Thirty-three years later, Thompson welcomed a visitor to the retired space shuttle Discovery with those same words: “You’re inside a spaceship.”
Thompson was at ease on the mid-deck floor, back against the forward bulkhead, legs out, ankles crossed. He was escorting a photographer — a perfect excuse to hang out here pretty much all day.
It was this January, three months before Discovery was scheduled to fly away for good, and Thompson was approaching the end of a long career. He has “turned wrenches” in the engine compartment, the payload bay, the cabin. For 27 years, he was a launchpad guy on the close-out crew that strapped in astronauts and sealed the hatch. He led that crew for a decade, a big numeral “1” on the back of his white jumpsuit.
And he had been on Discovery’s flight deck when two workers yanked at electrical lines, ripped out wires to get the ship ready for display at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
“I felt like someone was slapping my daughter right in front of me,” he said. “Like someone was kicking my grandmother.”
After every launch he closed out, Thompson pulled the patch from the breast of his suit and tossed it into a shoebox. He counted 70 in the box in his closet. There’s a second box somewhere, maybe at his mom’s house, with the rest; he doesn’t know how many. “That’s like counting your money at the table,” he said.
Twice Thompson’s quick actions avoided launchpad scrubs, saving taxpayers a million or so dollars in overtime and fuel. He once zipped down to his truck, grabbed a gasket, rode up to the shuttle door, and resealed the hatch in 10 minutes, with not too many more to spare.
When Discovery rolls into Udvar-Hazy this week, the moment will mark the end of two careers: that of NASA’s hardest-working spaceship, and that of Travis Thompson.
He represents the thousands of technicians and engineers who kept the shuttles flying, who babied the machines, rooted around in their guts, hand-glued 20,000 ceramic tiles to their bellies, made them safe to soar.
Discovery will now rest in a museum, inanimate. But the craft itself will serve as a potent reminder of the thousands of people who animated the machine, made it fly. The exploits of Discovery’s astronauts have been well told, but the stories of the workers — their sacrifices, their heroics — have largely been shielded from view.
These workers who kept Discovery aloft couldn’t be more American if you called central casting. They work for a company called USA, United Space Alliance. They’re not civil servants — they’re contractors. And there aren’t many left on the hangar floor.