the mission was to put a teacher in space. If the satellite was deployed, well, that would be nice, too. But as long as Christa McAuliffe’s space lesson got beamed into every elementary school in America, the mission would be successful. Unfortunately, as the mission moved toward launch, a weather delay pushed the flight twenty-four hours to the right—and Christa’s space lesson to a Saturday. For NASA’s PR team this was a disaster. The space lesson would not be live. It would have to be recorded and rebroadcast. To the surprise of no astronauts, NASA went to work to revise the flight plan and move the space lesson to a school day. All who were aware of what was going on were outraged. Astronauts and MCC live by the motto “Plan the flight and fly the plan.” Tens of millions of dollars are spent in simulations to prepare crews for their missions. The Crew Activity Plan, the mission bible, is fixed early in the training flow for the very purpose of ensuring the crew and MCC are thoroughly prepared. Major CAP modifications, even months from a launch, are rarely done and then only when essential to the success of the primary mission objective. Significant flight plan changes close to a launch merely to accommodate a secondary mission objective were unheard of. For any other mission, if someone suggested a flight plan rewritetwenty-four hours prior to launch to facilitate a secondary objective they would have been staked out in the launchpad flame bucket. But STS-51L wasn’t any other mission: It was the “Teacher-in-Space” mission. The flight plan was rewritten.

AfterChallenger ’s loss, Commander Dick Scobee’s effects were cleaned from his desk. Among those was a list of notes he had been keeping for his postmission debriefing. One of those notes was critical of the impact a secondary mission objective—Christa’s space lesson—was having on his primary mission, the satellite deployment. Of course as a commander, he could have refused to allow the flight plan change, just as Brandenstein could have demanded the Ramadan lunar crescent observation be removed from his mission. But neither man made such demands, no doubt because they worried about the effect on their careers. Telling HQ no in any organization isn’t usually a good career move.

The part-timer program that many TFNGs found particularly offensive was the “Politician in Space” program. Even though astronaut-senator Jake Garn (R-Utah) and astronaut-congressman Bill Nelson (D-Florida) were huge NASA supporters, professed the political ideals of many astronauts (I would vote for them), and were very likeable men, they committed the grievous sin of using their lawmaking clout to jump to the front of our line. Garn and Nelson both tried to excuse their actions with the claim that a flight into space would give them a better understanding of NASA’s operations and make them more effective supporters of the agency, but many of us found that rationale seriously deficient. If I walked into Congress an hour before a critical vote and assumed Garn’s or Nelson’s seat to cast their ballot, would I then understand the intricacies of congressional lawmaking? Not in the least. To do that I would have to spend months, if not years, observing behind-the-scenes lobbying, the committee meetings, and political maneuvering leading to the vote. So it was with NASA. Anybody wishing to understand its operations needed to go behind the scenes: to KSC to understand the flow of hardware, to JSC to watch Mission Control in action, to MSFC to understand the difficulties associated with developing propulsion systems, to every NASA center director’s office to understand the conflicting pressures of budget, schedule, and safety they labored under. Riding a space shuttle was no more a window into NASA’s operations than casting a vote in Congress was a window into congressional operations. But riding a shuttle, like casting a critical senatorial vote, is a lot more glamorous.

In early 1985, NASA HQ announced Senator Jake Garn would fly on STS-51D. The astronaut grapevine said Garn didn’t so much as request a flight, as specify to NASA which flight he would take. Supposedly he required a flight in early 1985 to ensure minimum conflict with his senatorial duties and his reelection campaign. We also heard that four other politicians, hearing of Garn’s assignment, immediately asked NASA for their own flights, and NASA HQ had requested JSC to start looking at reducing the number of MSes on missions to accommodate them and the growing list of other passengers. It was a kick in the balls and ovaries to astronaut morale. A disgusted Steve Hawley suggested that all of us should walk out on a strike and refuse to fly any missions until HQ desisted in their efforts to give MS seats to part-timers. What an image that comment conjured—astronauts walking a picket line in front of the JSC gate chanting, “Hell no, we won’t go!”

Garn was a rarity in Congress—he had actually done something in his life besides lawyering. In that, he should be cheered. He was a former navy pilot and brigadier general in the Utah Air Guard. When he reported to JSC for his eat/sleep/toilet training, he came across as easygoing and approachable. With his military aviation background he had no trouble fitting in. Nobody feared he would have a mental breakdown in space or do something dumb in the cockpit that might threaten a crew or the mission. He had a lot to recommend him to our ranks, except that he hadn’t paid the dues to get there—a lifetime of brutal work and fierce competition. Of course we treated him with respect, but our displeasure was evident in subtle rebellions. Before he arrived at JSC a sign-up sheet briefly appeared on the astronaut office bulletin board for people who wanted to take an eight-week course to become a senator. When his mission was delayed for several weeks, the office jokers spun this sarcastic entertainment:

Question from the press for Senator Garn: “Senator, how do you feel about your mission being delayed?”

