Ghosts in the OPF

I had several meetings this afternoon at the Kennedy Space Center.  As the hour grew late, most office folks left, and it was time for me to leave, too.  But before I did, I engaged in one of my favorite activities; visiting the Orbiter Processing Facility.  Now there are three OPF bays, one for each orbiter.  Today I visited the folks working second shift on the good ship Endeavour.  That is always a great treat.  All the folks are so proud of what they are doing and they can almost always take a break to explain what they are working on.  It is really a neat experience and I wish everybody could join in. 

But it was somewhat subdued on 2nd shift, and there were a lot of quiet pockets.  Nobody was around the front of the bird, for example, and its always a little spooky when you are by yourself.

A couple of years ago, I was at KSC on a holiday weekend.  Having gotten bored with the beach and other touristy occupations, I wandered up to the OPFs and carded in. 

And there I found myself alone with an orbiter.  Wow.  Even the Ops Desk at the front was empty.  All the lights were on, the airconditioning running, but nobody was there.  Just me and the orbiter.  I guess that the door to the white room and the crew module was locked up; and I wouldn’t try that by myself anyway (getting into a bunnie suit is an art).  I know enough NOT TO TOUCH ANYTHING and of course, not to cross any “clears” or restricted areas. 

But it is really an interesting experience to be with a living breathing orbiter, all by yourself.  Thinking of all the places it has been; all the people it has carried, and all the thousands of folks who have worked on her, getting the ship ready to fly.  All in dead silence. 

And it always makes me think of all the people who wanted to go, some of them in the worst way.  People who have never had their chance to fly in space; at least not yet. 

Maybe someday.

Well, tonight I got to look at tiles being densified and applied around the nose landing gear door; SMTCH harnesses being connected in the mid body; valve and plumbing tests being run on the OMS.  The tires and wheels are off and I got a good look at the brakes, something you don’t normally get to see.  No access to the aft, so I couldn’t trace out the pressurization plumbing to see where the flow control valves, those little rascals, are hiding. 

I hope you all get the opportunity to do that some day — before we’re through.


11 thoughts on “Ghosts in the OPF”

  1. I had the opportunity to visit Discovery in OPF bay 2 back about 20 years ago when we were looking for some ideas to design access stands for the GPS program over on the cape side. The thing I remember from that visit do dramatically is when I walked out of the fluorescent lit, tiled aisle where the tool crib and locker rooms are between the bays, the first thing I noticed was this huge black object overhead. Then I noticed the flow field patterns on the huge black object, and then that the black object was not smooth but segmented into this pattern. Then I saw the main landing gear and the access stands – the objects we were looking to borrow engineering ideas from. It really hit me that day for the first time just how big these birds really are. You never got that feeling when we were building them in Downey as they were just individual elements – crew compartment, fore and aft body – that were big but not so big as the assembled orbiter. Even at the rollout of Endeavour, I never again had that feeling. Years later, when I was working on integrating the OBSS into the vehicle I got a small tingle of it, but nothing is like your first time.

  2. I have been fortunate enough to visit the OPFs a couple of times, though not recently. My first visit was as a tagalong with a new member of my group whose job responsibilities required access to / familiarity with several KSC restricted areas as part of payload testing. My job required no such access, but my reason for being at KSC was done for the day, and I jumped at the invitation to go around with the new person and our senior colleague who was acting as guide.

    When we got to the OPF, we badged in at the Ops Desk, walked through the door, and I was in awe, looking around and trying to take it all in. A few seconds after we entered, the new person asked, perplexed, “Um, so where is it? Where’s the orbiter?”

    I was too shocked to respond, but I think our guide had seen similar confusion before. He just smiled, and pointed up: Of course, the black, low “ceiling” right above us was the orbiter’s belly! 🙂

  3. I’ve never been to the OPF but the situation on an aircraft manufacturing floor is much the same. I remember walking the floors at Boeing Helicopters, Beech, and the old McDonnell back when they were making F-101 and F3H aircraft. During shift changes the entire floor would go silent for about a half hour. That’s when it was most enjoyable to just walk through and look without people in there to obscure the view. To a kid who grew up around Piper Cubs, the size of those places and the machines in them was simply amazing. Ah, the nostalgia.

  4. Thanks for the memories, Wayne.

    Along with my family and my sister, I was blessed to have been able to take that walk in Endeavour’s shadow on December 3, 2004. It’s known as “Dave’s Big Day” amongst my friends and family.

    I was asked to please not touch the tiles; being as tall as I am, I could have easily done so, but I know that the acids from my fingers would damage the tiles.

    I was able to share the experience with my mother before she passed away five months later; it was the biggest thing in her life. My father passed in ’97, but I knew that he was there with his son, as I was there with mine.

    When she passed, I inherted the videotape she had made of our home movies. I found footage from our 1971 vacation that has this skinny kid leaning against a Lunar Module in the Rocket Garden.

    I hope to recreate that photo during the STS-134 mission; then I hope to get one more photo with my 18-year-old son just before he goes off to college to pursue a career in civil engineering.

  5. During a tour of the DSN, I found myself all alone staring up at the biggest parabolic structure in California – the 70 meter dish. It was an awesome sight. Then it CAME ALIVE! It started turning. The size of the structure is so big it fills the eyeballs with a large field of view with little relief. The first thought that came to me was to get out of its way. I looked down, in preperation to run, and noticed a line drawn on the ground. This line seemed to make a circle around the the antenna. I decided to stay on the outside of the line and watch the behemoth turn in front of me. As I watched it I noticed it was turning in my direction and the edge was coming closer and closer. I thought when it was about fifty feet away that it was going to chrush me like an ant! I looked down again and noticed the line was there still, I was still on the outside of the line. It kept coming closer and yet closer. At this point my emotions peaked in amazement as I realized that this huge piece of technology came alive and wanted to make contact with me. I walked a couple steps towards it past the line and touched it. I stepped away after a time period of which I cannot recall, not two seconds later the dish lifted up and was several hundred feet away in a matter of seconds.

    During the entire time, I had a camera in hand but did not take a single picture of the event.

  6. On our tour of KSC, we wondered what it must be like to be one of the ones who could go anywhere they wanted, didn’t have to wait in bus lines for hours, or spend $14 for a small piece of pizza.

  7. The way KSC feels after hours is amazing just about anywhere on base – VAB, O&C, a random parking lot… I have lost track of the number of nights I’ve been the last out of my building and stopped walking just to feel the history in the empty hallways. There really is nothing quite like it.

    I’m glad there are other people out there who will take those little detours, especially people who have been at this space stuff much longer than I have. It gives me hope that the awe doesn’t have to go away.

  8. On one occasion a few years back I had the privilege to be able to spend an hour in the LUT-1 bone-yard behind the O&C, taking hundreds of photographs and detailed measurements. Having been born after Apollo was over, standing on the levels of that historic launch tower (Apollo 8 & 11’s, amongst others) just a year before it was finally scrapped was something I’ll never forget — a tangible connection for me to the great achievements of 1969-1972.

    Later the same day I got to stand with a friend inside the Flame Trench at LC-39. There wasn’t a Shuttle on the pad at the time, but that was still an extremely impressive place to just stand quietly and think.

    But the experience which left the greatest mark on me is when I got the unique chance to see the Columbia hangar after STS-107. I wish every schoolchild in the world could have been there to see and FEEL what I felt that day. I can’t describe it with mere words, but seeing those remains, and even being allowed to touch a few parts, surrounded by all the people who work on these craft, is an experience which will stay with me till the day I die. Nothing else has ever brought into such sharp focus precisely how serious — and how important — this business really is.

    Wayne, I guess you experienced that too, though undoubtedly even more sharply. I wish everyone could have the chance to experience the same for themselves.

  9. We just returned from a quick trip to Barbados. Turns out they have a museum with a real Concorde aircraft. What set this museum apart was that there were no velvet ropes separating the us from the craft. You can walk up to the wheels. You can touch the wheels. You can even walk through the entire length of the cabin and sit in whatever seat you choose.

    How awesome it would be to be able to touch the wheels of an orbiter once it comes to rest at NASM.

  10. “Maybe someday.”

    I sincerely hope so.

    How many kids have dreamed dreams of space? So many stories that I read to my children have space travel as their theme.

    And what about adults… Look how popular the science fiction books and films are, from Star Trek to the more serious genres.

    I don't believe that I'll ever manage to get up. But my children…

    Maybe someday.

    Thanks for the story, Wayne. It brings these things to life.

  11. I’ve seen them all plenty of times, more often than I can count… passing overhead, hundreds of miles away…

    There is virtually no chance I will ever get to see one up close before their retirement, not to mention seeing a launch. Flying on one myself is out of the question by now anyway. Such treats are luxury. But I’m pretty confident I’ll get to see one or more in a museum one of these days once I can make ends meet, and that’s fine by me.

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