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All Aboard!

by Greg Lohning
Interviewer: Brandt Secosh
June 28, 2000

The job has just begun after the closeout crew has secured the astronauts into the orbiter in preparation for launch. As  Greg Lohning mentioned in his biography, "in the event of an emergency, most people are trained to evacuate the launch area - the closeout crew is trained to go back into the area to rescue the crew". During launch, the closeout crew is about 3-1/2 miles from the launch site. The closeout crew trains for all kinds of launch related emergency scenarios. One of the responsibilities of this team of volunteers - that's right, volunteers - is to save the lives of the astronauts in the event of an emergency - knowingly risking their own life!

In most cases the environment at the launch pad will be very risky. Hypergolic fuel will be present, potential fire, limited visibility due to smoke and in almost all conditions water will be sprayed into the area from the fire suppression system. This fire suppression system sprays 5,000 gallons of water per minute into the area and gives the crew a few extra minutes to get the astronauts out of the orbiter and to safety. For these reasons the closeout crewmembers are equipped with liquid airpacks that they carry on their backs. The airpacks weigh about 45 pounds and protect the crew from breathing in the harmful vapors that may be present. The liquid airpack provides protection for about 45 minutes to one hour. The closeout suit is flame retardant and anti-static. The cost for each suit - about $3500.00 each! The closeout crew practices extraction techniques with this equipment and the astronauts each year at Johnson Space Center, and here at the Kennedy Space Center.

If the crew becomes incapacitated, the job can get really tough. The astronauts are also wearing their launch suits that weigh 80 lbs. Imagine being a closeout crewmember, wearing all of this gear and lifting an astronaut that has a body weight of 180 pounds and flight gear 80 or more pounds. Now imagine doing this in a dark, smoke-filled environment with water being sprayed all over. Greg points out that each of the astronauts wears an red glow light on their arms so they can be located. The closeout crewmembers wear yellow lights for identification.

In most cases three of the closeout crewmembers will get the astronauts out of the orbiter and place them on the floor of the whiteroom. The astronauts are then placed in rescue chairs and rolled over to the slidewire rescue baskets. Two unconscious astronauts are place in each basket along with one closeout crewmember. The slidewire rescue basket is then released and begins a very fast slide to the landing area at the base of the bunker. Two fire-rescue personnel are waiting at the landing area to assist in getting the astronauts out. Then astronauts are taken to the bunker. In the event of a life-threatening injury the astronauts are placed in the m113 tank, armored personnel carrier (APC) and we evacuate the launch pad. Each of the closeout crewmembers is trained to drive the APC, as well as the astronauts.

(3091 bytes)Greg speaks for the entire closeout crew when he says that they take this responsibility very seriously. He stresses teamwork not only about the closeout crew but also about the job that everyone in the space program does. He does point out that members of the closeout crew are the last people to see the astronauts before they begin their journey to space. At this point, the crewmembers have trained with the astronauts and have formed a professional and personal bond with the astronauts . Once the crew hatch is closed, Greg points out that there is a sobering feeling of responsibility not only to the astronauts but also to their families. In this accompanying photograph Greg poses with astronaut Eileen Collins. Please note her comments on this photograph.

Let's put it all together now with a series of pictures from Greg showing the closeout crew in action! Click on any of the pictures to view it in a larger size.

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This photograph was taken thirty minutes prior the launch of STS-99 (Columbia) from launch  from pad 39B.

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This photo shows the closeout crew on the Orbiter Access Arm (OAA) undergoing training. The Astronaut in the rescue chair is being evacuated from the orbiter to the slidewire basket. The Orbiter Access Arm (OAA) swings out to the orbiter crew hatch allowing access to the orbiter crew area. At the end of the arm is the environmentally-controlled chamber called the "White Room" which abuts against the orbiter hatch. The OAA remains in its extended position until about 7 minutes before launch. In an emergency, it can be mechanically or manually repositioned in 15 seconds. The OAA is located 147 ft. above the pad surface. It is 65 ft. long, 5 ft. wide and 8 ft. high and weighs 52,000 lb.

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The closeout crewmembers have arrived at the slidewire basket with the astronaut in the rescue chair. If the astronauts are unconscious, the transfer from the chair to the basket becomes much more difficult. Remember that the astronaut is fully suited and time is critical! Greg explains that once the astronaut is lifted from the chair they are placed in the basket using a controlled fall.

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Once two astronauts are loaded into the basket one closeout crewmember will accompany them to the slidewire base.

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In this photograph the closeout crewmember hold up a "GONE" flag to simulate the release of the slidewire basket. After being released the basket quickly slides down a l,200-ft.-long wire to the emergency shelter bunker located west of each pad.
base_small.jpg (2668
bytes) The baskets are slowed and brought to a stop at the landing zone by a deceleration system consisting of a breaking system catch net and drag chain. The side of the basket can be opened to provide maximum access to evacuate the astronauts.
brightbasket_small.jpg (2700
bytes) This photograph shows a close up view of the astronaut being removed from the open side of the basket.
slidebase_small.jpg (2447 bytes) The astronaut is once again placed in a rescue chair by the fire-rescue team and taken to the bunker.
bunker_small.jpg (2042 bytes) In this photograph the closeout crew members are seen transferring the astronaut from the bunker to the M113 Armored Personnel Carrier.
apc_small.jpg (2698 bytes) Once the astronauts are loaded into the APC they are able to evacuate the immediate launch pad area to a pre-defined safety zone.

In closing, most of us see the closeout crew in the whiteroom securing the astronauts into the orbiter prior to launch. I was not aware, until now, that this same crew had so many more responsibilities! To each of the closeout crewmembers - Thanks for the job you do!


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