York’s shuttle astronaut Steve MacLean tests out his ride

Steve MacLean

Later this month, York alumnus Steve MacLean (right) (BSc ’77, PhD ’83, D.Sc ’93) is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis. MacLean, a member of the board of the York University Alumni Association, has been writing a diary recounting his activities as he prepares for the launch, expected to take place on or after Aug. 27. His first instalment ran in YFile’s Aug. 10 issue and the latest is below. Earlier this summer, MacLean was also featured in a YorkU magazine cover story about his career as a Canadian Space Agency astronaut working with NASA on the shuttle program. This will be 51-year-old MacLean’s second flight into space – his first was in 1992 – and his first space walk. Watch the Alumni Web site and YFile for possible updates.

Aug. 7: We had our last contingency abort-ascent-simulation runs. We did seven simulation runs, during which the instructors invoked a series of engine failures that both the mission controllers on the ground and we had to respond to in a timely fashion.

During the first three runs they failed one or two engines in first stage, well before the two solid rockets had separated. We simulated landing back at the runway at Kennedy Space Center after successfully executing a Return to Landing Site (RTLS) abort.

On the fourth run, they failed two engines, just prior to an “abort to orbit” boundary, forcing us to head for Zaragoza, Spain, and simulate landing there – even on the shuttle we all carry passports in case we make an emergency landing in a foreign country.

We were compelled to bail out into the water on our 5th and 6th runs and on the 7th we made an emergency landing in Gander, Newfoundland. I thought…well, if we have to make an emergency abort, there is no better place to land than in Canada.

That afternoon we flew to Florida for the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT). This is the dress rehearsal for the launch. For three days the controllers practise the countdown sequence with a fidelity that provides excellent training. They execute almost every step except for external tank fueling and the actual ignition sequence.

For us, Tuesday and Wednesday were to be split between a series of briefings and emergency training. Astronauts beside the emergency egress bunker and M-115 tank

Aug. 8: In the morning, we all practised driving the M-113 escape tank through a Florida swamp. We treated this seriously because we need to be operational in an emergency; but truth be told, you just feel like a kid who has finally been allowed to drive a tank at high speed. It is just “fun.”

Right: Mission STS-115 astronauts beside the M-113 escape tank at the emergency egress bunker – the end point of the emergency escape system originating at the launch tower in the background

Tuesday afternoon we had a fire & safety reminder briefing, reviewing the details of the different hazards in an emergency. Knowledge, and recognition of which fuel and temperature you might be exposed to, is critical to your survival, so we all listen intently and register the reminders seriously. In addition, we had a security briefing. All I can say here is that, unfortunately, this is much different than my first flight because of 9/11.

Aug. 9: Wednesday morning, we walked through a Mode 1 Egress out at the launch pad with our training team.

Right: The view from the 195-foot level on the launch tower out to the emergency egress bunker. Note the “basket” at left, which in case of an emergency, would slide down a wire to the bunker.

The scenario for what we call a “Mode 1 Egress” is the following: sitting on our backs, prior to launch, we would hear over the radio, “Crew, Execute a Mode 1 Egress.” Heide would open the side hatch. In pairs, we would exit the hatch, walk or crawl through the white room, out the 195 foot level gantry, pass in front of the elevators and get into a basket. In my case Dan would get into the basket first, I would follow, and once I am in, I would hit a paddle that cuts a rope and releases the baskets. The baskets would slide (with some speed) down a wire to the bunker on the outer perimeter of the launch pad. We would either stay in the bunker until the threat has cleared or we drive the tank to a pre-arranged helicopter pickup point.

From the shuttle to the bunker it takes about 2.5 to 3 minutes. If some sort of fuel leak posed a threat, this amount of time may be enough, but I believe that in most scenarios all this does is give your mind something to do before you die.

Wednesday afternoon we had the traditional shuttle and payload briefing. This is where we go over all the anomalies that exist in both the shuttle and our payload, the P3/P4 truss. I was fascinated here. On my last flight this briefing took all day and a long day at that. For this flight, Atlantis and our payload are so problem-free that we were able to get through and understand the details of these issues in just three hours; this gives me a measure of confidence for launch day.

Steve MacLean and Christopher Ferguson in the egress basketRight: Steve MacLean (right) in the emergency egress “basket” beside American pilot Christopher Ferguson

Aug. 10: Thursday morning was the countdown rehearsal. On my first launch, after the traditional morning breakfast, I stepped into the suit room and my suit tech whispered with excitement, “Steve you have John Young’s chair.” I was tickled by the thought, as John had been out to the moon twice and I was just a kid when he splashed into the Atlantic after his first spaceflight. Well, I have the same chair this time, and even though it is refurbished with new leather they say it will still bring good fortune.

There is so much tradition on launch day that each step you take has a previous story or legend, and in spite of the stories from the past one really has a sense of the present. The suit up, the leak checks, and the card game (five card poker where the commander must lose before we go), the walkout from crew quarters, the astronaut van to the pad, the brief walk under the vehicle contemplating the beast, the elevator to the 195 foot level, the gantry, the white room, the donning of your harness, the handshake and the words, “God speed” – you cannot help but feel that you have been given the chance to contribute.

Left: Steve MacLean’s view as a passenger on the “three ship”

We had a very clean countdown ending in a simulated centre engine that did not respond to the start sequence. Our computers flashed the failure at us and Launch Control spoke in our ear, “Crew: Execute a Mode 1 Egress.” We did just that with precision all the way to the basket. Once in the basket the egress practice is over. It is considered too dangerous for us to practice sliding down the wire in the basket.

On Thursday afternoon, the four astronauts who will do the space walk on this mission spent three hours out at the pad in a payload walk down. We concentrated on and visualized each of our three space walks much the way an Olympic athlete does prior to the event.

We then headed back to Houston in a three ship (three small NASA jets flying in formation). The flight was uneventful…a smooth ending to an excellent week.   

Artist's drawing of International Space Station after the missionThe P3/P4 truss in the payload bay. Two of the four solar array blanket boxes dominate the middle of the picture.