Monday, September 5, 2011


[ed note: Hi!  Remember me?  It's been too long to bother with excuses- life happens. But we've got some major stuff going on that needs to be captured - so I'm back, for as long as I can be.  Also - I'm posting 2 months after writing it - does not bode well for continued posting....]

When I was a little girl my Dad got a telescope.  I can't tell you anything about the telescope - what kind it was, its resolution, field of view, anything useful at all.  But I can tell you that I was completely taken with it and thought my Dad was pretty much Carl Sagan.  I remember being woken up in the middle of the night anddriving out to the beach with him to view Haley's comet, constellations, the moon, Venus, whatever we could find.  He had a camera you could hook up to it and he took some great pictures.

A bunch of years later I got myself accepted to MIT and declared myself a mechanical engineering major.  I ended up interning at TRW (now Northrup Grumman) in Redondo Beach one summer (honestly - I was mostly interested in the idea of beach volleyball at lunch time) and through that experience received a fellowship to pursue a Master's degree at MIT.  My boss at TRW introduced me to a professor named Dave Miller in the aero-astro department who ran the Space Systems Laboratory.  I was a complete unknown to Dave, but he took a chance on me anyway (mostly because of his relationship with TRW). I completed a Master's thesis on reaction wheel vibrations with Dave and after a brief stint back at TRW continued on to do a PhD with him. My graduate work was in the area of integrated modeling of large space-based observatories.  I was thrilled to have found my way into the world that my Dad had introduced me to so many years ago.

After completing my PhD I went to work for Draper Laboratory where I found myself on the team that certified the Space Shuttle flight control for missions to the ISS.  It was a dream come true.  I put together models for pre-flight certification and travelled to Houston to provide flight support for the missions.  I remember clearly driving into work on my first day in August 2005 and listening to the coverage of Discovery landing after STS-116.  My first flight was STS-121 - it flew on July 4, 2006.

I've lost track a bit of all the flights I've worked since then.  When I started with the program the ISS only had one set of solar arrays installed.  Now, five years later ISS assembly is complete and I can only marvel at my very, very small role in this piece of history.  I've created model after model of paylaods on the station and shuttle robotic arms (SSRMS and SRMS).  I've designed mass properties and notch filter I-Loads that have been loaded onto the shuttle flight control system and flown.  I've helped produce documents and analysis that say, yes, okay - we can do this.  Our team also designed flight control for the HST assembly missions.  Over these years the Shuttle program has grown even nearer and dearer to my heart.

When then-President George Bush made the announcement that he was calling for the end of the STS program emotions ran high. A number of us on the team never really believed it would come to an end.  It seemed unthinkable that we as country, would not be continuing to put men and women in space.  A replacement program was proposed, but there was not enough money behind it and the gap in years between shuttle retirement and the new vehicles had everyone concerned.  One thing I did know however, was that I needed to get to KSC to view a launch before the whole thing was over.

As a member of the shuttle flight control team we had the opportunity to obtain tickets to the VIP viewing area.  We would talk about it in the MER (Mission Evaluation Room) while doing flight support.  I always said that I wanted to go, but it always seemed like there'd be plenty of time to make it happen.  It was hard to imagine going on travel that was so open-ended and uncertain with young kids at home. I wanted to find a way to take the whole family - and that felt like a lot of work too.

Finally the end starting drawing closer and I started taking the idea of a launch seriously.  I obtained tickets for the launch of STS-119, first scheduled for February 2009.  At the time I was 6 months pregnant with Quinn and Lily was just 2 years old.  My plan was for she, my Dad and I to fly to Florida together. We would view the launch and then they would head back to Boston together while I went on to Houston for flight support.  Unfortuantley the launch was scrubbed before we even got on the airplane and it was delayed a month.  STS-119 launched on March 15, 2009, but by then I was 7 months pregnant and didn't want to go through with the complications of traveling with Lily and flying multiple legs of the journey.  We passed on the launch and I flew directly to Houston to support my last mission before going off on maternity leave with Quinn.

