You have all seen the pictures from Mission Control at splashdown of one of the Apollo missions: flags and cigars, the room crowded with celebrating people including most of the NASA hierarchy. Splashdown parties were a big thing back in the day as my older colleagues used to tell me. I often wondered how exaggerated those stories were, or did people just party harder in those days?
My first assignment in Mission Control was for the entry team of STS-1; Columbia. It was quite a flight; a long time coming and a technical achievement that will not be surpassed for a long time. Even though there was no “splashdown”, I remember the mob scene after landing — a huge party with hundreds of folks crammed into Mission Control and then spilling out into all the various venues surrounding the space center. Much of the top brass of NASA was present; but this time there was a difference, a lot of senior folks were at the runway in California. A new tradition had started. Still, there was great celebration.
These continued for the landings of STS-2, 3, 4, 5, 6. On STS-7, Sally Ride made history as the first American woman to go into space. If anything, the crowd was even bigger than on earlier flights. The cigar smoke was so thick that you could not see from one end of the room to another.
(Smoking has since been banned from Mission Control and all other NASA building!)
I found myself working the Entry team on STS-8, the first night landing. Dick Truly was the commander. There were lots of concerns about landing in the dark; many new rules and procedures. The Shuttle Orbiter does not have a landing light like most aircraft, so illumination had to come from huge spotlights which lined the runway. We were all absolutely nervous about this. Everybody but Truly.
The landing came at about 2 AM. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — in Mission Control it always seems like 2 AM! Often when I emerged from a long shift in the MCC, I would be surprised to see the sun shining! There is something psychological about being in a big windowless building for many hours concentrating on difficult technical problems. But this time it was really true!
The shuttle glided to a picture perfect landing, no problems worth noting. Later pilots have often remarked that night landings are actually easier than daytime landings — not only is the weather often better, but there the well lit runway is the only thing you can really see and all the other distracting things that daylight reveals are hidden at night!
We ran through the post landing checklist; made sure the crew got out alright, and turned control of the vehicle over to the team at the landing field. The traditional words were spoken: “The flight control team is released. GC (the ground control officer) unlock the MCC doors”.
And nothing happened. Nobody came in. The video monitors switched to the congratulatory slide that always came up in preparation for the party. But nobody was there. The flight control team put our books away in silence; packed up our bags, and headed out the door. All the usual party joints were closed at that time in the morning. We all went home to bed.
Sic transit gloria mundi
When the shuttle lands today there is a small rush when the doors are opened. Some mid-level NASA officials are generally there to shake hands and congratulate the team. We can watch a small group of senior folks on the runway shake hands with the crew whether they are in California or Florida. But it isn’t like the old days.
Well, at least we won’t all die from the cigar smoke!