Senator Garn: “I’m terribly disappointed since I’ve trained forhours for the flight.”

During his mission Garn suffered one of the more legendary cases of space sickness. There were whispers he was virtually incapacitated for several days. (A flight surgeon would later tell me they jokingly adopted the “Garn Unit” as a measure of quantifying nausea among astronauts.) But his illness pointed to another danger of flying non–mission essential passengers of any ilk aboard the shuttle: If they had a serious health problem, the mission might have to be terminated early. It could happen. While NASA’s prelaunch physicals were thorough, they could easily miss a ballooning aneurysm or a plaqued-up artery or a kidney stone. If a mission ended early due to a serious medical problem, it would mean the enormous risk the crew took to get in space, not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars of launch costs, would be for naught. Another crew might have to risk their lives to repeat the mission and NASA might have to burn another pile of money. While mission termination for health reasons was a possibility with any crewmember, it was anecessary risk for all mission-essential crewmembers. Not so with a passenger.

In the fall of 1985 it was announced that Congressman Bill Nelson would also fly a shuttle mission. Another groan arose from the astronaut office. No doubt the biggest groan came from another part-timer, Greg Jarvis. Greg was an employee of Hughes Space and Communications Company, a major supplier of communication satellites. He was flying in space to observe the deployment of one of his company’s products and to perform some in-cockpit experiments on the physics of deployments. Garn’s flight assignment had already pushed him to the right on the schedule and he had finally ended up on STS-61C. It was while he was on a trip to JSC to pose for an official crew photo that HQ announced Nelson would replace him. The justification was that the Hughes satellite, which had originally been scheduled to fly on STS-61C, was having technical problems and was going to have to be deleted from the cargo manifest. Since one of the major purposes of Jarvis’s shuttle mission was to observe a Hughes satellite deployment, it made sense, HQ intimated, to move him and give his seat to Nelson. This sounded reasonable—except for the fact NASA moved Jarvis to a mission that did not have a Hughes payload. That made it clear to TFNGs he was being removed for one reason only—to make room for Nelson. Now it was apparent to every astronaut that our management was useless when it came to confronting politicians. Anybody could be bumped off any flight at any time to accommodate the whims of a congressman or senator. While it was just part-timer Jarvis getting the giant screw now, no TFNG MS felt immune. Next time it might be one of us airbrushed out of a crew photo like some disgraced Politburo member so a politician could be painted in. It was just one more threat to our place in line and we knew we could forget about protection from our JSC management. They were facilitators. The politicians could have their way with us.

NASA bumped the oft-abused Jarvis one mission to the right. The next time he would pose for a crew photo would be for STS-51L, the mission that would kill him. He would die on a mission that had no Hughes satellite to deploy, the singular event that had been the original justification for his assignment to a shuttle flight.

When Congressman Nelson arrived at JSC he was eager to secure a part to play on his mission. NASA obliged him by rolling out the old standby: photography. The congressman, like Garn, would be taking photos of various geologic, meteorologic, and oceanographic phenomena. But Nelson didn’t want to be “Garn-ed.” He wanted to be a contributing crewmember and do something really important. There was just one problem. None of the principal investigators of any of the experiments manifested on the mission wanted Nelson anywhere near their equipment. They were getting one chance to fly their experiments, had been working with the astronauts for months on how to best operate the equipment, and had no desire to have a nontechnical politician step in at the last moment and screw things up. Nelson continued to press the issue, but Hoot Gibson, the mission commander, remained firm…his mission specialists would do the major experiments. The jokers in the office quickly latched on to Nelson’s enthusiasm to operate an “important experiment” and exaggerated it as his “quest to find the cure to cancer.”

With the manifested experiments off limits, Nelson hit on the idea of taking photos of Ethiopia in the hopes they could help humanitarian agencies dealing with the drought that was ravishing the country. This well-meaning intention was exaggerated in office gossip as Nelson’s second mission objective: “To end the famine in Ethiopia.”

Finally, he threw out a real bomb. He wanted NASA to work with the Soviets and arrange an in-orbit gabfest between him and the cosmonauts aboard the Salyut space station. At this moment in history, the Cold War was still very frosty. The complications, both technical and political, to pull off this spacecraft-to-spacecraft link would be difficult and time consuming. The crew wanted nothing to do with it. The MCC flight directors wanted nothing to do with it. To the astonishment of all, even Nelson’s appeals to NASA HQ fell on deaf ears. Nobody wanted to touch this turd. The office gossips had a field day. They created a third Nelson mission objective: “To bring about world peace by talking to the Russian cosmonauts.” The wits got more ammunition when the Salyut cosmonauts unexpectedly returned to earth, supposedly because one of them had become ill. Astronauts joked that the commies ended their mission as soon as they heard Nelson wanted to talk to them. Even they didn’t want to be part of that bullshit.