The next opportunity was STS-128, scheduled to launch in August, 2009. I had high hopes for this one as I was home on maternity leave so everything was a bit easier.  In addition, the entire Draper shuttle
flight control team (present and past memebers included) had been invited.  Special tours were put together for us.  It was the perfect opportunity.  I got tickets for my Dad, Gordon and the kids. We had our flights - we were ready.  Then a week before the trip my Dad gave us all quite the scare and the trip was cancelled.  STS-119 did launch on August 28, 2009 - a good week after originally schedueled.  Only a couple of members of the Draper team were able to hang around KSC long enough to catch it.  It was a hard time for so many reasons, but the fact that I was so close to seeing a launch with my Dad and had failed was crushing.  After STS-128 I kind of gave up on the dream.  Tickets became harder and harder to come by as the program approached its end.  I won causeway tickets in a lottery for STS-133, but my Dad couldn't go due to business travel and I just didn't have it in me to attempt the trip without him.  I let that opportunity pass.

In January 2011 I took another leave of absence from Draper to take a post-doctoral fellowship at MIT with Dave Miller.  My return to the Space Systems Lab is worth a post all in itself - hopefully I'll get
to that (although my new crazy work schedule is a lot of the reason that the posting has dried up around here!)  I retained my status as a Draper employee so I could help certify the remaining flights. Congress agreed to add one extra flight to the program and I sadly put together the final "mission data file" and build my last models.  I never really entertained thoughts of getting to view the final launch as everyone in the country wanted to be there.

A couple of weeks before launch I received an email from Dave and colleagues at SSL that I was invited to attend a kick-off for one of our new flight experiments.  That kick-off would be held at KSC and would be tied to the launch date.  We would fly into KSC the Thursday before launch, would be badged to get on campus and would stay to view the launch on Friday.  I was taken completely by surprise, but quickly made arrangments.  I planned to fly into Orlando on Thursday and then fly to Houston the day after launch to be in the MER in time for docking and MPLM install.  I tried not to get too excited.  I was certain that the launch would be cancelled or the "too good to be true" all-access badge to KSC would be denied for some reason.  I was worried about the extended time away from home - espcially during what was becoming a very very busy July for our family (more on that too, later) - but I couldn't pass up the opportunity.  I was sad that I couldn't take my Dad or Lily with me for this one, but knew I had to go anyway.

Thursday arrived and I woke up early to catch the first flight out of Boston to Orlando on Delta.  My colleague and friend, Alvar, and I flew together and he acted as my chauffer during the trip.  We checked in at our hotel in Titusville and then drove down to Melbourne for a very fun and productive meeting at Florida Institute of Technology.  There were torrential downpours all day and the probability of launch was a dismal 30% due to weather.  We ate dinner that night in Coco Beach - Alvar, myself and Brent, a PhD candidate in SSL.  We sat outside under a canopy and tried to stay dry as the skies poured my rain down around us.  We all doubted that we'd be viewing anything the next day.

I woke up many times before my alarm at 5AM on Friday morning.  I checked the NASA shuttle website around 3AM to confirm my suspicion that the launch would be scrubbed due to weather before tanking began.  To my surprise, tanking had occurred and they were pressing on.  The odds of the weather cooperating were still not in our favor.  We woke up at 5AM anyway and headed out to KSC.  A SSL-alum who works at KSC had gotten us badged and gave us some tips on how to avoid the traffic crunch heading to the causeway.  We got to KSC, made it on campus and met up with our colleague there.  She led us to where the astronauts quarters were and we stood with the crowd who watched them leave the building and load onto the AstroVan for the ride to the launch pad. KSC employees brought step-stools and ladders with them to see the astronauts above the crowd.  I was too short to see much, but had to keep pinching myself to prove I was really there.

