Rocket Launched

Author: Walton Collins ’51


Tuesday, August 25, 2009:

As the clock creeps past 1 a.m., Kevin Ford, a 1982 Notre Dame graduate, is lying on his back on the flight deck of the space shuttle Discovery, waiting for liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen to mix and create the mighty pillar of flame that will send him and six fellow crew members into a 200-mile-high orbit and a linkup with the International Space Station.

He’s been in the shuttle for three hours now, running through check lists and listening to multiple channels of radio chatter, including the voice that’s assessing the weather over Cape Canaveral. The assessment isn’t encouraging. One after another, summer thunderheads shoulder in from the Atlantic Ocean, and 15 minutes ago rain washed over the launch pad.

From the vantage point of a fifth-story viewing deck three miles away, the shuttle assembly — a swept-wing orbiter roughly the size and shape of a DC-9 jetliner, its signature orange fuel tank and two flanking white solid-fuel booster rockets — is swathed in floodlights and poised for ascent. The assembly is 184 feet tall — conjure a structure 30 feet taller than the Notre Dame library — but it doesn’t look that massive from the viewing platform where NASA administrators and invited guests are nervously watching frequent lightning.

Sharing the suspense in a separate building on the Kennedy Space Center grounds are Ford’s parents, his wife, Kelly, and their two children, Anthony, a 2005 ND graduate, and Heidi, a 2007 ND grad. Launch is scheduled for 1:36 a.m., but as the clock nears the critical T-minus 9 minutes “hold” point, the odds aren’t good. Although this afternoon’s strong wind gusts have subsided, active cells still menace a three-mile safety perimeter around the launch pad, at one point chasing the watchers in from the observation deck.

Although the shuttle will be moving nearly 18,000 miles an hour when it achieves orbit, on the ground space travel is very much a waiting game.

At last the go/no-go moment arrives, and the call is, game over. Discovery’s launch is scrubbed for tonight, and Ford and his crewmates begin a 90-minute “power down” before they’re helped back out through the hatch and strip off their flight gear. It will be Friday before they’ll don it again.

Taking flight

Kevin Ford is as thoroughly at home on aircraft flight decks as he was playing drums with the band in Notre Dame Stadium 30 years ago, but the retired Air Force colonel more commonly sits upright in the cockpit. He flew for the first time at 16, when his older brother David, who held a private pilot’s license, took him up for a ride. That flight opened Kevin’s eyes to his future: “This is what I want to do,” he decided.

In his junior year of high school in hometown Montpelier, Indiana, he took a year off from the school diving team to work 26 hours a week in a grocery store and earn cash to pay for lessons. About that time he read Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins’ account of station keeping in the Apollo 11 lunar module while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.

“I just loved that book,” Ford says. “Collins had been a fighter pilot, and an astronaut of course, and I go, ‘I’m gonna fly, and I’m gonna be a fighter pilot.’” He had his private pilot’s license at 17, well before he enrolled in Air Force ROTC at Notre Dame.

After graduation came jet training and tours of duty in Germany and Iceland, where, he says, he was “lucky enough to fly an F-15, a dream come true.” His log book entries include missions to intercept and escort Soviet combat aircraft over the North Atlantic. He moved on to test-pilot school, flight-tested F-16s, and taught glider and test pilots at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida after time off for a doctorate in astronautical engineering. With 4,300 hours of flying time under his belt, he holds FAA commercial certificates for airplanes, helicopters and gliders.


Friday/Saturday, August 28/29:

After two more days of scrubs while technicians make sure a faulty valve in the shuttle is working properly, liftoff is set for 11:59 p.m. Friday. The big orange fuel tank has been refueled, and confidence in the weather is building. Just after 8 o’clock an “astrovan” drives the crew to the launch pad, passing a sign that reads: “We’re Behind You, Discovery.”

