What It’s Like to Sweat the Launch of a New Spaceship

A former mission controller remembers the last time the United States dared to put humans in a new type of spacecraft—and some hard-won lessons for today

5 min read
From left, Author James Oberg in front of control panels, the April 12, 1981 launch of Columbia, May 2020 photograph of SpaceX Dragon crew spacecraft on the launch pad.
The author at his console during the launch of the Columbia space shuttle in 1981. Today marks the first time in 40 years that American astronauts will fly on a new spaceship.
Photos, from left: James Oberg; NASA; SpaceX

Much has been made of the long gap—nine years—since the last human space launch from U.S. soil. Soon, astronauts will fly again from Cape Canaveral. But there’s an even longer gap that hasn’t been mentioned, even though it’s probably much more significant for the success of today’s SpaceX launch.

It’s been almost forty years since the last time Americans flew on a completely new spacecraft. That was on 12 April 1981 with the space shuttle Columbia. Special preparation is always needed for this kind of first, as I remember well. I was in mission control with the ascent team, looking after the launch.

Aside from being a specialist for the shuttle’s auxiliary propulsion system, my experience as a technical writer got me picked as the recording secretary of a special team whose responsibility involved thinking up rapid responses to all credible flight failures.

The first step was to imagine as many in-flight emergencies as possible. Then we had to invent methods to detect those emergencies, which sometimes meant dedicated instruments had to be developed and validated. How much time the ground and crew had to make a decision in any given crisis had to be determined, and then verified in simulations.

Both flight crews and ground support crews needed training, and then testing in practice sessions scripted by an independent team of creative, diabolically minded simulation supervisors. As the old saying goes, “the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.”

Between the practice runs and on-console debriefings, we talked among ourselves. I was a new kid, surrounded by men who in the previous 15 years had won the moon race, operated the first successful space station, and reached across boundaries to link up internationally in orbit with the Soviets. They were eager to tell war stories to the newbies.

There were specific tips and “hip-pocket” checklists to be shared. But more important was the transmission of a whole ethos, from how to let off steam (demonstrated by a number of failed experiments with Coke cans in the pneumatic tube system), to the dedication required to watch over a crew in space. We were being prepared at many levels.

But as launch day neared, we were ever conscious that there was no guarantee that all of that would be enough. For the space shuttle in 1981, the awesome leap from theory to practice was immense, because unlike SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, the vehicle was never designed to fly without a crew. The very first time a shuttle flew into orbit, there had to be astronauts on board. Nobody before—or since—has tried to make such a leap. As it turned out, in hindsight, we had gotten barely skilled enough to squeak by several near-disasters, some of which we didn’t even know about until long after the landing.

Even with an automated test flight of the Dragon crew spacecraft safely under SpaceX’s belt, today’s crewed Dragon flight has its own unique challenges.

For starters, we failed in our first attempt to launch the shuttle on 10 April 1981. The day had been chaotic, as last-minute updates to reference books and procedures were distributed hourly and needed to be inserted into proper pages in the shelf of reference books by each console. We could hear the scheduled checks occurring in our headsets, and as the final minutes of the countdown ticked away, we focused our full attention on our displays.

Then, in the final minute of the count, the spacecraft’s computers hiccuped. There was a synchronization failure between the primary and backup onboard guidance computers. The countdown clock was halted. After the previous hectic hours, the pause was actually greeted with relief. We breathed easier. A second attempt was made, but the computers froze at the same point. The launch was pushed back to 12 April. Disappointment was mixed with more discreet relief that now there was time to get our heads really on straight.

Two days later, with our reference books already fully updated and the team refreshed and ready, we counted down again and reached liftoff without any trouble. Unlike television dramatizations, nobody in the control center was watching the launch on television. Our data screens kept our attention. The only thing different from a practice simulation, I noticed when I played back a tape of the voice loops, was that everybody’s voices sounded a lot higher pitched.

It looked “nominal,” but we only later discovered how many problems had been lurking. Unexpected combustion in the exhaust plume at ignition could have fatally damaged the space plane’s aft control surfaces. In the shuttle’s nose, the shocks of launch had bent struts holding a fuel tank for the small maneuvering rockets (my system), but the fuel feed lines were just flexible enough not to break, spill the highly reactive components, and blow up the front of the shuttle. We had been right to be scared, and we were just barely adequately worried to prudently build it robust enough. The time would come when that fear and prudence subsided too far, and friends died, but not on that day.  

SpaceX employees in front of monitors showing astronauts in Dragon SpaceX has its own mission control room in Hawthorne that will be watching over the Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft during the launch and 19-hour voyage to the International Space Station. Photo: SpaceX

But even with an automated test flight of the Dragon crew spacecraft safely under SpaceX’s belt, today’s crewed Dragon flight has its own unique challenges. The primary source of a still-undefined level of hazard is the very different origin of this complex spacecraft compared to the space shuttle. The shuttle was developed by NASA and contractor teams who had personal experiences in previous programs, some of which stretched all the way back to Project Mercury in 1958. The SpaceX engineers who built Dragon and its Falcon 9 launch rocket didn’t have direct access to that legacy of experienced specialists, if only for the simple reason that many of the old guard had retired or passed away before Dragon took shape on the drawing board. The passage of time meant SpaceX had to absorb lessons from secondary, or even more indirect, sources.

An experienced team, like the 1981-era NASA shuttle team or our Russian counterparts, has a hard-earned informed judgment, learned both from failures as well as successes. This is a much more critical factor than simply knowledge of definable facts and formulae. It creates an intuition to see not just what is there, but to imaginatively perceive what should be but isn’t yet there. To paraphrase Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s about hearing the dog that doesn’t bark in the nighttime. More valuable than simply providing useful answers, such wisdom provides useful questions. That’s the trick to flying as un-hazardously as possible. We learned to try to avoid being hubristic enough to imagine we could make it safe. And it can be done, if the team is at its best.

The degree to which the SpaceX team has developed this intuition and wisdom remains undemonstrated. But their track record to date, including experience with the cargo version of the Dragon and vigorous and on-target responses to setbacks, is encouraging. I’ll still be puckering up and holding my breath.

Editor’s note: Echoing history again, the first launch attempt of the Dragon spacecraft was scrubbed today, May 27. The next launch attempt is May 30.

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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