Playoff Sunday

In early ’86, I was a first line supervisor of flight controllers.  My guys were responsible for the propulsion systems on the space shuttle orbiter.  I had been one of the lead flight controllers in that position, but as a manager, I was supposed to teach the other folks how to do the job, not do it myself.  But flight control managers had a special duty in the mission control center.  The engineers who built the shuttle, both the civil servants close at hand and the contractors back at the factory, had much more detailed knowledge about the shuttle than the flight controllers did.  So every flight there was questions about minute details from the flight control team back to the factory.  A special organization was set up to coordinate getting answers to these questions; the position was called SPAN (SPacecraft ANalysis) and was always staffed by the managers of the flight controllers.


My shift was to be the afternoon shift for STS-61-C, the 24th shuttle flight.  After numerous delays, the launch finally occurred early on Sunday January 12, 1986.  The delays had been very irritating.  We had nine rapid fire shuttle flights in 1985 and 61C was supposed to have made and even 10 for the year.  The flight rate was ramping up ferociously with a plan for 12 flights in 86 including the first flight from our 3rd launch pad which was at Vandenberg AFB on the west coast; in 87 we were planning to launch 15 flights.  After a slow start, the shuttle program was beginning to show what it could do and we were going to make cheap, reliable, frequent access to space a reality.  There was talk about flying all kinds of non-astronaut folks:  Walter Cronkite, John Denver, and even a schoolteacher.  By the time of the 24th flight, we thought we were past the early bugs, the infant mortality type problems, and we were on a roll.


I came to work after the shuttle was on orbit, around noon time.  There were about the expected number of Chits requesting information from the engineering and contractor organizations.  I set to work on the phone, coordinating the work.  Even on a Sunday there were factory reps available although much of the factory workforce had the day off.  After all, it wasn’t a regular work day.  None of the requests were particularly urgent so several of them would wait until normal working hours on Monday.


The SPAN room was located down the hall from the Flight Control Room that you see on TV.  It was pretty well isolated from the action, but we all thought about SPAN as an extension of the Flight Control Team and we followed all the same rules and protocols.


Next to my console in the SPAN room there was a big color TV.  We had a TV to watch the crew downlinks, video from KSC pre-launch or from the landing site during pre-landing operations; we could watch the various weather forecast channels, or even monitor the news programs to see how the space flight was being carried by the networks.   The TVs were all connected to cable and antenna feed and even on those days there were several other “commercial” channels available, including the local stations.  We had all been trained to never, never, never under any circumstances watch regular entertainment programming, sports, or other shows that were not immediately related to the space flight at hand.  Never.  Not under any circumstances.


Many of the flight controller managers (including my boss) wandered by the SPAN room.  It was a convenient place to watch the action, keep tabs on how their employees were doing, and at the same time stay out of the way of the real action in the FCR.  By early afternoon, the SPAN room was filling up with these lookie-lou management types, wearing jeans and pullovers for the cool weather; nobody but me was in the traditional coat and tie.


I was as surprised as anybody when one of the senior, old time Apollo veteran flight control managers turned the TV channel to the football playoff game.  I told him we weren’t supposed to do that, but he gave me a withering look and said, “Its SPAN, nothing is going on, relax”.  A room full of other, senior managers nodded in agreement.  So while I huddled over the phone trying to coordinate chits all afternoon, much of the flight control management cheered (or booed) their favorite team.  At the end of my shift, the ball games were over, the SPAN room cleared out, and the new shift came in, none the wiser to what had happened.  I told my relief anyway.  He just looked at me and said:  “Hey, this is the 24th flight; all the major bugs have been worked out; we have a busy year ahead of us; relax.”


The rest of the flight went like clockwork, satellites were deployed, scientific measurements were taken, and the flight landed without incident on Saturday January 18. 


The next flight was scheduled to launch in less than a week, on January 25.  The schedule ahead was daunting.  I was beginning to think I was too tightly wrapped up to accommodate 12 or 15 missions in a year.  The pace was going to be grueling.  All the old timers were telling stories about the burnout and divorce rate that occurred to flight controllers during the Skylab program.  Maybe letting the managers watch the football playoffs on a quiet Sunday afternoon wasn’t a big deal.


On the 25th, the weather was bad so the launch was rescheduled for the 27th.  On the 27th, the white room crew couldn’t get the shuttle crew hatch to close.  A power tool from the KSC industrial area was requested, but when it arrived the battery was discharged.  During the delay, the winds crept out of limits, so launch was scrubbed late in the day.


My guys came back to the office after the scrub, tired after a long day of trying to launch.  One of my senior old time Apollo veteran contractors noted that it was the 19th anniversary of the Apollo fire and he was furious about the tool issue at KSC.  “Things like that will get somebody killed” he said. 


The next morning, January 28, 1986, we launched STS-51-L.


Needless to say, since that day nobody has ever watched non-mission TV while I have been in the mission control center.  

I have no recollection of who was even playing ball on that Sunday in January 1986.  But we certainly did not have our head in the game.