Now the countdown is moving briskly. Lightning still dances over the Atlantic, but the storms are well outside the danger area. Shuttle pilot Ford and his six crewmates are in their reclining chairs as the clock passes T-minus 9 minutes and the shuttle’s computers take over the launch sequence. On the viewing deck, the voice of the flight director picks up the pace: minus two minutes . . . minus 55 seconds . . . minus 5, 4, 3 . . . The two solid fuel boosters and the shuttle’s three engines spew flame, and the four-and-a-half million pound mass begins to rise. Because the speed of light is much faster than the speed of sound, the sunburst under the rocket’s tail is visible from the observation deck seconds before the roar slams in with almost physical force.

Inside Discovery, Kevin Ford knows precisely when ignition starts, though the noise is muffled inside the shuttle. “It’s quite a jolt when the engines light,” he relates in a post-mission interview. “There’s rumbling and vibrating in the cockpit, and I remember the brightness out the window — I go, oh, it’s really bright out there, must be the boosters.” With multiple simulations of this moment behind him, liftoff “felt like I’d been here before. I was feeling, thank God we don’t have to go back and have dinner in our quarters again. You’re just so glad to be there.”

His job now is to monitor engine performance via cockpit readouts. “Once we leave the pad they can’t bring us back, and they’re my engines now,” he says later. “The ascent was completely smooth, although you do feel motion, like when you’re in an airplane and the pilot’s up front and you occasionally feel him making corrections. The orbiter is making corrections in response to upper-level winds.”

As it heads northeast along the North Carolina coast heading for Cape Cod, the ship rolls over on its back and passes through a couple of cloud decks. Ford says he had promised himself that while the flight engineer watched the main engine display for the solid rockets to separate, he’d be looking out the window. “What I would have seen on a clear night was the East Coast, upside down.” But clouds scotched that plan.

From the NASA viewing deck, Discovery is heading straight up, going faster and faster as more than five million pounds of thrust push it toward orbit. In eight seconds it’s moving at 100 miles per hour, and by the end of the first minute it reaches 1,000 mph. From the ground, the tail of fire appears as a brilliant globe and then a diminishing disk of light as the ship hurtles downrange.

At two minutes the shuttle is 28 miles up and traveling at 3,000 mph; there’s a visible flare when the solid rocket boosters spin free and fall toward the recovery flotilla that will tow them back to Florida for re-use on the next mission. The main propellant tank will separate a little later, drop into the Atlantic and sink; it’s the only part of the package that’s not reusable. The shuttle now is well on its way to an orbital speed that’s nine times as fast as a rifle bullet.

On the ground, NASA personnel follow a tradition of saluting successful launches with a beans and cornbread supper. Tonight the food is served in an auditorium behind the viewing deck, with a large screen replaying the liftoff and the phrase “textbook launch” on a lot of lips. By the time the meal ends and the guests disperse, the shuttle is rounding Australia, halfway through its first orbit.

At the age of 49, three-plus decades after that first flight with his brother, Kevin Ford is in space at last.

Space time

Sunday, August 30:


Discovery’s crew is awakened this afternoon with the song “Made to Love” by TobyMac. It’s played for mission specialist Nicole Stott, who will swap places on the International Space Station with its flight engineer, Tim Kopra, who’s been there for eight weeks.

Each “morning” Houston wakes the astronauts with songs they’ve requested. Ford got two picks: “Indiana Our Indiana,” performed by the Indiana University band, and “Good Day Sunshine.” He chose the first to honor his brother David, an IU graduate, who died of pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2008.

“David was a big Indiana fan, though his son came to Notre Dame,” Ford says. “Every weekend he was, how’d Indiana do and how’d Notre Dame do?” The Beatles song, to be played the morning the shuttle prepares to land, is a slam-dunk choice if you’re experiencing a sunrise every 94 minutes, around the clock.

Shortly before 9 p.m., Ford and mission commander Rick Sturckow fire a few corrective jet pulses to nudge the shuttle into a soft docking with the space station, and two hours later the crews open the hatches and the shuttle crew floats into the station, giving it an unprecedented census of 13 passengers.

The next eight days involve a lot of heavy lifting and three spacewalks. The shuttle’s cargo bay contains 15,200 pounds of equipment to be transferred to the space station. Among the items is a pair of racks that station scientists will use to conduct experiments on materials such as metals, glasses, crystals and ceramics. There’s also a laboratory freezer to preserve biological samples used in science experiments; a backup carbon dioxide scrubbing device and, on the lighter side, a new crew treadmill named for Stephen Colbert, a host on Comedy Central.

It took some doing for NASA to think up a string of words to fit his name, but it eventually fixed on: Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill. Like a complex Christmas toy, C.O.L.B.E.R.T. comes with a “some assembly required” tag — about 20 hours worth.

Space crews spend a lot of time practicing intricate tasks in a Houston swimming pool to get them used to zero gravity. Coming to terms with the real thing proves no problem for Ford. “You get used to it pretty quickly,” he says. “It’s so nice to float up into a corner and do your thing and float back. It takes a little while to get coordinated, like when you push off with your hands, not only do you move that way but you’re also rotating, so your feet get up over your head. But you learn how to push and twist so you don’t embarrass yourself too much.”

As for sleeping in space, he becomes an instant fan. “I slept super, better than I do on the planet,” he says. “You’re in a thing that looks like a hammock, but it doesn’t sag or press against you anywhere. I put my elbows against the edge of the sleeping bag just to keep my arms from floating out in the stalking-mummy position. People like to take pictures of you like that.”

Before launch, the Discovery crew was going to bed at 5 a.m. and waking at 1 p.m. to acclimate to space station “days.” But a day in space shaves around half an hour from every 24 because the orbital path brings the landing site around that much earlier each day, and the sleep/wake cycle shifts as well.

Serving as pilot on a space shuttle involves only periodic hands-on moments. Like the flight crew of a modern airliner, the commander and pilot of a shuttle leave most of the work to computers. Their chief role is to monitor critical indicators that the computers are doing their jobs. Despite his title, a shuttle pilot works in tandem with the mission commander the way an airliner’s co-pilot works with the pilot in the left hand seat.

There is also occasional space junk wandering through the orbital path. One big piece — part of an old European rocket booster about 15 feet around — is of brief concern while Discovery is linked with the space station, but Houston flight controllers assess the threat and assure the crew it’s not a danger. The astronauts don’t even interrupt their sleep as it zips past a mile away.

The heavy work done, it’s soon time for Discovery to be headed home. The transfer of supplies between the shuttle and the station is finished, and Ford and a fellow crewman employ a mobile arm to uncouple a large cargo module and snug it into the shuttle’s cargo bay. That done, the hatches between the two craft are closed, and as it cruises 223 statute miles above the Western China-Mongolia border, Discovery undocks. When the two craft are 450 feet apart, Ford flies the shuttle completely around the space station to check for damage and general condition. When he’s done, Houston has a message for the flight deck: “Textbook flyaround.”


Friday, September 11:

“Good Day Sunshine” rouses the Discovery crew from their hammocks, and the first order of business is to deal with another piece of rogue space debris, possibly something left over from the mission’s third space walk. Ford and Commander Rick Sturckow juke the ship out of the way by firing an orbital adjustment engine. It’s a minor maneuver and won’t affect today’s landing.

As the time for the de-orbit burn approaches, it’s clear they’ll be landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Even though NASA dislikes western landings because they mean loading the shuttle aboard a Boeing 747 and flying it back to Cape Canaveral, Florida’s weather is unwelcoming again and Edwards has the call.

The engine firing, which slows down the shuttle and begins to dump it out of orbit, occurs at 7:45 p.m. when the shuttle is off the east coast of Africa. Discovery’s orbit slings it below Australia before pointing northeast toward California. Inside the shuttle, the crew begins to feel hints of gravity: “Thirty minutes prior to landing,” says Ford, “you see about a tenth of a G. We have this bag of M&M Peanuts that we toss in the air, and the candies slowly fall, and you know zero-G is about to come to an end for a long time.”

