Shuttle firing room veterans preparing to help launch Artemis 1

by Philip Sloss

The final mission in the Space Shuttle Program, STS-135, was launched ten years ago on July 8, 2011, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Several members of the immediate and extended launch team that gave Shuttle Atlantis and her four-person crew a final space send-off gathered again on the tenth anniversary of the STS-135 launch to practice the choreography necessary to launch the Artemis 1 Orion/Space Launch System (SLS) vehicle for the first time.

A few of the veterans of hundreds of countdowns in the KSC Launch Control Center spoke with NASASpaceflight about some of their Shuttle history and how they’ll bring their Firing Room experience launching Shuttles to a new generation of team members as Artemis 1 approaches.

The “Day of Launch” simulation conducted on July 8, 2021 was the first integrated simulation of major launch day activities from the “go for tanking” of vehicle propellants, through terminal countdown, liftoff, ascent, and the Trans-Lunar Injection (TLI) of Orion to the Moon.

Some Artemis launch team leaders started on Shuttle before STS-1

With the four-person STS-135 crew at the controls, Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off at 15:29:03.996 UTC on July 8, 2011 from Launch Pad 39A at KSC to begin her 33rd and final launch. Ten years later, some of the people who sent many Shuttles on their way to orbit, including the last one, are readying for the inaugural launch of the SLS on the Artemis 1 mission to send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a trip to the Moon.

Some of the Shuttle launch team veterans who were in Firing Room 4 conducting the final Shuttle launch countdown in 2011 had been working on the Space Shuttle Program since before its first launch on STS-1 in 1981.

“I started with the Shuttle program in 1979,” Roberta Wyrick, who was the prime Orbiter Test Conductor (OTC) for STS-135, said in a July 7 interview. She started out working for Orbiter prime contractor Rockwell International, and by the end of the program, through different contract changes, was working for Shuttle prime contractor United Space Alliance (USA).

Orbiter Atlantis lifts off to begin STS-135, the final Space Shuttle mission. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

“I first worked in software development for the flight controls group, moved over to the Ground Launch Sequencer (GLS) software development group and the GLS group in general, and then after STS-1 I moved to the Test Conductor Office. My first launch was STS-11/41B, and I launched STS-135.”

Wyrick served as the launch day OTC on 16 Shuttle launches; STS-11/41B in February 1984 was Orbiter Challenger’s fourth flight. “I was the first female ever to launch a space vehicle from the United States, and I felt that deep honor having [that responsibility] and that they believed enough in me to let me do that job.”

John Sterritt started on Shuttle the same year as Wyrick. “I hired in with Rockwell in 1979, when Columbia was still over in the [Orbiter] Processing Facility (OPF), as a completely green main propulsion systems (MPS) engineer,” he said. “I stayed in main propulsion throughout my career.”

“I went to a systems specialist in main propulsion and then to a launch site area manager towards the end of the program where I had multiple systems that I was technically responsible for. I certainly wasn’t the systems expert in those systems, but they held me accountable to them.”

“It gave me a chance to learn a lot more about Shuttle and its associated GSE (Ground Support Equipment), and I finished out the program on STS-135 as the launch site area manager,” he added. “I was preps and securing for the first launch, STS-1, and then was prime console operator for STS-2. And for the remainder of the launches I was either the prime console operator or a lead in the prime firing room for 124 of the 135 missions. So I was up there a lot.”

Jeremy Graeber “only” started on the Space Shuttle 25 years ago. “I started in 1996 with United Space Alliance, and I went into the Power Reactant Storage and Distribution (PRSD) system,” he said.

“[I] started out with GSE, and then over to the OPFs for GSE there, and then worked my way into the orbiters and eventually became the OV-105/Endeavour lead fuel cell engineer for that vehicle. Then, after the Columbia accident, I moved into the NASA Test Directors Office and basically flew out the Shuttle Program in that role.”

All three bring their engineering, firing room, and launch countdown experience to Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) program preparations for launching Orion and SLS on Artemis 1. Wyrick and Sterritt are now with Jacobs, the prime launch processing contractor for EGS. Graeber is with NASA EGS and is now the Chief of the NASA Test Directors (NTD) Office.

For Artemis 1, Wyrick is the SLS Test Conductor, or STC. Sterritt will be in the Main Propulsion System Specialist console, or CMSS position. Graeber is the Assistant Launch Director (ALD).

“The interesting thing when you look at STS-135’s launch team and you look at Artemis 1’s launch team, Jeff Spaulding is the Artemis 1 launch NTD. He was the Shuttle [NTD] for STS-135,” Graeber said. “I’ll be the ALD and Charlie Blackwell-Thompson is our launch director, and she was the chief NTD on launch day for STS-135.”

“So you’ve got kind of a core set of folks that built those roles still with us here working on Artemis. For STS-135, I was the assistant NASA Test Director supporting Jeff Spaulding as the Shuttle test director for STS-135.”

Graeber continued: “The view on launch day from [a] single system perspective is pretty narrow, and then as you get up into the test director world or the test conductor world, the view broadens. [That was] one of the things I learned pretty quickly moving into the NTD office.”

“In Shuttle, it was over three days of launch countdown. Every shift on that timeline, or barchart as we called it for launch countdown, is just as critical as the next shift. And as an early NTD I learned that we each have our ‘launch’ when it comes to the launch countdown, and that’s getting your shift completed successfully, all of the major milestones on-time, so you can hand over to the next NTD coming on [shift] to help keep things moving.”

“With [typically] a five minute [launch] window in Shuttle, our timelines [were] pretty tight,” he noted.

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

(Photo Caption: Orbiter Atlantis and the STS-135 Space Shuttle vehicle are seen from the Rotating Service Structure on Launch Pad 39A as it was retracted on July 7, 2011, for launch the next day.)

On the day of the interview on July 7, the three were getting ready for the first integrated simulation for Artemis 1 the next day on the 10-year anniversary of the STS-135 launch. “The Day of Launch sim is tomorrow, it’s a pretty long duration sim that we’ll be going through,” Graeber said.

“It’s a cross-program sim, so we’ll be connected up to the other sites and wringing out any [communications] issues or anything along those lines. And it actually goes through a nominal launch countdown, through a nominal launch and pick up on the flight control side with our flight control team in Houston. [It’s the] first time for a lot of things tomorrow, so we’re looking forward to it. It’s a really good opportunity… a chance to learn and test our team and get more proficient at the most complex aspects of our work — and that’s launch countdown,” he added.

The Artemis launch team at KSC has performed several standalone simulations over the last few years, which typically were divided into “tanking” simulations focused on the propellant loading sequence on launch day and terminal countdown simulations, which focused on the final part of the countdown through liftoff.

The Day of Launch integrated simulation spanned both periods, along with bringing in enterprise-wide support from the Eastern Test Range and United Launch Alliance locally as well as Mission Control in Houston and all the support teams at Marshall Space Flight Center, Johnson Space Center, and the SLS and Orion contractor workforce.

With the exception of the Orion Crew Module, which first flew on December 5, 2014, Artemis 1 will be the first launch of the complete SLS launch vehicle as well as Orion’s first launch integrated together with the EGS ground launch processing infrastructure. As a first launch, Artemis 1 in some ways has more in common with STS-1 than STS-135.

“When we first launched [Shuttle], we had our set of the [launch commit] criteria, a set of OMRSs (Operational Maintenance Requirements Specifications), and a set of procedures. And to us, at the time, they were thorough and complex,” Sterritt said. “But by STS-135, the amount of requirements, the amount of contingency procedures that we had developed dwarfed what had for STS-1 or -2.”

“The requirements had developed to the point where they were much more cohesive, did a much better job evaluating the systems efficiently, and [gave] us a lot of confidence that when we got to T0 we had a clean vehicle that was ready to launch. We had an incredible history of flights on the Shuttle; the configuration was well known to us. It was easy for us to look at data and recognize an anomaly.”

For Artemis 1, Sterritt added: “We don’t have that for this one. We’ve got very little data on what this vehicle is going to look like when it loads and launches here from KSC for the first time. We’re trying to be as prepared as we were for STS-135, which is a real challenge. But we’re getting there. The procedures that have been put together [for Artemis 1], the requirements, they’re amazing at how complete they are.”

Launch control console positions and roles from Shuttle to Artemis

Although SLS in particular draws on heritage Shuttle systems and design, the Orion/SLS flight vehicle has a different architecture, and the test conductor positions on the Artemis launch team reflect some of those differences. “One of the big differences [between Shuttle and Artemis is] everything went through the Shuttle Orbiter for that configuration,” Graeber noted.

“So all your flight computers, all of your fuel, everything, the crew — the central integration was the Orbiter itself for nearly all of it. For Artemis, some of those responsibilities have been distributed out amongst the several pieces of the vehicle, so logically some of those responsibilities and duties for test conductors have also been shifted.”

Wyrick added, “On SLS, we have three test conductors that are supporting. The STC is the SLS Test Conductor, and that is for the elements of the Core Stage, the ICPS (Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage), and the boosters. Then we have an Orion Test Conductor, OTC, that is specifically there to work the Orion configuration that is needed for launch, and there is quite a bit of configuration that’s still going on even though there is no crew this time.”

“And then there’s the Ground Test Conductor, who is doing all those things that are mainly behind the scenes that you don’t really hear about,” she added. “[For example,] the side flame deflectors that have to be moved into place [during the countdown], the extensible columns, the new system that we’re putting into place. There’s a lot of ground parts that are, like I said, pretty much behind the scenes but have to be done to support a successful launch.”

Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky.

(Photo Caption: Firing Room 1 of the Launch Control Center is seen on July 8, 2021, during the first Artemis 1 joint integrated launch simulation. The “Day of Launch” simulation covered the launch countdown from the start of propellant loading through liftoff and Orion spacecraft separation.)

“The SLS Test Conductor, that will be my role for Artemis 1,” Wyrick said. “The [cryogenic propellant] loading, for not only Core Stage but ICPS, will be key for this mission.”

Sterritt, concurred, adding that “When we transitioned over to SLS, I came into this program as the systems specialist for main propulsion again. So I’m kind of back home in just the main propulsion group, which is nice for me as I get older and start to finish out my career. I will be in the prime Firing Room, Firing Room 1, cryo’s cluster in the Console Main Propulsion System Specialist (CMSS) position.”

While Space Shuttle was a complex system, so too is Orion with SLS. “There’s a lot more complexity in the number of systems because there’s a lot more complexity in the types of systems there are on the SLS,” Wyrick said. “I work on a system that keeps track of all the commanding that we do on the SLS and even some of the big ground things that we do. And it’s amazing to see how many things have to happen at like T-2 hours or T-1 hour and 20 minutes or whatever the time may be. Everybody wants [their commands to be] last, so we have to space those commands apart and make sure everybody is doing their job.”

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