These exaggerated Nelson mission objectives—cure cancer, end the famine in Ethiopia, and world peace—generated this joke among TFNGs:

Question: “Do you know how to ruin Nelson’s entire mission?”

Answer: “On launch morning tell him they’ve found a cure to cancer, it’s raining a flood in Ethiopia, and the Berlin Wall is coming down! He’ll be crushed.”

Neither Garn nor Nelson should feel abused at being the butt of an office joke. If you’re going to get in the game, you can expect some hits. We’ve all been there.

The passenger program didn’t end with Nelson’s landing. Next in line was Christa McAuliffe’s initiation of the teacher-in-space program. And it wasn’t supposed to end with her. NASA HQ was dreaming of flying other passengers. There were rumors Walter Cronkite and John Denver were being considered for flights. TFNGs greeted these rumors with head-shaking despair. The part-timer program was not only taking seats from us and flying people who were scaring the dickens out of some crews, it was also an immoral program. Individuals who were clueless about the risks of spaceflight were being exploited for public relations purposes. The entire part-timer program was built on the lie that the shuttle was nothing more than an airliner, which just happened to fly higher and faster than a Boeing 747. The very act of assigning a schoolteacher and mother of two to a shuttle mission dramatically reinforced that lie. But every astronaut knew what the shuttle was—a very dangerous experimental rocket flying without a crew escape system. Christa McAuliffe’s death onChallenger would finally open HQ’s eyes to that fact and the agency ended the passenger program…with one notable exception—John Glenn.

I was a retired astronaut when I heard the news that seventy-seven-year-old Mr. Glenn had been assigned to fly on mission STS-95. Had NASA completely forgottenChallenger ? Glenn may have been a former astronaut and he may have been a national hero (he had beenmy hero when I was a child) and he certainly understood the risks, but he would still be flying the shuttle as a non–mission essential passenger for PR purposes. Forget all that claptrap about his geriatric studies. That was another NASA fig leaf to cover a powerful politician. If geriatric research in space was so important, why was NASA pushing older astronautsout of the cockpit? Story Musgrave was a six-time shuttle veteran and a card-carrying AARPer who had been moved out to pasture. No…when Mr. Glenn lifted off, he was just another politician using his power for personal gratification. In Glenn’s case he was also a part-timer whose advanced age added greater health risks to the mission than any part-timer before. It was insane. It was wrong. It was immoral. NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, who approved the mission, needed a time machine to go back and stand at Christa McAuliffe’s graveside ceremony. Maybe seeing her weeping family would have opened his eyes to the possibility he might have to hand Mrs. Glenn a folded American flag during an Arlington ceremony while facing this thought,I let this man die on a lark .

When I heard that Administrator Goldin had suggested to the press other geriatrics would fly on the shuttle after Glenn, it was too much for me. I emailed an astronaut friend who was consulting for NASA and who had contacts among HQ managers. I asked him if NASA had lost its mind in putting Glenn aboard a shuttle, and if there was any truth to the press reports that other geriatrics would also fly. He replied that NASA had no intention of flying any more geriatrics and that “most NASA folks will tell you that the whole thing [flying Glenn] is a dumb idea, but not too dumb to actually do. In other words NASA believes chances are excellent it will turn out okay, and why not suck up some badly needed PR.” I was astounded by his answer. NASA was pressing ahead with a “dumb idea” and relying on chance it wouldn’t end badly. Apparently nothing had been learned fromChallenger. Russian roulette with the O-rings had brought us to that tragedy and now NASA was back at the game with Glenn’s mission.

I emailed my reply: “…you remember whatChallenger was like. The team killed seven people. It wasn’t an accident. Afterward, we could all see how dumb we had been. This situation with Glenn sure takes me back to pre-Challengerthought processes…. These ‘little things’ add up. They embolden people to try other things that might be just a little dumb. This Glenn thing isn’t happening in a vacuum with no future ramifications.”

I wrote an editorial forAviation Week & Space Technology, a major aerospace publication, concerning Glenn’s mission. The piece was published in the September 21, 1998, issue. I closed it with these comments: “It bodes very poorly for any team when management needlessly accepts risk and then silently hopes for the best. It’s little things like this that ultimately pave the road to anotherChallenger …”

Five years later, in 2003, another commission would investigate theColumbia tragedy. Its conclusions would hauntingly mirror those of theChallenger Roger’s Commission—cultural issues within NASA had led toColumbia ’s loss. No one should have been surprised. The lessons ofChallenger had been forgotten long beforeColumbia was dust falling through the Texas sky. Watching Mr. Glenn strap into the shuttle was proof of that.

*There were exceptions. Charlie Walker flew three missions and many of the Spacelab PSes flew multiple times too.

*Again, there were exceptions. Most astronauts felt the European Spacelab and Canadian astronauts, as well as McDonnell Douglas’s Charlie Walker and a handful of other part-timers, were valuable additions to crews.