Presidential Encounters

Because it is on my mind today, I have been thinking about encounters with the President of the United States — in NASA’s Mission Control, of course.

Mission Control has seen its share of VIPs.  There is a story about British Royalty visiting the MCC that I may never tell you about. 

But my kids would.  Please don’t ask them.

Movie stars, politicians, Nobel prize winners, celebrities of all kinds have visited the MCC.  One of the “other duties as assigned” to new Flight Directors is to give tours to VIP groups in the MCC.  I have probably done a hundred of those in my time.  Now we have a new crop of Flight Directors who get that honor, thankfully.  Most of these are pretty low key and you get to meet some neat people.  There was a big contest to see who could give Vanna White the tour, for example.

But when the sitting President of the United States comes, it is a wholly different atmosphere.  I’ve been in MCC for at least two of those visits, maybe three. 

The first thing that happens is you cannot get to the coffee pot. 

This is serious.  The MCC runs on caffeine and the curtailing of travel to and from the coffee pot probably puts all mission decision making in jeopardy.  The fact that all the flight controllers are cleared by the government to operate multi-billion dollar national assets does not make one whit of difference to the Secret Service. 

You can tell its about to happen when mysterious men in tailored suits wearing sunglasses (inside the building) and who appear to have hearing aids in their ears appear at each of the doors.  Now, the typical flight controller is color coordination challenged (not as bad as the guys at JPL, however).  Frequently the look is pure J. C. Penny clearance rack.  So the guys in their nicely tailored matching suit and tie stand out.  Even when they are trying to look inconspicuous. 

Generally without prior warning, these strange, suited men stop the foot traffic in the halls around the MCC.  No coffee.  Probably a good thing since no bathroom breaks either. 

Then come the dogs. 

Now, there are stories from the Apollo days of a short order kitchen on the MCC mezzanine that flight controllers could run to get a burger or some other life threatening meal quickly cooked to order.  That facility, if it ever really did exist, is long gone.  The NASA cafeteria in an adjoining building is good for breakfast and lunch only and is locked up by 2:00 PM.  It is rarely open on weekends or holidays.  Cost cutting measures and all that.  Besides, it is more than a couple minute jaunt from the MCC to the cafeteria and leaving your post (unless during LOS) is not allowed.  Kranz or Craft would have people shot if they not on duty when AOS arrived; that mentality is still present in the MCC.

One of my real surprises at the KSC Firing Room is NO FOOD OR DRINK ALLOWED.  But there folks have backups on console and can pretty much leave when they need to.  MCC in Houston is just the opposite — no backups, no leaving, but you can bring in food and drink.  It is indicative that one part of NASA would do it differently from another part; NASA is that kind of agency.  I guess I need to observe JPL more closely to figure out what they do . . .

(There is a funny story of an Apollo astronaut who spilled a whole cup of coffee into the electronics driving an MCC console.  But that will have to wait for another day).

I was pretty much always a brown bag sort of guy.  Ham & cheese or peanut butter & jelly plus fruit if my wife pestered me.  There were vending machines in the hallway for candy bars and somebody was always bringing food.  Eating is a way of dealing with the tension in mission control.  Smoking is no longer allowed so the average weight of a flight controller increases dramatically during a mission. 

But back to the dogs.  The security people bring in their dogs to sweep the MCC before the President arrives.  These dogs do not look friendly.  Their handlers display a striking lack of sense of humor.  The flight controllers are instructed to sit still and not get up.  And the dog gets to come right by you and sniff you . . . and your lunch.  I though I was going to loose my baloney sandwich to an interested German Shepard one day.

After all that, the President comes in.  Usually only to the Flight Director/Capcom console area.  They always give him one of the handheld phones and let him exchange pleasantries with the crew.  Hopefully the Commander has the intelligence not to make any political comments, but there was at least one instance where an intended joke backfired . . . .

Then, quicker than they arrived, the President and all the security guys are gone.  Time to go get some coffee . . .and visit the bathroom . . . and maybe get some chips from the machine to go with my PBJ.