The final mission in the Space Shuttle Program, STS-135, was launched ten years ago on July 8, 2011, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Several members of the immediate and extended launch team that gave Shuttle Atlantis and her four-person crew a final space send-off gathered again on the tenth anniversary of the STS-135 launch to practice the choreography necessary to launch the Artemis 1 Orion/Space Launch System (SLS) vehicle for the first time.
A few of the veterans of hundreds of countdowns in the KSC Launch Control Center spoke with NASASpaceflight about some of their Shuttle history and how they’ll bring their Firing Room experience launching Shuttles to a new generation of team members as Artemis 1 approaches.
The “Day of Launch” simulation conducted on July 8, 2021 was the first integrated simulation of major launch day activities from the “go for tanking” of vehicle propellants, through terminal countdown, liftoff, ascent, and the Trans-Lunar Injection (TLI) of Orion to the Moon.
Some Artemis launch team leaders started on Shuttle before STS-1
With the four-person STS-135 crew at the controls, Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off at 15:29:03.996 UTC on July 8, 2011 from Launch Pad 39A at KSC to begin her 33rd and final launch. Ten years later, some of the people who sent many Shuttles on their way to orbit, including the last one, are readying for the inaugural launch of the SLS on the Artemis 1 mission to send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a trip to the Moon.
Some of the Shuttle launch team veterans who were in Firing Room 4 conducting the final Shuttle launch countdown in 2011 had been working on the Space Shuttle Program since before its first launch on STS-1 in 1981.
“I started with the Shuttle program in 1979,” Roberta Wyrick, who was the prime Orbiter Test Conductor (OTC) for STS-135, said in a July 7 interview. She started out working for Orbiter prime contractor Rockwell International, and by the end of the program, through different contract changes, was working for Shuttle prime contractor United Space Alliance (USA).
“I first worked in software development for the flight controls group, moved over to the Ground Launch Sequencer (GLS) software development group and the GLS group in general, and then after STS-1 I moved to the Test Conductor Office. My first launch was STS-11/41B, and I launched STS-135.”
Wyrick served as the launch day OTC on 16 Shuttle launches; STS-11/41B in February 1984 was Orbiter Challenger’s fourth flight. “I was the first female ever to launch a space vehicle from the United States, and I felt that deep honor having [that responsibility] and that they believed enough in me to let me do that job.”
John Sterritt started on Shuttle the same year as Wyrick. “I hired in with Rockwell in 1979, when Columbia was still over in the [Orbiter] Processing Facility (OPF), as a completely green main propulsion systems (MPS) engineer,” he said. “I stayed in main propulsion throughout my career.”
“I went to a systems specialist in main propulsion and then to a launch site area manager towards the end of the program where I had multiple systems that I was technically responsible for. I certainly wasn’t the systems expert in those systems, but they held me accountable to them.”
“It gave me a chance to learn a lot more about Shuttle and its associated GSE (Ground Support Equipment), and I finished out the program on STS-135 as the launch site area manager,” he added. “I was preps and securing for the first launch, STS-1, and then was prime console operator for STS-2. And for the remainder of the launches I was either the prime console operator or a lead in the prime firing room for 124 of the 135 missions. So I was up there a lot.”
Jeremy Graeber “only” started on the Space Shuttle 25 years ago. “I started in 1996 with United Space Alliance, and I went into the Power Reactant Storage and Distribution (PRSD) system,” he said.
“[I] started out with GSE, and then over to the OPFs for GSE there, and then worked my way into the orbiters and eventually became the OV-105/Endeavour lead fuel cell engineer for that vehicle. Then, after the Columbia accident, I moved into the NASA Test Directors Office and basically flew out the Shuttle Program in that role.”
All three bring their engineering, firing room, and launch countdown experience to Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) program preparations for launching Orion and SLS on Artemis 1. Wyrick and Sterritt are now with Jacobs, the prime launch processing contractor for EGS. Graeber is with NASA EGS and is now the Chief of the NASA Test Directors (NTD) Office.
For Artemis 1, Wyrick is the SLS Test Conductor, or STC. Sterritt will be in the Main Propulsion System Specialist console, or CMSS position. Graeber is the Assistant Launch Director (ALD).
“The interesting thing when you look at STS-135’s launch team and you look at Artemis 1’s launch team, Jeff Spaulding is the Artemis 1 launch NTD. He was the Shuttle [NTD] for STS-135,” Graeber said. “I’ll be the ALD and Charlie Blackwell-Thompson is our launch director, and she was the chief NTD on launch day for STS-135.”
“So you’ve got kind of a core set of folks that built those roles still with us here working on Artemis. For STS-135, I was the assistant NASA Test Director supporting Jeff Spaulding as the Shuttle test director for STS-135.”
