Space shuttle Discovery takes the ground crew’s hearts with it


Aerospace technician Kurt McCaughey wears a shirt commemorating the shuttle program. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)
April 13, 2012

Travis Thompson remembers the first job he did inside the space shuttle, small as it was. He painted bits of the hardware on an audio panel on the mid-deck, the shuttle’s living quarters. It was 1979. The first launch was two years away. Thompson was 19.

The kid in Calfornia who had watched space launches, who had fed on TV footage of giant rockets roaring toward the moon, was inside a spaceship.

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.

Thompson left.

“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.

People like Buddy McKenzie, shift manager for shuttle retirement. His dad was a launchpad pipefitter for the Apollo missions. As McKenzie stood under Discovery’s nose narrating a window’s removal, his words faltered. The Vietnam veteran excused himself, then apologized.

When he came back, McKenzie pointed inside the front wheel well. It’s spotless in there, shiny. “We do take care of them,” he said.

People like Vicky Turner, who spent 32 years here, most in the tile shop. As Discovery was towed out of the hangar for the last time, she unraveled a 6-by-8-foot quilt sewn from 135 mission patches — all of them. An embroidered white Discovery sat in the middle, the four other shuttles anchoring the corners. Turner wore a gray polo shirt that read, “Mission accomplished: 1981–2011.”

“I’m trying to hold back tears,” she said as Discovery eased by. “It’s going to a good place.” Turner’s quilt is also going to the Smithsonian.

People like Tim Keyser, who spent 24 years in the hangar.

“I still rush into work every morning,” Keyser said hours after Discovery had been parked in a corner of NASA’s vast Vehicle Assembly Building one final time. “These guys are going to have to kick me out of here.”

It will be decades before the world sees another spacecraft as capable and versatile, Keyser said. NASA has a spacecraft in development, Orion, but “they can keep it,” he said. It strongly resembles the 1960s Apollo capsules — it splashes down in the ocean, inelegantly, with parachutes. It can carry little cargo up and none down.

It’s not a spaceplane. It’s not the shuttle.

An Orion mock-up sits not 10 yards from Keyser as he says this.

“I like to think of Discovery as my bird, but it’s really [the workers’] bird,” said Discovery’s first pilot, Michael Coats, now director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Keeping an American icon flying isn’t a job; it’s duty. It’s life or death.

The workers are quick to point out that the orbiters – the shuttles themselves – never failed. Only twice did a shuttle engine conk out early. Both times the spaceship safely limped into orbit anyway.

A leaky rocket booster and cold weather destroyed Challenger in 1986. In 2003, foam from the external fuel tank proved fatal to Columbia. Investigations found that NASA management failed to heed warnings in both tragedies. Fourteen astronauts died.

Workers perished on duty, too.

In March 1981, as Columbia sat upright for the program’s inaugural flight, three technicians got trapped in the aft compartment as nitrogen gas was pumped in. John Bjornstad died at the scene from anoxia. Forrest Cole and Nick Mullon died later.

“They were my friends,” said Thompson. They came in together, young and eager to send America back into space after a six-year hiatus.

On March 14, 2011, another technician died on the launchpad. As Endeavour sat stacked for its final flight, James Vanover, 53, rode high on the tower ahead of his work team. Security cameras recorded Vanover “deliberately sliding off the platform and falling” 130 feet, according to the Brevard County medical examiner’s report. It continued, “Investigation revealed that [Vanover] had been depressed lately and had been drinking heavily.”

NASA and USA brought in counselors. “There were no other incidents,” said a NASA official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

But Thompson said the past year has been rough. “A lot of people have paid also by marriages and divorces, the long hours, just all kinds of stuff,” he said.

Thompson is on the phone. It is April 9, his last Monday.

He thought his job was safe. In February, his manager said so: Thompson would be kept on to help Boeing develop its new space capsule.

Two days later, that same manager told Thompson that April 13 would be the end, a month short of 34 years.

“I’m 53 — I need to work 10 more years,” he said. “So I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

For weeks, he’s been “making a fuss” as others departed; parties, little space shuttles, photos signed by the remaining workers finishing up their last closeout mission.

He’s not getting any of that.

“I sacrificed a lot and here I won’t even get a picture. I’m kind of an outcast here because I’m a pad guy and these are OPF guys,” he said, using the acronym for the hangar.

Last Tuesday , he drove out of the space center and that was that.

He aimed his truck north, crew suit and hat packed beside him for donation to the Smithsonian. Curator Valerie Neal is deciding whether to display the uniform at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall or at Udvar-Hazy.

Travis Thompson will get to watch the bird land one more time, even if it is on the back of a 747.

He spent his final workweeks inside the two remaining shuttles, finding reasons to turn wrenches.

“I still get the same feeling today I got back then. It’s just, ‘Hell, this is a spaceship,’ ” he said. “How many boys get to do that?”

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