Space Shuttle Endeavour launched on its STS-69 mission on September 7, 1995. The orbiter and stack had rolled back to the VAB on Aug. 1 to avoid the effets of Hurricane Erin. I was one of the capcoms (astronaut communicator working in Mission Control) for the mission, and I had never seen a space shuttle stack move out to the launch pad. So I took advantage of an invitation from the STS-69 crew (Dave Walker, Ken Cockrell, Jim Voss, Mike Gernhardt, and Jim Newman) to join them for the rollout. Our pair of T-38s headed from Ellington Field near Johnson Space Center for the Cape on the afternoon of Aug. 7, 1995.
After spending the night at astronaut crew quarters, we were up the next morning to join Endeavour on her roll to the pad, which had begun in darkness at 1:55 am. We drove out to the crawlerway, once the route of Saturn V moon rockets to the pad, catching a heart-stopping view of the shuttle stack about two-thirds of the way to Launch Pad 39A. We parked along the road to step aboard the Mobile Launch Platform and get up close to the orbiter I’d flown twice in the previous year (STS-59 and STS-68).
I had never boarded the MLP while in motion, but it was easy to jump aboard the gangway at its 1 mph pace along the crushed river stone of the crawlerway and climb to the deck. Here I was within touching distance of the Endeavour stack, this time unprotected from any pad structure, as on my prelaunch visits to my ship in 1994. Endeavour was independent and self-supported, gliding toward its appointment with orbit, oblivious of the human gnats buzzing around her with a Nikon draped around their necks.
I think the focus on the above shot is a bit soft, due to the early morning light at the Cape–we got their shortly after dawn. The two tab-shaped gray structures on either side of the orbiter’s tail also belonged to the MLP. They housed the T-minus-zero umbilicals (“T-zero umbilicals” was how we said it), those clusters of gas, power, and propellant lines that fed into the ship on either side, just below the OMS pods. Through these umbilicals the external tank received its propellants, the orbiter received commands and electrical power and sent back telemetry, and its plumbing was furnished with gaseous nitrogen for purging the payload bay and engine compartment. At zero in the count, the umbilical panel was yanked away by a falling counterweight, retracted into the gray structure, and protected from the fierce exhaust blast by armored doors that slammed down over the now-recessed umbilical plate.
While pacing the MLP and craning my neck back to look up at Endeavour (as close as I’d been since my landing at Edwards on STS-68 the previous October), I had to get myself in the picture. I’d lived aboard this ship in space for three weeks in 1994, yet it was still hard to wrap my head around that reality. How is it possible that we could have hurled this entire machine into space at five miles per second, with six humans aboard, and brought it back safely to Earth? We have deliberately chosen to walk away from this national capability. Today, if we don’t choose to use these machines any longer, we must quickly–very quickly–develop an alternative national means to send our people to space. Not accelerating this development is sheer negligence on a national scale.
We dropped back to Earth again, stepping onto the crawlerway for a few more photos as the mobile launcher neared the incline to the top of Pad 39A. These views just kept me grinning and shaking my head in awe. I will be similarly amazed when a mobile launcher carries the first Space Launch System booster to its pad.
Endeavour, OV-105, began its ascent of the ramp to 39A as I took up a perch on the Rotating Service Structure, seen to the left in the photo above. This was the rail-mounted “gantry” that would swing in behind the orbiter, once it was in position, and enclose most of the orbiter for protection from the weather. It would also provide clean-room access to the payload bay, enabling technicians to transfer payloads from a mobile canister from the RSS into the payload bay. For me, the top of the RSS provided a fantastic photo vantage point for me and the Nikon F4 I’d borrowed from the photo lab at JSC.
From atop the RSS I head the constant roar of the crawler’s diesels (in turn powering electric motors that drive the tracks) as it mounted the pad elevation.
If there’s anything that will bring a grin to your face, it’s the sight of a spaceship almost imperceptibly rolling up alongside of you. The orbiter seemed to say: “Comin’ through! I’m headed for orbit. Stand aside!”
Endeavour pulls even with the pad structure as I stood, amazed, just above the orbiter White Room level on the RSS.
Here, the crawler would lower the stack onto the four massive launch platform pedestals, then drive back down the incline for its next job. Back on the MLP deck, I got a look at the base of the external tank and its structural connections to the solid rocket boosters. Each booster is held to the platform by 4 massive bolts and nuts, which shatter under explosive detonations at T-minus-zero.
I flew home later that afternoon, with Ken Cockrell at the controls. I hope he’ll be able to figure out who the crew is in T-38 #907, based on the helmet colors in the photo. STS-69 launched on September 7, 1995:
My thanks to the STS-69 crew for allowing me to share their orbiter’s rollout, and for inviting me to work with them as a capcom on their mission. Of course, Ken Cockrell and I flew together just 14 months later on STS-80. But that’s another story. See my website here for more details: