It was a clear and chilly morning on Wednesday, January 21st, 2014. There was hardly a cloud or a breeze in the azure blue sky over Cape Canaveral and pad 21. Commander Ariel Wolfe sat in the upper deck left chair of the space shuttle Discovery, waiting for the countdown’s final seconds. Encased in the tranquility of his bulky space suit, Ariel’s mind whirled with a multitude of calculations. An extension of America’s space shuttle program, this was a bonus flight. Massive coolant failure on the International Space Station required a final heavy lift cargo flight to save the ISS program. The retirement of Atlantis and Endeavor left it up to Discovery. She was the only shuttle left out of mothballs.
The pressure of this final flight for America’s storied space shuttle program was not lost on Commander Ariel Wolfe. Wolfe had been on several prior shuttle missions, including two as commander of Discovery. The venerable old ship had turned out to be a near-perfect workhorse, hauling the mail to and from the International Space Station for decades. Now Ariel had to make it perfect one more time.
Ariel was determined that nothing bad was going to happen on his watch. Commander Wolfe was one of NASA’s best and most experienced shuttle pilots, but the fleet had become obsolete. The next wave of manned space missions, called Orion, were about to take center stage. Ariel had not yet been trained for those missions. Instead, he was to be “promoted” to an administration job. Ariel considered this with distaste. At forty-five, he was nearing the end of his active years for flight command. NASA needed Ariel’s experience in a command role. All that he wanted to do was pilot space vehicles. Pushing papers around felt like going to prison.
Below, a cacophony of sounds and vibrations could be heard, dulled by the intervening layers of plastic and composite material. Ariel felt a familiar shuddering coming from the bottom of the craft. Far below the commander and his crew the shuttle’s three engines conducted a routine thruster gimbal check, rotating into every direction, and then automatically returning to the precise position required for liftoff. A vacuum pump sealed with a whoosh, followed by a loud thump. Valves clattered as they opened and closed. A grinding sound came from the side of the orbiter as hoses carrying liquid oxygen disconnected and fell away. The gantry began moving away, adding its own deep pulsation to the mechanical symphony.
The last minute of the countdown felt like an eternity. Because of automation, the astronauts had little to do but wait, feeling helpless and trapped. Inexperienced astronauts often squirmed in their seats during the final seconds. Ariel heard muttering from two of the astronauts on the flight deck below, but he couldn’t make out the words. He felt strangely calm. The orbiter’s engines suddenly growled to life, ready to push the heavy shuttle into space. Half a second later, Discovery’s solid rocket boosters (SRBs) ignited. With a high-pitched scream, the SRBs crackled their way to life.
Discovery thundered into the Florida sky, like a monstrous skyscraper pulling its mighty weight away from Earth’s compelling gravity with a terrifying roar. Enormous clouds of yellow-white steam and smoke flew across launch pad 21, in the Kennedy Space Centers’ marshy landscape. Ariel saw a large gathering of nearby flamingos scatter in fear out of the left front window, scurrying to a more serene patch of tall weeks near Cocoa Beach. He imagined the visitors in the observation stands with hands pressed tightly over their ears to repel the deafening sound.
Discovery’s powerful rumble seemed to shake the fillings inside Ariel’s mouth. It was like no other sound and he loved it. Higher and higher she rose over the flat marshy Florida landscape, thundering over the massive cloud of smoke and steam. The huge ship shimmered in bright sunlight as it executed a perfect launch roll and then a pitch maneuver, heading southeast. Inside the shuttle, Ariel and the rest of the crew were pushed down into their seats by the tremendous thrust.
Ariel gave casual thought to the hundreds of thousands of moving parts whirling to life below. Discovery was a 25-year-old spacecraft and she had been upgraded more than one hundred times. She had hauled dozens of astronauts, several satellites and countless space station parts into orbit; she even hauled the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. This was her thirty-ninth trip into space, more than any other shuttle. Ariel felt proud to pilot the grand old ship one final time into the dark vacuum of space.
Inside Discovery, Commander Wolfe calmly spoke into his suit microphone. “The clock is ticking” he said, calmly. Despite the circumstances, his voice was tranquil. He had performed this task hundreds of times in the simulator, as well as on nine prior shuttle missions. This was mundane routine for America’s lead shuttle commander and pilot. His eyes darted across gauges and switches while his body vibrated above the tremendous thrust of the engines.
“We have cleared the tower,” Ariel continued in his deadpan military voice. After all, he was a veteran of space travel. This conversation was second nature for him. He spoke commands and flipped switches like an automaton. With easily fifty percent more time in space than his competition, NASA would have sent Wolfe on every mission, if they could get away with it.
Moments later he said, “Roll program complete,” as the thundering orbiter rotated to the right after it had cleared the tower.
