The View from Space: A finger on the button
By John Holliman
May 20, 1998
Web posted at: 9:36 AM EDT (0936 GMT)
In this column:
(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
That's one of the many unusual facts about a shuttle launch
will talk about over the next many months together.
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.
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!
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.