The Crew of STS-135
As launch approached we piled in the car along with an KSC intern and drove out towards the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building).  We parked and followed the rest of the crowd out towards the launch pad.  We stood in the parking lot just outside LCC (Launch Control Center).  We were as close as the VIP stands and the press.  We had an amazing view of the shuttle on the pad, waiting for lift off.  We couldn't see the countdown clock or hear the announcements from LCC clearly.  So we just waited.  The weather had miraculously cleared and it all looked good. Launch was scheduled for 11:26AM EDT.

Waiting for the launch - I'm the one with crazy hair.
As the time neared, the excitement in the air was palatable.  The minutes seemed to drag on and then someone realized that it was now 11:27 and nothing had happened. We strained to hear the LCC
announcements, watching as time ticked on, getting closer to the end of the window.  Soon we heard the words "press on" and "in progress".  Everyone cheered and next thing we knew the air filled with the sound of rocket engines, fire and smoke billowed out from the pad and the shuttle, attached to the bright orange external tank, was in the air.  I had told myself that I could *not* cry during lift off, afraid I would blind myself with tears.  I held on watching this beautiful vehicle carry these four brave men and wommen into space for the last time.  I was surprised at how the shuttle hung there in the air in front of us for a little while - perhaps a trick of perspective or time.  I wish I could explain it in words, but it's really really hard to do.  Soon Atlantis seemed to accelerate quickly and took off through the clouds.  The cloud cover was low, so we didn't get to watch much of the ascent, but what we saw was amazing and will be forever burned in my memory and in my heart.  When she was gone - I let myself cry.

The only regret about my launch experience is that my Dad, Dave and my family were not there as well.  Dave has seen many launches, so he's good in that respect, but it would have been apropos to watch this last one with him.  Although I worked on the shuttle program for six years, it was my work with Dave that allowed me to have this experience.  I will always be grateful to him for giving me the opportunity.  I wanted more than anything to share the launch with my Dad.  I wanted to give him this gift to thank him for sparking my interest in space when I was a little girl - for raising me to believe that working on the space program was in my reach - for never setting limitations based on my gender.  In the same way I wanted my daughter Lily there too.  So I could tell her that there was a woman on that vehicle blasting off to space, and that the sky could be the limit for her as well.  Although they could not be with me in person at the time, they were all in my heart.

I flew to Houston on Saturday. I workd my last two shifts in the MER supporting docking on Sunday and MPLM install on Monday.  The Monday morning shift began at 4AM - a reminder of all the crazy times of day I had driven from various hotels in Webster, Texas to JSC to provide mission support.  At the end of the final shift I packed up my computer, returned my headset and went to our local office to say goodbye to my team.  The mood in the MER and at JSC was mixed.  People were taking lots of pictures, signing banners, ordering memory books and calling family members from mission control "one last time".  We were all glad to be there, but all sad that this would be the end.  As I write this Atlantis is still docked to the ISS and the crew are busy transferring payload from the MPLM and getting ready for tomorrow's EVA.  The mission will continue for another 10 days or so and then Atlantis will bring her crew home.  These feats of engineering will be sent to museums and people will go to visit them - marveling that they once travelled to space and back.  Those of us who worked on the program will try to stay connected to and employed in the space industry.  There will be lay-offs and areas of Florida that are supported by tourism will suffer.  But hopefully there will be a new vehicle soon, a new way to get to space, to keep exploring.  It is with a heavy, but hopeful heart that those of us who love the space program look to the future.

Godspeed Atlantis - I wish you a safe journey home.
STS-135 July 8, 2011

Another Note:  All pictures here are by Alvar or Brent.  I forgot my camera, only had my iphone and then restored that to factory defaults before removing the pictures.  Go Me.  Thankfully others were much more prepared and competent.

1 comment:

Brian D. Carlstrom said...

Glad you made it! Jennifer and I won't forget our shuttle launch in college: