Don't Call Him Willy Any More

Back when the world was much younger than it is now, I was a young shuttle flight controller working in the MCC on several early flights.  We were all learning about the shuttle in those days, and one fellow I knew actually saved the shuttle because he knew what to do when the unexpected happened.

I was  PROP, he was GNC; we sat together down in the front row, right corner of Mission Control.  Willy was one of the USAF “detailees” assigned to learn to be shuttle flight controllers.  In those early days there was a plan to eventually turn one of NASA’s shuttles over to the USAF to use for “classified” missions.  After the Challenger accident, all those plans were cancelled, but in the early 1980’s the shuttle was supposed to take over ALL space transportation duties for the United States.  That is what STS stands for:  “Space Transportation System”.  As in ‘THE’ Space Transportation System.  All others to become obsolete.  Or something like that.  It was a long time ago.

Willy was an up and coming Captain in the USAF and made a great GNC.  He knew the guidance, navigation, and flight control systems forwards and backwards.  We worked together a lot in those days since the PROP console (mine) was responsible for the attitude control thrusters, their plumbing, etc., while the GNC console was responsible for the Auto Pilot that called on those thrusters to maintain attitude.  Even in those days, Willy demonstrated what military men call “command presence”.

But almost as important, Willy could do the most devastatingly funny imitation of our legendary boss, Gene Kranz.  Willy had the mannerisms down exactly right, could put the gruff intonation into the right pitch, and deliver a comedy routine that had all of us in the trench in stitches.  Always during LOS or debrief between sim runs, of course.  Never during the training runs, and especially not during a real flight. Hmm.

After the shuttle main engines cut off and the External Tank is jettisoned, there is still a lot of the main propulsion system propellant — liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen – trapped in the large pipes in the orbiter aft compartment.  Those plumbing lines are up to 17 inches in diameter and could hold several hundred pounds of volatile cryogenic fuel.  There was dump routine which was automatically executed right after the ET separation, but it left a lot of residuals in the line causing headaches later.  Not really a safety issue, but a nuisance and something that could cause interruptions later on.

The booster guys came up with a dandy plan to get rid of these propellants faster.  The LOX dump went out the main engines and the LOX lines were pressurized with helium to expel that trapped fluid.  The LH2 dump went out a vent on the side of the orbiter, just under the tail, and was unpressurized.  Why not open the valves and pressurize the LH2?  And at the same time, open the small LO2 valve nearby.  Both those actions would cause a more thorough dump and eliminate the pesky vacuum inerting procedures that interrupted later activities.

So we tried it.  Worked great in the simulator.  Hmm.  In flight, . . . .well . ..

Ascent is always a tense time.  Willy, I, and all the other flight controllers were glued to the data.  Everything went nominally all through mainstage.  No systems issues.  MECO, ET sep, dump start, OOOPS!

The increased propellant dump flow out the side of the orbiter caused it to bank sharply — the wing headed for the jettisoned but not distant ET.  Willy, calm as could be, relayed the instructions to the crew to regain attitude control.  The wing missed the tank, by how much I don’t know, but not by much.

It was all over in just a couple of minutes.  We took a deep breath and got about the business of flying the orbiter in space.

After Challenger, all the USAF “detailees” were pulled out of flight control.  I haven’t seen Willy in probably two decades until I ran into him recently.  He has done well in his USAF career, has stars on his epaulets now.  I wouldn’t recommend you call him Willy these days. 

But then, I haven’t called him that since the day he saved the shuttle.

And I bet you didn’t even know.