Graeber continued: “The view on launch day from [a] single system perspective is pretty narrow, and then as you get up into the test director world or the test conductor world, the view broadens. [That was] one of the things I learned pretty quickly moving into the NTD office.”
“In Shuttle, it was over three days of launch countdown. Every shift on that timeline, or barchart as we called it for launch countdown, is just as critical as the next shift. And as an early NTD I learned that we each have our ‘launch’ when it comes to the launch countdown, and that’s getting your shift completed successfully, all of the major milestones on-time, so you can hand over to the next NTD coming on [shift] to help keep things moving.”
“With [typically] a five minute [launch] window in Shuttle, our timelines [were] pretty tight,” he noted.
(Photo Caption: Orbiter Atlantis and the STS-135 Space Shuttle vehicle are seen from the Rotating Service Structure on Launch Pad 39A as it was retracted on July 7, 2011, for launch the next day.)
On the day of the interview on July 7, the three were getting ready for the first integrated simulation for Artemis 1 the next day on the 10-year anniversary of the STS-135 launch. “The Day of Launch sim is tomorrow, it’s a pretty long duration sim that we’ll be going through,” Graeber said.
“It’s a cross-program sim, so we’ll be connected up to the other sites and wringing out any [communications] issues or anything along those lines. And it actually goes through a nominal launch countdown, through a nominal launch and pick up on the flight control side with our flight control team in Houston. [It’s the] first time for a lot of things tomorrow, so we’re looking forward to it. It’s a really good opportunity… a chance to learn and test our team and get more proficient at the most complex aspects of our work — and that’s launch countdown,” he added.
The Artemis launch team at KSC has performed several standalone simulations over the last few years, which typically were divided into “tanking” simulations focused on the propellant loading sequence on launch day and terminal countdown simulations, which focused on the final part of the countdown through liftoff.
The Day of Launch integrated simulation spanned both periods, along with bringing in enterprise-wide support from the Eastern Test Range and United Launch Alliance locally as well as Mission Control in Houston and all the support teams at Marshall Space Flight Center, Johnson Space Center, and the SLS and Orion contractor workforce.
With the exception of the Orion Crew Module, which first flew on December 5, 2014, Artemis 1 will be the first launch of the complete SLS launch vehicle as well as Orion’s first launch integrated together with the EGS ground launch processing infrastructure. As a first launch, Artemis 1 in some ways has more in common with STS-1 than STS-135.
“When we first launched [Shuttle], we had our set of the [launch commit] criteria, a set of OMRSs (Operational Maintenance Requirements Specifications), and a set of procedures. And to us, at the time, they were thorough and complex,” Sterritt said. “But by STS-135, the amount of requirements, the amount of contingency procedures that we had developed dwarfed what had for STS-1 or -2.”
“The requirements had developed to the point where they were much more cohesive, did a much better job evaluating the systems efficiently, and [gave] us a lot of confidence that when we got to T0 we had a clean vehicle that was ready to launch. We had an incredible history of flights on the Shuttle; the configuration was well known to us. It was easy for us to look at data and recognize an anomaly.”
For Artemis 1, Sterritt added: “We don’t have that for this one. We’ve got very little data on what this vehicle is going to look like when it loads and launches here from KSC for the first time. We’re trying to be as prepared as we were for STS-135, which is a real challenge. But we’re getting there. The procedures that have been put together [for Artemis 1], the requirements, they’re amazing at how complete they are.”
Launch control console positions and roles from Shuttle to Artemis
Although SLS in particular draws on heritage Shuttle systems and design, the Orion/SLS flight vehicle has a different architecture, and the test conductor positions on the Artemis launch team reflect some of those differences. “One of the big differences [between Shuttle and Artemis is] everything went through the Shuttle Orbiter for that configuration,” Graeber noted.
“So all your flight computers, all of your fuel, everything, the crew — the central integration was the Orbiter itself for nearly all of it. For Artemis, some of those responsibilities have been distributed out amongst the several pieces of the vehicle, so logically some of those responsibilities and duties for test conductors have also been shifted.”
Wyrick added, “On SLS, we have three test conductors that are supporting. The STC is the SLS Test Conductor, and that is for the elements of the Core Stage, the ICPS (Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage), and the boosters. Then we have an Orion Test Conductor, OTC, that is specifically there to work the Orion configuration that is needed for launch, and there is quite a bit of configuration that’s still going on even though there is no crew this time.”
“And then there’s the Ground Test Conductor, who is doing all those things that are mainly behind the scenes that you don’t really hear about,” she added. “[For example,] the side flame deflectors that have to be moved into place [during the countdown], the extensible columns, the new system that we’re putting into place. There’s a lot of ground parts that are, like I said, pretty much behind the scenes but have to be done to support a successful launch.”
(Photo Caption: Firing Room 1 of the Launch Control Center is seen on July 8, 2021, during the first Artemis 1 joint integrated launch simulation. The “Day of Launch” simulation covered the launch countdown from the start of propellant loading through liftoff and Orion spacecraft separation.)