Just before the burn, Ford powers up the system that provides hydraulic pressure for the flight controls and gimbals the main engine. The shuttle will soon become a maneuverable aircraft again, and the commander and pilot will get a chance to do some flying. Above the Pacific Ocean, the descent path bleeds speed and energy in the form of heat that builds to almost 3,000 degrees, but the tiles on Discovery’s underbelly are made to deal with such temperatures. When speed drops to Mach five, air data probes are deployed. These act like an airplane’s Pitot tubes to give the pilots an indication of the shuttle’s speed over the ground.

Over California, Ford flies the shuttle through a half circle to line up with runway 22, the 15,000-foot landing strip it will use. Then mission commander Rick Sturckow takes the controls, and Ford’s role is to behave as if he were an instructor pilot. “I say things like, ‘20 seconds until you turn on to the circle . . . gonna be a right-hand turn . . . okay, you’re right on guidance . . . hey, I’m seeing you a little right of center line . . . guidance is bringing you left.’”

With the ship on final approach, Ford lowers the landing gear and prepares to pop the drogue ’chute that will slow the plane on the ground. His training as a glider pilot is useful now, because Discovery, which has turned into a very heavy glider, has no fuel and no engines left. It can’t go around for a second try at landing. What’s more, the shuttle is tricky to land because its single wing is back near the ship’s tail.

“When you move the stick and pull the nose up,” says Ford, “the whole craft sinks before you start to go up. Normally you don’t notice that, but if you’re five feet above the runway and you want to slow down your sink rate, all you’re going to do is push the wheels onto the runway. So you really have to have it all solved ahead of time. Flying gliders gives you that confidence.”

A setting sun shines over the Mojave Desert as Discovery’s wheels touch pavement at 250 mph, considerably faster than a commercial jet lands. But the flight crew isn’t done for the day. There are post-flight duties to perform, and 35 minutes after the shuttle stops rolling Ford is still in his seat, flipping switches, closing valves, making sure the avionics are all tidy. And there’s his suddenly heavy body still to deal with.

Some astronauts have trouble with the return of weight, but it isn’t bothering Ford so far. “It had no impact on me all the way through landing and wheels stop,” he says. “You do notice that turning your head makes you feel a little dizzy. Your inner ear was happy in zero-G gravity for the last two weeks, and it’s no longer happy. But I felt really good until it was time to get out of the seat. We sit in a kind of pit that’s hard to get out of. We’re still in one G but now you feel like it’s two-and-a-half.”

When Ford lifts his foot he thinks it’s stuck under a toe loop. He stands still for a minute before climbing down the ladder from the flight deck to the mid deck. At the bottom he’s glad to see “a couple of guys who hang on to my harness and keep the weight off my legs. Everything takes a little longer than it ever did before. Walking around on the ramp, you feel you really have to be careful keeping your center of gravity above your feet — you don’t want to be a video on YouTube.”

Astronauts and test pilots are alike in not being much given to golly-gee-whiz remarks, but though they tend toward the laconic, they’re not immune to emotion. “As we got into space,” Ford would say afterward, “I go, this is just amazing that we can do this . . . that we think we can get by with throwing this piece of metal into orbit. But we just did it.

“As an astronaut I’ve seen lots of launches,” he adds. “I’ve worked in mission control, and once a flight leaves you’re like, okay, I know it’s out there, I know the people left. But it’s hard to imagine there’s really a thing the size of a C-9 airplane that you just threw into space, and you threw it so fast it’s staying there.”

It’s hard, that is, until you’ve spent two weeks out there yourself, traveled 5.7 million miles and seen the sun rise 219 times.

Photos courtesy

See the launch video on YouTube.

Or view the NASA launch video.

Walt Collins is editor emeritus of Notre Dame Magazine.