Deputy of the Range

Each time I sat at the Flight Director console during a shuttle countdown, about three hours before launch time, they brought me a plain white envelope, sealed. 


The envelope contained exactly one sheet of plain white paper with less than a dozen words typed in crisp black font.


On that paper were the Code Words. 


A few minutes later, an unfamiliar voice would call over the Flight Director’s communication loop:  “Flight, this is FCO.  How do you read?”  My response as prescribed by this particular ritual was always: “Loud and Clear.  How me?”  And like clockwork, the unfamiliar voice would say:  “Loud and Clear”.  We always followed that up with some very stilted pleasantries:  How are you today?  Fine.  And you? 


And then, having established that voice communications were working properly, the unfamiliar voice would go away.  And I would fervently wish not to hear it again that day.


FCO, the Flight Control Officer, is a military officer whose duty station is in the Range Operations Control Center – the ROCC, pronounced “rock” – a dozen miles south of the shuttle launch pads.  The President of the United States had delegated the authority and responsibility of the protection of the civilian population of the state of Florida from errant space vehicles to the FCO.  All launch vehicles are required to have a “flight termination system” installed which the FCO will utilize to protect the public.  This requirement includes, of course, the space shuttle.


By long standing jointly signed Flight Rules, if the shuttle were to veer off course, spin out of control, or break up, my responsibility as Shuttle Ascent Flight Director was to transmit those Code Words on my loop.  On hearing those words, the FCO would depress the two buttons in front of him to – as we say – ‘terminate the flight’.  That means exactly what you think it means.  I don’t have to spell it out.


It goes without saying that I never wanted to say those words.


Not that it would likely matter.  The FCO has radar trackers, optical sites, observer reports.  The FCO would have probably already “Sent Functions” before I would be able to call him.  Small comfort, that.


When you go to the ROCC and get the range safety briefing from the FCO, they show you a video of an early Chinese Long March rocket that suffered a boost phase failure.  Flaming chunks of rocket streamed down on an unsuspecting village, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.  Just a few miles from the shuttle launch pads are the large and growing Florida communities of Titusville, Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, Melbourne, Rockledge, Cocoa, and more.  Not far north lays Daytona Beach. And the shuttle launch trajectory does not go far from the outer banks of North Carolina, New England, Newfoundland.  There are a lot of people that might need protection.


After a very social evening filled with many vodka toasts, a Russian colleague of ours asked the very pertinent question:  “Why would you put a range safety destruct package on a manned spacecraft?”    


That question was the reason the FCOs always showed the video of the Chinese village.  The FCOs  shows the same video to the astronauts, too.


You see, the shuttle Commander and Pilot are designated Agents or Deputies of the Range.  The destruct package is built into the Solid Rocket Boosters and those are jettisoned two minutes into an eight and a half minute powered flight.  After that, should the shuttle go off course toward a populated area, the FCO can do nothing about it.  The responsibility which the President of the United States has given to the FCO cannot be accomplished – except to call the crew and tell them to do what is necessary.


So we practice these scenarios – far fetched as they may be – to ensure that the crew knows what to do.  Steer out to sea; shut down the main engines, protect the population along the eastern seaboard.  One small problem – that procedure puts the shuttle crew into what is delicately labeled a “black zone”.  If the shuttle is high enough – as it is for much of the boost phase – but with forward velocity significantly below orbital speed – then an unpowered entry will result in the g-loads and heating which builds up too fast, faster than the wings can generate lift.  And the result?  Well.


So the Commander and the Pilot are designated Deputies of the Range.  If the really bad thing happens, they are sworn to protect the population of the east coast, even at the expense of their crews’ lives.


It takes courage to fly in space.



5 thoughts on “Deputy of the Range”

  1. Absolutely amazing! I suppose it is difficult for any civilian to truly grasp the day to day work of an astronaut, but as much as I try to wrap my head around the idea of having that career, I can't.

    It must be amazing travel beyond the planet that all of us know and I am sure that the pictures just don't do justice to seeing it for yourself. I think I might have just found my new favorite blog, I loved that article.


  2. Where does this “black zone” fit with the Negative Return (for RTLS aborts); single engine TAL; and other calls?

  3. Wayne,

    Very interesting and ominous. Just curious – back in 1986, did the Flight Director initiate the command to detonate the seperated Challenger SRB after the stack broke up or did the FCO do that independently?

  4. sobering read. So if a flight has to be terminated in the “black zone” what are the options for the crew? Can they eject?.


  5. Wow. I never really thought of this before, but it really does make sense. Having life and death control over others is probably the ultimate responsibility. I give the FCO great credit – he or she will perform their job if (hopefully if and not when) it comes down to it, because that is their responsibility.

    Yet it seems that responsibility is something most people reject; they assume someone else is responsible for events. They did not know that the coffee they just bought is hot, or they believe that their kid beat some other kid up because of the video games they play. But if the average person took some personal responsibility upon themselves, there just might be less bad in this world.

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