Flat upon his back, Ariel’s body trembled and jiggled as Discovery thundered above the Atlantic Ocean. He was accustomed to the violent pounding and intense g-forces of liftoff. It no longer affected to him. When he felt slightly dizzy due to the flow of blood away from his brain he did not panic. The danger and the physical pounding were pushed out of his mind; replaced by the intense mental concentration required of the mission commander. The orbiter shuddered, pounding its passengers with wave after wave of vibration. Someone below uttered, “Oh shit,” into their microphone as the rocket lurched up. Ariel understood. Most of his first-time civilian passengers spoke that, or similar words, on their first spaceflight. It was a simple and straightforward expression of fear and doubt.
Consumed with a steady flow of announcements to both the Kennedy Firing Room and Mission Control in Houston, Ariel had no time to think about vibrations and shudders. His eyes flickered across gauges, lights, toggle switches and computer screens. His gloved hands flashed here and there; his fingers a symphony of movement. Within fractions of a second, Ariel processed verbal commands and evaluated vast avenues of instrumentation. His gauges measured thrust, avionics, guidance, navigation, data relay, tracking, hydraulics, electrical power, radar, gimbals, maneuvering and a variety of abort commands. He relayed measurements to Mission Control with all of the excitement of someone who has been playing a boring game of Scrabble far too long.
Ariel heard the launch leader in the Kennedy Firing Room say, “She’s all yours.” That was a heads-up to Mission Control in Houston that they were now in total command of the mission. In Ariel’s earpiece he heard the flight director in Houston say, “Keep sharp, everyone.” At the same time, Discovery rolled to the right and pitched forward, as planned by the guidance computer. Ariel and his crew were on their way to the International Space Station.
Moments later, as the trembling Discovery thundered skyward, came the command from Mission Control, “Go with throttle-up.” Everyone recognized those words as the last words to reach the doomed crew of the shuttle Challenger. The dark thought flickered briefly, but it was gone in a fraction of a second. There is no point dwelling on such topics. He pushed the throttle lever up and felt the instantaneous push back into his chair.
In moments, the shuttle was traveling more than 15,000 feet per second and was almost 90 nautical miles downrange, screaming across the Atlantic Ocean and up into the black void of space. The crew braced themselves; they soon were pulling six “G’s,” or about six times normal gravity. It felt like a truck was parked on Ariel’s chest, pushing him deep into his seat. Ariel had experienced this many times and there was no doubt or surprise. It was painful and difficult to breathe. But he knew that it wouldn’t last long. Meanwhile, the orbiter’s shuddering continued to increase until it felt like a cheap motel’s vibrating bed gone amok.
Ariel’s eyes darted across the instrumentation panels as his body was pushed ever deeper into his seat. At times the vibration of the craft was so severe that his eyes could not focus upon the instrumentation. He monitored the thrust vector control gauges, the OHMS thrusting sequence the OMS-RCS interconnect and gimbal actuator. They were all as they should be. A glance to his right revealed his partner bouncing and wiggling in his seat as the shuttle tossed them about. Flexing the fingers of his left hand he glanced again at the abort control. His left hand had never left the switch. Without any type of glitch, his mind flew to the computer’s guidance control measurements and the electrical power gauges. The upper air mass spectrometer flashed to life to his right. He glanced back for the data bus isolation amplifiers. Everything was right on line. It was a perfect beginning to his tenth shuttle flight.
“Stand by for SRB sep,” Ariel announced to his crew. Moments later, the solid rocket boosters disengaged and separated from the orbiter, having exhausted their mammoth supply of solid fuel. The astronauts lurched forward in their seats as the shuttle momentarily lost momentum. For one brief, luxurious moment, the shaking, pounding g-pulling stress was gone. It was like being on a pounding, rocketing roller coaster ride that suddenly went over the top and began a soft free-fall. But the orbiter’s own engines still had plenty of power and they pushed on through the dark, thin atmosphere at the edge of space.
Suddenly, strange new thoughts came to his conscious mind as a flash of despair, followed by something black and terrifying. In a fraction of a second, Ariel was bombarded by intense, emotional images. Something bad is going to happen. He stretched his mind to comprehend these new, extraordinary thoughts. Never in his life had Ariel experienced such vibrant, intense feelings, not even in a dream. It felt as though he could not breathe. Then, just as suddenly, the dark feeling was gone.
In the brief image, Ariel was alone in space inside of his bulky white environment suit. He had been repairing some part of the International Space Station. It was a very long spacewalk and he was tired, mentally and physically. Suddenly there was a huge flash of light and Ariel was lost. In his vision, Ariel was tumbling in space up and down and side to side. He pushed at the controls of his spacesuit, trying to stop the tumbling with his jet packs and to move back to the station. Nothing happened. The jet packs in his spacesuit, used for maneuvering, were useless. He could not control his movement at all. Every thirty seconds or so, Ariel’s tumble in space allowed him to see the space station. Each time that it entered his field of vision, he was farther away. He was frightened by the fact that every light on the outside and inside of the station was gone. The station, like his spacesuit, appeared to have a total electrical failure. Worse, yet, Ariel’s portable oxygen supply was almost gone.
