CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Astronaut John Herrington is a step closer to becoming the first American Indian in space.
Herrington and the rest of the STS-113 shuttle crew came to Florida the week of Oct. 14 for their dress rehearsal with the launch team. After a year of training in simulators, the crew is performing the same activities it will go through on launch day - suiting up in the bright orange launch and entry suits, entering the shuttle and going through the final steps of the shuttle countdown.
But there's one important difference - instead of launching there will be a simulated engine cutoff and the astronauts go through the procedures necessary to make the shuttle safe after an abort.
In addition, the crew goes through emergency training with the fire and rescue personnel. The astronauts enter the shuttle 195 feet above the surface of the launch pad, which sits on top of a 40-foot mound. A set of emergency baskets is suspended on wires. In a drastic emergency on launch day the crew could be ordered to get into those baskets and ride them down to the surface. At the surface the crew would have two choices - either enter a reinforced bunker or run into an M-113 armored personnel carrier and drive away from a space shuttle that might explode at any moment.
As one veteran astronaut put it, it is the second most exciting way to leave the launch pad. Everybody's hoping for the most exciting - an actual launch.
Each person who flies on the shuttle learns how to drive the M-113, partly because he might be the one who has to drive the tank in an emergency but mostly because it's a lot of fun to learn how to drive a tank.
For the launch and landing Herrington will be the flight engineer assisting pilots Jim Wetherbee and Paul Lockhart. On launch another astronaut Mike Lopez-Alegria will be with them upstairs on the shuttle's flight deck. The three seats on the shuttle's mid-deck below will be occupied by the long-duration space station crew - Ken Bowersox, Don Pettit, and Nikolai Budarin. They're using the shuttle as a high-tech limo to their new home in space, the International Space Station. On reentry those seats will be occupied by Valeri Korzun, Peggy Whitson, and Sergei Treschev, returning home from their five-month stay in space. Lopez-Alegria will also be downstairs for the return to assist the long duration crewmembers.
Herrington says he's been enjoying all of his training "The simulators have been fantastic, we've done a lot of higher level entry and ascent simulations. Usually things are scripted so you know what to study for. That's the early sims. Later stand-alone sims the training team just throws a variety of things at you, just to see how you deal with it.
"Sometimes it's the pilot's side, sometimes it's the commander. There's so many things going on, you learn how to divvy up responsibilities on the flight deck."
Because Lopez-Alegria will be downstairs with the long-duration crewmembers for re-entry Herrington will have a higher workload. He said, "On entry though it doesn't happen as quickly as on ascent I have to do the role of two people, both Mike and myself. And that can be a real challenge. With both of the pilot and commander working malfunctions, I have to stay on the nominal timeline as well as make sure they complete their procedures. It takes a real good understanding of what they're working on, where they're at so I can back them up. We just started out integrated sims with Mission Control and those are a blast.
"You're working with the team you're going to fly with; you aren't the only one making the decisions on the malfunctions. Now [that] you have the insights of mission control, the communications between the capcom and commander can be pretty dynamic, especially when things get real hectic on the flight deck."
Besides his flight engineer duties, Herrington's key role will be to perform three space walks. Most of the space walk training is performed underwater with life size mockups of the space station components. Herrington said, "In the pool the training Mike and I have been doing for the EVAs, that's fabulous. Lot of work, strenuous at times. You're working with your hands doing stuff. When I came here that's what I had in mind, I want to turn a wrench in space and be involved in construction."
Commander Jim Wetherbee kidded, "The guys are becoming waterlogged. It will be nice to get them out the door and get on with this mission."
Currently NASA has the STS-113 launch penciled in for Nov. 10 in the middle of the night. But an unrelated failure of a Russian rocket might cause a delay. An unmanned rocket carrying scientific experiments exploded shortly after liftoff on Oct. 14. A similar version of that rocket was scheduled for launch on Oct. 28 with a Soyuz spacecraft. A taxi crew flies to the space station in a fresh Soyuz. The Soyuz is an important portion of the space station that the crews would prefer not to use. It's their "lifeboat". If there's a major emergency on the space station, such as a fire or a meteoroid strike, the crew would use the Soyuz to abandon the space station. A Soyuz is rated for about six months in space, and the warranty is almost up for the current vehicle, which arrived in April. After a week on the space station the taxi crew returns to Earth in the old Soyuz spacecraft, leaving a fresh lifeboat for the long-duration crews. So the taxi crew's rocket launch is on hold for a couple of days while Russian engineers try to determine what caused last week's launch to fail.
Normally NASA and Russia like at least three days between the landing and launch of a visiting vehicle to the space station, but the minimum is one. If the Soyuz launch delays by more than a couple of days it would delay Herrington's STS-113 mission.