Flight Director James M. (Milt) Heflin, in Mission Control during the flight of STS-26 in 1988.
Enlarge / Flight Director James M. (Milt) Heflin, in Mission Management in the course of the flight of STS-26 in 1988.

NASA

The cellphone name from the “Mountain” to Mission Management in Houston got here at simply in regards to the worst attainable time. It was the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning in 1991. Up in house, the crew members on board house shuttle Atlantis have been sleeping. Now rapidly, Lead Flight Director Milt Heflin confronted a disaster.

The flight dynamics officer in Mission Management knowledgeable Heflin that the Cheyenne Mountain Air Power Station, which tracked orbital site visitors, had known as to warn {that a} dormant Turkish satellite tv for pc had a possible conjunction with the house shuttle in solely quarter-hour. Furthermore, this potential particles strike was due to happen in the course of a communications blackout with the crew, because the spacecraft handed over the southern tip of Africa.

There was no approach for Heflin’s engineers to calculate an avoidance maneuver, wake the crew, and talk with them earlier than the blackout interval started. Heflin was furious—why had the Air Power not given extra warning a few potential collision? Sometimes, they supplied about 24 hours’ discover. By God, if that satellite tv for pc hit Atlantis, they might very properly lose the astronauts as they slept. The crew of STS-44 may by no means awaken.

An skilled flight director who had began work on the house company greater than 20 years earlier in the course of the Apollo program, conducting oceanic restoration operations after the Moon landings, Heflin was largely unflappable. However now, he grew tense. “After I take into consideration all of my time, I do not bear in mind ever being so nervous or upset about one thing as I used to be then,” he advised Ars not too long ago.

What Heflin didn’t know on the time, nevertheless, is that he had been snookered by two of his flight controllers throughout an in any other case boring in a single day shift, throughout a reasonably routine shuttle mission to deploy a number of Air Power payloads. There was no derelict satellite tv for pc—the allusion to “turkey” on Thanksgiving had gone over his head. However the story didn’t finish there.

Sensible jokes

Again at first, NASA was not the buttoned up house company it’s at this time. Early on, particularly in the course of the Mercury program, NASA’s determination makers moved rapidly, usually flying by the seats of their pants. There additionally was extra room for sensible jokes, even throughout the sanctum of Mission Management.

In his ebook The Start of NASA, Manfred “Dutch” von Ehrenfried wrote a few fabled sensible joke that passed off a couple of weeks earlier than John Glenn’s first orbital flight, in 1962, atop an Atlas rocket. Chris Kraft, NASA’s legendary first flight director, led his groups by lengthy days and nights of coaching, simulations, and discussions on mission guidelines for this crucial flight.

On the time, missions have been deliberate and managed out of the Mercury Management Heart at Cape Canaveral Air Power Station, and main as much as Glenn’s flight there have been a number of scrubs. One evening, to interrupt the tedium, Kraft’s key lieutenant, Gene Kranz, determined to prank his boss the subsequent day when two actions have been as a consequence of happen concurrently. Kraft could be main a mission simulation whereas Kranz led a launch pad take a look at with the Atlas rocket. Whereas performing the mission simulation, Kranz knew Kraft could be watching the pad actions on a console tv.

Working with John Hatcher, a video help coordinator for the management heart, Kranz had an previous video of an Atlas launch substituted into Kraft’s feed. Furthermore, Kranz and Hatcher timed it such that the rocket would seem to liftoff instantly after Kraft threw the “Firing Command” swap as a part of his simulation.

This is how von Ehrenfried characterizes what occurred subsequent in Florida:

Because the simulation proceeded, Kraft would ask Kranz how the pad take a look at was going and Kranz would give him a fast standing examine with a straight face and his head down. Because the simulation bought all the way down to liftoff, at simply the identical second Kraft threw the swap, Hatcher began the previous Atlas liftoff video on Kraft’s console TV. Kraft’s eyes bulged and his brow wrinkled as he stared on the TV. He turns to Kranz and says, “Did you see that?” Kranz performs dumb and says, “See what?” With out a pause, Kraft says, “The damned factor lifted off!” Hatcher and Kranz tried to maintain a straight face however they each couldn’t maintain again the laughter. Kraft says, “Who the hell did this?” He then realized he had been “had” and gave a half-hearted giggle. Kranz and Hatcher pulled Superman’s Cape and survived!

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