No one at NASA had trained for such a disaster. There was no plan for action. The situation was beyond dreadful. With no suit electricity, he was unable to control the rotation of his body. His oxygen generator was dead. He could live for another five or six minutes on the oxygen in his suit. And then, he would die.
In the second portion of this micro-flash, he felt a terrible feeling of suffocating. He needed desperately to breathe, yet his depleted lungs could access no air at all. His bronchial tubes made eerie squeaking sounds. Ariel sucked as hard as he could for air, but none was available in his suit. He was dying alone in space and unable to communicate. How could such a thing happen? How could NASA let him slip away?
In the next fraction of a second, the terrifying thoughts were gone. Ariel was back to normal, resuming his text-prepared communications with Mission Control, missing barely a heartbeat in time. Yet the terrifying thought of starving for oxygen remained in the back of his mind, lurking like a heavy, poisonous thought. It was the most horrible feeling he had ever experienced, made all the worse by the fact that he had not been asleep or lost consciousness. It was a waking dream that lasted for only a moment. He wondered briefly if it was a premonition.
Suddenly, Ariel realized that he had been given a command from the ground and he had not replied. He glanced to his right and saw Pilot Dale Stockman staring back at him, with his mouth open. Ariel realized that he had dropped the ball on communication and his face flushed with embarrassment.
“Ariel, are you OK?” asked Stockman.
Ariel strained to remember the series of commands that came up from Mission Control. What was their last statement to us? Suddenly, his mind relented and the words came back. He heard NASA’s Fido (Flight Dynamics Officer) say, “Discovery, press to MECO,” which meant that the engines were producing enough thrust to enter orbit. He had permission to continue the flight until the main engines automatically stopped (main engine cutoff).
With a hoarse voice, Ariel spoke into his microphone. “Copy that Houston. Press to MECO.”
Ariel was momentarily embarrassed, but he had no time to reflect upon it. The continuous string of conversation with Mission Control prevented an examination of this strange new experience. Ariel again became lost in his routine flight discussion. The terrifying vision receded into the back of his mind.
The sky turned from blue to black and suddenly, the engines stopped. The silence was deafening.
Ariel spoke automatically into his microphone. “Copy, main engine cutoff at one three six, point niner.”
He felt the familiar feeling of being weightless. His arms hovered in the air at his sides. There was a momentary disorientation and sensation of nausea. But it passed quickly. The astronauts pulled their helmets off, followed by their gloves and then the thin fabric that covered their hair. Soon there were helmets and gloves floating about randomly in the cabin, each with their own unique tumble and spin. It was always a relief to get the bulky spacesuits off. They made maneuvering inside the shuttle’s small cabin almost impossible. Down to his NASA jumpsuit, Ariel again felt comfortable.
Dale gave Ariel an elbow. Ariel saw Stockman smile and he responded with a “thumbs up” sign. Behind and below the commander and pilot, someone was retching. Moments later, the odor of vomit rose up to the command level. Many new astronauts who reached weightlessness for the first time felt queasiness. Experienced crew members often engaged in a bet to see which new member of the team would lose their breakfast first. Of course, blowing chunks into weightless space in front of the crew and with Mission Control listening was a widespread dread. This time it was Carol Bronsky, a “mission specialist” and first-time crew member. Carol was a high school science teacher from Oregon, Ohio. She had barely flown in commercial aircraft, let alone in space. Now she was puking her guts out during her first moments in space. Ariel smiled again at Dale and winked. He had bet on the science teacher. No one said a word.
Ariel and Dale were the seasoned experts with a crew of rookies. They were the old men at ages 43 and 45. Never before had NASA sent such an inexperienced group into space. But there had been no orbiter accident since the Columbia tragedy. Nine years later, shuttle flight had again become routine. And NASA had to push one more tremendous payload into space before retiring the entire shuttle fleet.
Ariel momentarily thought about the astronauts training to fly the next generation of American space vehicles – the Orion class vessels. Resembling the old Apollo spacecraft, the Orion class ships were little more than slim command modules and spindly thin landing vehicles, much like the old spacecraft used to land men on the moon in the 1960’s and 1970’s. These “new generation” astronauts were button-pushers, compared to shuttle pilots who had to fly the shuttle in order to land successfully. There was no abort command for a shuttle pilot in landing. It was literally “do” or “die”. Few astronauts remained who were certified to pilot the old retired shuttle fleet. They had taken turns ferrying inexperienced astronauts and civilians into space on missions to complete the ISS and to push heavy satellites into space. They felt like experienced mountain men taking Cub Scouts along for the ride. If something bad happened to the experienced shuttle astronauts, the Cub Scouts would be left to fend for themselves.