How a Thanksgiving Day Cock in Mission Control broke a feather

How a Thanksgiving Day Cock in Mission Control broke a feather
Zoom in / Director of Aviation James M. (Milt) Heflin, in mission control during the 1988 SDS-26 aircraft.

NASA

The phone call to Mission Control from “Mountain” in Houston came at the worst possible time. It was early morning Thanksgiving in 1991. In space, members of the crew working on the space shuttle Atlantis Were asleep. Now all of a sudden, lead aviation director Milt Heflin is facing a crisis.

The Cheyenne Air Force Base, which monitors orbital traffic, called on Heflin, an aeronautical officer at Mission Control, to issue a warning that an inactive Turkish satellite could be attached to the spacecraft in 15 minutes. Moreover, this potential debris strike occurred as the spacecraft passed through the southern tip of Africa, and communication with the crew occurred amid darkness.

Heflin’s engineers had no choice but to calculate the avoidance maneuver, wake the crew, and communicate with them before the dark period began. Heflin was brilliant — why didn’t the Air Force give much warning of a possible collision? Generally, they provide approximately 24 hours notice. By God, if that satellite hits Atlantis, Astronauts may well lose while they sleep. The crew of SDS-44 will never be awake.

An experienced aviation director who started working at the space agency two decades ago during the Apollo program, carried out maritime rescue operations after the moon landed, Heflin is largely irrelevant. But, now he was nervous. “When I think about all my times, I don’t remember ever being as nervous or sad as I was then,” he recently told Ars.

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What Heflin did not know at the time, however, was that during a routine shuttle loan to stabilize multiple Air Force payloads, he was no longer bored by his two flight controllers. No detached satellite — the reference to “turkey” in Thanksgiving has gone over his head. But the story does not end there.

Practical jokes

Again in the beginning, NASA is not the space agency we have today. Initially, especially during the Mercury program, NASA’s decision makers moved quickly, often flying through the seats of the band. Even within the sanctuary of Mission Control there was plenty of room for practical jokes.

In his book Birth of NASA, Manfred “Dutch” von Ehrenfried In 1962, he wrote about a fictional practical comedy that took place a few weeks before John Glenn’s first orbital flight on the Atlas Rocket. Chris Croft, NASA’s famous first flight director, Guided his teams through long days and nights of training, simulations and discussions on work rules for this important flight.

At the time, trips were planned and managed from the Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, and there were several scrubs up to Glenn’s flight. One night, to break the tetium, Craft’s chief lieutenant Jean Grans decided to make fun of his boss the next day when two operations were to take place simultaneously. Cronz will lead a mission simulation, while Cronz will lead a launch pad test with the Atlas rocket. While performing the mission simulation, Cronz knew that Kraft would watch the pad action on a console TV.

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Grans, who worked with John Hatcher, the video support coordinator for the control center, was an alternative to the old videocraft feed of the Atlas launch. Also, Cronz and Hatcher made time for it, and the rocket was fired as soon as Kraft flipped the “firing command” switch as part of his simulation.

Here is how von Erenfried describes what happened next in Florida:

As the simulation continues, Kraft will ask Cron how the bat test is going, and Cron will give him a straight position and a quick position check below the head. At the same time that Kraft flipped the switch when the simulation landed on the lift, Hatcher launched the old Atlas Liftoff video on the Kraft console TV. Kraft’s eyes swelled and his forehead wrinkled as he stared at the TV. He turned to Cron and said, “Did you see that?” Says. Cronz plays dumb, “See what?” Without pausing, Kraft says, “The worst thing is thrown away!” Hatcher and Grans tried to keep their faces straight, but they both couldn’t stop laughing. Kraft says, “Who did this?” Then he realized he was “there” and smiled half-heartedly. Grans and Hatcher pull the Superman Cape and survive!

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Cary Douglas

About the Author: Cary Douglas

Cary Douglas is a reporter who covers everything from oil trading to China's biggest conglomerates and technology companies. Originally from Chicago, he is a graduate of New York University's business and economic reporting program.

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