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The View from Space: A finger on the button

By John Holliman

May 20, 1998
Web posted at: 9:36 AM EDT (0936 GMT)

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(CNN) -- When we talked last week, I ran out of time to tell you one of the most bizarre stories I've ever heard.

When a space shuttle crew gets ready to take a trip into space, it comes to the Kennedy Space Center for a series of briefings, which take place in the month before launch. One of those briefings is with a team called the Range Safety Team. It's a group of Air Force officers whose job it is to protect populated areas from any danger from rockets and other space vehicles launched from the Florida coast.

The range safety officers have the horrible job of blowing up the shuttle in case its steering system fails and it begins to move over a land mass in the seconds after launch. It's never happened, of course, but the astronauts who are preparing to launch June 2 had their meeting with Range Safety two weeks ago. Commander Charlie Precourt told me he's heard stories of astronauts showing pictures of their spouses and children to the range safety officers, to make sure the people with their fingers on the destruct buttons know that it's real human beings who will be killed in case the shuttle strays off course.

Precourt told me the briefing is standard on the part of the range safety people. They have dozens of support people out of the bunker where they work during launch, and these outside observers track the shuttle to make sure it's going in the right direction. Precourt says he hopes the officers will give the shuttle crew some suggestions about getting out or steering the shuttle away from a populated area before it's blown up.

As you listen to a shuttle countdown next time and the flight director gets his final "go" or "no-go" calls from members of the launch team, you can listen to hear the range safety officer talk. As one of the Discovery astronauts told me, there's no other job in the world where you know that a team of people is charged with killing you if your vehicle goes off course.

That's one of the many unusual facts about a shuttle launch that we will talk about over the next many months together.

Thomas coming home from Mir

By the way, the Discovery is on schedule for launch at 6:10 p.m. ET on June 2 from launch pad 39A to pick up Andy Thomas on Mir.

Speaking of Andy, we talked to him on CNN this week. He says he's counting the days and hours until he's back on Earth. A fresh supply of food, clothing and fuel arrived on Mir over the weekend. The Progress supply ship pulled up and docked Saturday. Andy told us before he left for Mir that he was taking several different cameras with him to document changes in the Earth's surface.

He spent time this week looking at large fires in Honduras and the Yucatan Peninsula. He's been able to take still pictures of the eruption of the Arenal volcano in Costa Rica.

One of the interesting hazards of long-term space flight is kidney stones. Ground-based scientists believe they know why astronauts and cosmonauts get stones more often than the rest of us, and Andy is doing experiments right now on an experiment to figure out what to do about this. Flying in space forces the body to reduce the amount of water inside. This dehydration forces more concentrated chemicals into the urine, and concentrated calcium and other substances are blamed for causing kidney stones. Andy is collecting lots of urine for examination back on Earth. It may help eliminate future kidney stones from people in space, and on Earth.

When Thomas gets back, U.S. astronauts will have completed about 1,000 days of long duration flight -- all of it aboard Mir. Included in this number is a 26-month stretch when there's always been an astronaut living on Mir. Since this is the last shuttle flight to Mir, the crew will bring home as much as it can in the way of U.S. equipment.

I asked the Discovery crew if it would be willing to take a second journey to Mir this summer, if needed, to bring more equipment home. To a person, they said yes. There must be something very attractive about this space flight business!

Space Day special events

Talk to you later this week from Space Day. I'm going to host a cyberspace special the morning of May 21. I'll be at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum with guests including John Glenn, Dan Goldin, NASA's administrator, and Sergei Krikalev, a member of the first crew of the new space station and the first Russian to fly on the shuttle. Later in the morning, I'll be chatting with Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, Walla Schirra and others about great moments in space history. If you care about space, you should be watching CNN and following Cyber Space Day right here on CNN Interactive.

One more thing -- we talk a lot about how things that happen in space help people on Earth. Here's one -- an international consortium has launched more than 70 satellites into low Earth orbit to provide telephone and beeper service anywhere on the planet. The system is called Iridium and it's being operated by Motorola. Now that the final bunch of satellites is up and working, you'll be able to make or get a phone call from any location on the planet starting this fall.

John Holliman's column appears on Wednesdays.


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