“The SLS Test Conductor, that will be my role for Artemis 1,” Wyrick said. “The [cryogenic propellant] loading, for not only Core Stage but ICPS, will be key for this mission.”
Sterritt, concurred, adding that “When we transitioned over to SLS, I came into this program as the systems specialist for main propulsion again. So I’m kind of back home in just the main propulsion group, which is nice for me as I get older and start to finish out my career. I will be in the prime Firing Room, Firing Room 1, cryo’s cluster in the Console Main Propulsion System Specialist (CMSS) position.”
While Space Shuttle was a complex system, so too is Orion with SLS. “There’s a lot more complexity in the number of systems because there’s a lot more complexity in the types of systems there are on the SLS,” Wyrick said. “I work on a system that keeps track of all the commanding that we do on the SLS and even some of the big ground things that we do. And it’s amazing to see how many things have to happen at like T-2 hours or T-1 hour and 20 minutes or whatever the time may be. Everybody wants [their commands to be] last, so we have to space those commands apart and make sure everybody is doing their job.”
There is also more automation now to handle some of the additional complexity of sending sequences of commands to the different flight and ground systems. “There’s a lot more automation, and John can speak better to this because he’s on the cryo loading team, which they have done a fantastic job of getting their system in a position to support the tanking effort,” Wyrick said. “We’re a lot more automated, but we’re also monitoring those things much more carefully.”
Sterritt picked up on that: “We take advantage of automation anytime we can; we did with Shuttle as well. We’re more advanced now as far as our ability to automate. I think probably for subsequent flights you’ll see more automation as we get smarter and the requirements get more succinct and we can do it. But we definitely take advantage of it wherever we can.”
Sterritt said that from an MPS perspective the two vehicles are complicated in different ways: “With Shuttle, for propulsion, there was added complexity in the systems because we had to support an RTLS [Return To Launch Site] abort and of course the nominal landings, so that made for additional subsystems in MPS to handle the repressurization of those systems for landing and staying out on the runways.”
“We also had a slightly more complex system in that it was reusable, so we carried our hydrogen recirculation pumps with us whereas with Artemis we use gravity feed. But of course, [on Artemis], we’ve got two stages. “[We have] the Core Stage, which is not unlike Shuttle, and [also] the upper stage. Which is a new challenge for us… and then integrating those in the ground support equipment.”
“So there’s different challenges, but I would say from a complexity standpoint they’re close to the same because of the second stage,” he added.
Graeber noted that the launch team still oversees the execution of the software commands and their results and choreographs which countdown tasks to perform and when. “Although there’s automation within much of the sequencing and the work that’s done during launch countdown, the way that we proceduralize and schedule the work is still our team working together to ensure that we’re ready to do each of the bits and pieces of configuration that we need to do at the right times,” he said.
(Photo Caption: Launch controllers in Firing Room 2 of the Launch Control Center during the Artemis 1 joint integrated launch simulation that was coincidentally held on the 10th anniversary of the final Space Shuttle launch of STS-135.)
“Ultimately, some of it is having the flexibility to — if there’s an issue with one system that we’re working through — still continue to make progress with other work. So I’d say I agree with what Roberta and John both said, but I do feel like it’s pretty similar to the way that we operated within the Shuttle Program, just newer and better capabilities to do the same kind of work.”
Graeber also spoke about similarities in the responsibilities at the test conductor and test director levels of the launch team. “The unique thing about the test director role and the test conductors [is that] for us it’s much more about having a broader understanding of the work and how things work together,” he said.
“[We need to have a broader understanding of] how that procedure is built such that you can efficiently move through the work, along with a schedule that efficiently puts the work together, [puts together] what you can do serially, and what you can do in parallel.”
“Ultimately the complexity of the flight hardware really just is manifested into that procedure and that schedule, so the jobs that the test director and test conductor have are very similar,” he explained. “It’s managing the work, identifying where you’ve got constraints and areas where you can move the work around to efficiently get down to the terminal count of launch and then get to the opening of the [launch] window.”
“So for us, some of the nomenclature changes, some of the hardware that you’ve got to become familiar with at a certain level is different, but the real core of our responsibility is very similar.”
Wyrick said that another distinction on launch day for Artemis 1 is that she will be on console early. “The loading and the countdown for Artemis 1 are so integral [to] the final part of the countdown that the same team, at least in our office, is going to be covering probably that whole portion: the loading and the final countdown,” she said.
“Where in Shuttle days you had a loading team and then you had a launch team, and they came in about three to four hours prior to launch. But here we’re going to be there probably a 12-hour day. Which is fine, not unusual, and cover that whole loading and launch time-frame.”
