Atlantis and Me
Atlantis was NASA's third spaceworthy Orbiter. She was delivered to KSC in 1985 and would fly two missions before the fleet was grounded after the 51-L failure. I was off the space program and working on military simulators when she was delivered so I wouldn't deal with her at work for a few years.
After I returned to work on the SMS after 51-L, there was not really that much that
made Atlantis stand out. She was built more or less as a Challenger clone so incorporated the improvements that Columbia didn't have. Since we had already
simulated Challenger, there was not that much different to do for Atlantis.
Really the first notable thing I remember about Atlantis was that she was the first shuttle I saw launch
in person. In the mid 90s I was having a crisis of confidence about whether I should stay
in the space program or go back to school. I decided that we should go see a launch while
I could get a pass. So I obtained a causeway pass (relatively easy at the time)
and we set off to see the STS-76 launch. It was scheduled to launch about 3:30 am and the first attempt on 3/21/96 was scrubbed for weather, leading to some grumbling from the family members I had brought along! But the next night, everything clicked, and off she went.
My job indecision was happily resolved when I got a chance to transfer to the Spaceflight Training divison as a SMS systems instructor. The first flight I was assigned to was STS-86 which was an Atlantis flight (at least it ended up being, after a couple of Orbiter swaps). There was some high drama associated with this mission - it was supposed to retrieve Mike Foale from Mir and there was massive debate about whether Shuttle-Mir should continue after the fire and depressurization that had ocurred. Wendy Lawrence, who was originally supposed to replace Foale on Mir, was replaced by Dave Wolf because she couldn't fit in the Russian EVA suit and EVAs were planned to try and fix the leak. Wendy ended up flying the mission as an MS.
My last (partial) mission as an SMS systems instructor was also an Atlantis mission. This was STS-115, but I did too good of a job training my OJT, and was replaced by her halfway through the training flow, as our department badly needed someone to work integrated sims in the Simulation Control Area, and I was elected.
Several career twists and turns later I was working as a Main Propulsion System integration engineer in the Systems Engineering and Integration office of the Shuttle Program office. I was working in the aft compartment of Atlantis in the Orbiter Processing Facility
on January 19, 2006 when an announcement was made over the PA system that an Atlas rocket was about to launch carrying the New Horizons probe. We all ran outside to watch it from the parking lot. I was interested to see how much faster it accelerated off the pad than the Shuttle did. To date, this is still the only non-Shuttle launch I have ever seen. That was a memorable day at work.
(Neither of these are my pictures)
After I returned to Spaceflight Training as a PDRS instructor, I worked the final mission of Atlantis and the program, STS-135. We also went to see this launch.
I was invited to the 135 landing. I had never seen a Shuttle landing, but I decided I'd rather be in MCC with my colleagues for the final landing. I'm still not sure whether I made the right decision on that one or not.
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