Week 26
December 6 - 10, 2004

We had more Shuttle training this week. I believe that that will be a common opening statement for the next few months. Our first class was on the main propulsion system. The main propulsion system includes the three main engines, which are only used during a launch, and all the equipment that makes them tick. The main engines are driven off of the cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen that is stored in the external tank. They produce about 30 percent of the thrust needed for a launch (the rest being produced by the solid rocket motors). I find it amazing that so much power can be produced with nothing more than oxygen and hydrogen. Although, I reckon the sun is pretty good at using hydrogen as a fuel.

After the main propulsion system class we had a class on the usage of what is called the Ascent/Entry Checklist. You may think, "A whole class on how to use a checklist? " This checklist is the main checklist that is used by the crew during the launch and landing phases of a flight. As you might imagine, it is a fairly complicated checklist because it has to handle not only the procedures for when there are no issues but also the procedures for when there are problems. The procedures in this checklist include those used by the Shuttle commander, the pilot, and the mission specialists who are sitting on the flight deck. Because the crucial flight information has to be at the fingertips of the commander and pilot, the checklist is actually broken up and packaged differently for the two of them. The mission specialists have everyone's procedures in a complete book while the commander and pilot have portions which are put on cards that are stuck with Velcro to the Orbiter near the forward windows. This allows them to be able to read the time-critical parts of the checklist without having to look in their laps. So, it is because of all these checklist nuances, we had the class. And, yes, the human space flight program really does run on Velcro.

Speaking of Velcro, here is a fun fact that I learned in one of my classes last week - Velcro is short for velour crochet. Who knew? At any rate, the Ascent/Entry Checklist class was not to teach about performing a launch or landing, it was to give us an overview on how to read, follow, and use these particular procedures.

At the end of the day I was scheduled for my last T-38 syllabus flight - night formation flying. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating and I was not able to complete that training requirement. But I was still able to go flying. There were storms in the area and neither one of the pilots that were to fly our two plane formation really wanted to try doing a formation flight in such conditions. It is hard enough to fly formation without the added complications of doing it at night much less doing it at night in the weather. So, we scrapped the training requirement and flew as a mini-convoy. We went over to Lake Charles, did several approaches, then landed at the Chennault airport and had dinner. This time I had a shrimp po-boy - very tasty. After hanging out for awhile we convoyed back.

Since we were not able to complete the required syllabus flight, I will be rescheduled for it at some point. But, because I am at the end of my syllabus, I have now been put into the general pool of mission specialists who need to fly a required amount of hours each quarter in order to keep skills up. For the next two years, while my class is still building our skills, the requirement for us is 100 hours of flying for the year, with a minimum of 20 hours each quarter. After that, the requirement drops to 48 hours per year. This basically means that, for the time being, I should try and fly at least once a week. However, since I am no longer doing the syllabus, I have to worry with my own scheduling and work out flights with pilots when I can (and, of course, they can't be during any of my other training classes). What this really means is that my life gets to be a little more complicated and my days get a little busier.

Tuesday morning we started off with another class on checklists. This time we learned about the checklists which are used during the main portion of a flight, what NASA calls the "on-orbit " phase. Don't ask me why it is on-orbit and not in-orbit. I have never figured that out. In the afternoon I had my first, of what I am sure will be many, session in a single system trainer. This was a one-on-one class with an instructor in a mini-simulator that is used to teach one system at a time (hence, the name single system trainer). This particular class was an introduction to the procedures associated with the data processing system. I learned how to flip the right combination of switches to manipulate the software on the computers (how to load it, how to switch from the primary software to the backup software, how to transition the software from one phase of flight to the next, etc.). We covered a lot of ground in this class and I can only imagine what the classes will be like when I am dealing with multiple systems at a time or when the trainers start putting in failures that I have to react to.

We spent Wednesday morning learning about the electrical power system - how the fuel cells work and how the electricity is routed throughout the Shuttle. The Shuttle combines cryogenic oxygen and hydrogen to make water and electricity. Isn't that neat - in one case the hydrogen and oxygen is used to create enormous amounts of thrust and in another case the same materials are used to make electricity. In the case of the fuel cells, water is a by-product. It is routed to tanks to be stored for drinking and food hydration.

Wednesday afternoon I had another T-38 flight. This one was really fun. We flew over to El Paso. The pilot needed to go to El Paso in order to fly in the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA). The STA is a G4 that has been modified to be able to fly like the Shuttle. The left cockpit has been redone so that it looks like a Shuttle cockpit and the right cockpit is a regular G4 cockpit. The astronaut pilot doing training sits in the left, the instructor sits in the right. A typical training flight will consist of many, many approaches. The approach profile is like a Shuttle landing - a very steep glide slope. The approaches will end when the G4 is about 20 feet above the ground, simulating the height-above-ground view that the commander and pilot will have when a Shuttle touches down.

The flight from Ellington to El Paso usually takes about an hour. We took a bit longer to get there because we stopped in at Midland on the way. Once we arrived in El Paso, we waited a short while for the first crew who was out flying the STA to return. It turns out that the STA had developed some gyro problems while they were out flying, and the second training run was cancelled. We ended up flying back to Houston a lot sooner than we had planned and my pilot was not able to get the training he needed. It happens. The flight back was absolutely beautiful. It was a very clear night in West Texas. There were at least a bazillion stars out and the Milky Way was visible over our heads. Saturn was also up. Because we were flying at 33,000 you could see the glow of city lights from all over Texas. The airwaves were fairly quiet and all of this put together made for a very peaceful and inspiring flight.

Thursday was back to the classroom with a lesson on the communication systems. We learned about the Shuttle's two S-band systems (PM and FM), the Ku band system, the UHF system, and the internal audio and TV systems. In addition, we were taught about the ground sites and satellites that support all these communication systems as well as how data is routed to and through the Orbiter. My schedule was free Thursday afternoon, so I did some studying.

Friday was a rather light day. The office had its annual Christmas party/luncheon and because of that we did not have any classes scheduled in the morning. I finished up my week with a Russian lesson.

© Shannon Walker   2004

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Revised 12-31-04