Working with new generation of controllers for Artemis 1
John Shannon is now Boeing’s Vice President and Program Manager for SLS, but he served as NASA’s Space Shuttle Program Manager during the final years of mission operations. Given the 10 year anniversary, “[STS-135 Mission Commander, Chris Ferguson] asked me if I could join the crew [at Kennedy] and take a look at [Atlantis],” he said in a July 13 interview. “They had dinner and they had a couple of the processing people out there as well.”
Following her final successful mission and safe return, Atlantis retired to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex down the road from her long-time Orbiter Processing Facility home. Shannon is another one of the Shuttle veterans returning to help launch Artemis 1, and on July 8 he was busy working on the Day of Launch joint integrated launch simulation.
“I wanted to [join the STS-135 crew], but we had the sim, and we had already told the program I would support it from the Huntsville headquarters building,” he said. “I will be in Firing Room 4 for the actual launch, but they set up an analog to that in one of the conference rooms here in Huntsville so I could save some travel dollars.”
“It’s nice to be in the digital, distributed network age because we were able to tie in, and it looked like we were looking right at the vehicle and all the voice loops, so you’re able to work out the [communications] with the teams. We went through a very extensive run up to the launch count.”
“[We] started at about 6 am and had T0 at about 3:30-ish [pm] and took it all the way to through to ICPS sep, so it was a long day, but man did I have fun,” Shannon said. “I kind of grew up in that world, and it was nice to get back into a pseudo console and talk on the loops.”
“I missed being with the 135 guys, but I really enjoyed watching the next generation figure out how to do it again.”
(Photo Caption: NASA management watch from Firing Room 4 of the Launch Control Center just after liftoff of STS-135 ten years ago as Atlantis and crew depart for the International Space Station. )
Managing the Shuttle Program during its flyout, Shannon worked with his management team on dual objectives. “For 135, Congress and the Administration had decided to end the Shuttle Program, and we were just really, really focused on two things,” he said.
“One was making sure that we ended the program safely because as you get to the end you worry about issues or people or losing folks or [anything] that could put the program at a risk, and so we were really focused on making sure that we had the right resources to execute the missions that were laid out.”
“The other was to make sure that we were treating the team that had brought that amazing vehicle to life, mission after mission, that they were treated with respect and that we ended the program well and helped them in whatever way that we could.”
“I was really proud of the entire team that was able to communicate regularly to the workforce to make sure that they knew exactly what we were doing and help them as we phased out of that program,” Shannon noted. “There were a lot of media that interviewed Shuttle employees on their last day [of work], and to a person I think [the message] was just ‘I was so proud I got to work on this program.'”
“[There was] a lot of pride in that workforce, and that was really gratifying to everybody on the team that we were able to end it on a really high note. We got the ISS squared away so that it could survive in the intervening years as the cargo capabilities ramped up to take the place of the Shuttle,” Shannon added. “We got Hubble serviced for a last time to allow it to last [another] ten years here, and I know they’re working through a problem right now, but knowing that team they’ll [resolve it].”
Looking ahead at preparations for Artemis 1, the Shuttle veterans noted how impressed they are with the new generation of control team members training to fly Orion and SLS. “One other thing that I’m thoroughly amazed at is how great the younger engineers that have never had a chance to launch have learned this stuff,” Sterritt said.
“In the amount of time we’ve had to put them through simulations and practice, the questions that they come and ask me are in-depth, make a lot of sense, and cause me to think. I think we have a really good launch team coming up that’s going to provide us the support we need for a long time in the future.”
Shannon’s Boeing Core Stage team recently completed the Green Run design verification campaign at Stennis Space Center and is supporting the EGS/Jacobs team that will launch Artemis 1. “You could tell they learned a lot in how to work on the vehicle during the extensive Stennis testing,” he said. “We did a complete characterization of the [Core Stage], but we also trained the team how to operate the vehicle. And that really has come out in these sims, that the team really understands how the vehicle is built and designed and should behave and what to do if there’s any issues and who to talk to.”
“I was very impressed by how far ahead the team is than where I thought they would be at this point.”
Earlier in his career, Shannon served in Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center as a Shuttle flight controller and flight director. “As far as the flight director days and the flight controller days, you have so much respect and admiration for the teams that you worked with, the people that were selfless and learned their systems and worked with the customers and worked with the crews and just did everything they possibly could to make sure the mission was as successful as it possibly could be.”
“And unless you lived in it, it was hard to imagine a more dedicated group of people that were focused on accomplishing that goal of really making those missions a success,” he commented.
“Like I said at the start of this, I’m seeing it again [with Artemis]. It’s been a tough few years here going through development and production of a brand new vehicle, but we’ve got an unbelievable national capability now that the team is figuring out how to breathe life into and operate. and I’m as excited as I can be that we’re going to get back into exploration and really be able to build those teams and execute those missions, just like when I first came to the agency.”