Space Shuttle Launch Pad 39B

Space Shuttle Launch Pad 39B with me in the picture.

Photo by Jack Petty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MacLaren's in there somewhere, dammit.

Can you see me yet?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I'm tellin' ya, I'm really in there.

How about now?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yeah, it's a little blurry. Oh well.
Surely you can see me now, right?
Yeah, it's blurry, I know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All nice and labeled up for you.

All nice and labled up for you.

 

A Techno-Redneck's Encounter With
NASA's Satellite

To understand how we got mixed up with, and nearly killed by, a flight-ready payload stack in the clean room at Space Shuttle launch Pad 39-A while wearing dirty street clothes, you have to know a little about how Pad 39-B was built.

You also need to know some of the alphabet soup that everything NASA deals with is christened in. When the gobbledygook letters pop up try to remember what each different flavor of gobbledygook stands for. I'll explain things as they are introduced but after that you're on your own.

The basic premise that all decisions were made on, was that Pads A & B were 'twins' and whatever was on Pad 39-A (which was built first) was also on Pad B. This premise extended from the top (NASA) down and wasn't seriously questioned by anybody until it was too late to do anything about it. It was not a very good premise.

When Pad A was constructed, there was about a zillion design changes along the way. Despite various accusations that were hurled back and forth between customer, prime contractor, subcontractor, and other parties, this is a normal situation for a job of this size. Nobody can think of everything, and when they don't there's gonna be a change order issued to fix the lapse. No problem, right? Well, it depends.

Anyway, all those changes were incorporated into the contract design drawings for Pad B so as the same mistakes wouldn't be repeated the second time around.
A laudable idea.

One small problem however, they lost a few things along the way. Documentation. Nickey pickey pain in the ass paperwork. The result of which was that Pad A and Pad B were NOT twins. Not at all. But the differences were sneaky. Stuff you'd never pick up on a casual inspection of things.

So. For this reason Jack Petty the tech rep and I found ourselves having to figure out how to cope with a world of stupidities, errors, and omissions at Pad B while the work was in progress.

Since there was only so much of us to go around, and since we didn't have time to reinvent the wheel from scratch every time, and since there was a whole bunch of stuff over at Pad A that we could just drive over to look at to see what they did to fix it, we fell into the habit of taking regular trips to Pad A to see if problems we were wrassling with at B had been solved at A.

And lots of times the fix was right there. So we just drew a picture of it and then proposed it as a fix for whatever was the matter over at B. The engineers loved it.

Saved 'em a ton of work running calcs and getting approval from the higher ups. After all, everybody knew that Pad A and Pad B were twins so whatever previously got proposed and approved at A was sure to get approved at B.

After enough trips to Pad A, all the folks over there got pretty used to seeing us come rattling up in Jack's car.

Maybe a little too used to us.

So, one fine day when the ironworkers are trying to make a square connection for the KU band antenna access platform mounting haunch onto the angled steel beam of the level #5 PCR (Payload Change-out Room) interior platforms support steel and the stupid thing won't go, the answer was obvious.

Road trip!

To Pad A.

Well ok. Here we go. Down beach road and onto the Pad A access road. Past the flashing amber warning lights out on the pad perimeter road.
"Flashing lights?"
"Aw shit."
"Hazardous operation in progress."
"They're never gonna let us in there today. Paying for a whole crew of ironworkers to sit around with their thumbs up their asses waiting for an answer to this is gonna be pricey."

"Well wait a minute, maybe it's over in some remote corner of the pad like the LOX (Liquid OXygen, a kind of rocket fuel) tank or something. Maybe they'll let us in the PCR. It's worth a try."
"Ok. Let's try."

And up to the guard shack we go.
"Hey, is the PCR open?"
"Yeah, but you'll have to park the car down here and walk the rest of the way up the pad slope to get there."
"No problem, here's our badges. Thanks."
And so we park the car by the badge board and get out.

Now, at this point you've gotta stop and visualize the situation.

The pad's a big place. It sits inside a sort of round cleared area about a half mile across. The pad itself is a concrete hill 50 feet high. Its got long sloping sides and the south side (roughly a quarter mile in length) is where the Shuttle is driven up to the top of the pad atop the MLP and crawler/transporter. It's also where the guard shack sits, down at the toe of the pad slope, just inside the perimeter fence.

That's the place where you stop and show your credentials to an armed guard who may or may not let you in.

Up on top of the pad is a gigantic steel contraption. That's what we were building back on Pad B. It's huge. About 350 feet tall from the elevator door threshold on the pad surface (which is already 50 feet up, remember?) to the top of the long white vertical cigarette of the lightning mast (gotta picture at home with me standing on top of THAT, but that's a different story).

The part we're interested in is called the RSS (Rotating Service Structure) and you get to that by taking the elevator in the FSS (Fixed Service Structure) up to the 135 foot level and walking across a catwalk over a lethal drop of empty space to get to.

Inside the RSS is the PCR (Payload Change-out Room if you've forgotten).

The PCR is the holiest of holies. It's cleaner than anywhere you've ever been. Including the operating room at the hospital. It's where technicians service 100 million dollar satellites just before they get launched. Stuff that's gonna go up in space and take pictures of Fidel Castro's beard and things like that. Everything inside is absolutely spotless. The technicians are covered from head to toe in 'bunny suits' so they won't gum up the satellites with terrible contaminants like maybe a hair. Or a single grain of sand.

Got the picture? Good. Lets get back to the story.

So there we are.

Right next to the guard shack where the guy who just gave us authorization to enter the PCR was sitting. Right next to the group of ambulances and fire trucks that was parked on the crawlerway up against the closed crawlerway gate there at the foot of the pad slope. With drivers and paramedics and guys like that sitting around on standby. Right next to the Lockheed security monitor sitting there in his van parked near the bottom of the pad slope roadway where the pad perimeter road crosses it. Right next to the flashing warning light. And the portable sign that said 'stop'. And the other portable sign right next to it that said 'personnel not permitted beyond this point'.

If we'd had a brain in our heads we wouldda just said to hell with it and gone straight back to Pad B.

But we didn't.

So ok, let's go. Up the pad slope for a long trudge uphill in the hot Florida sun. From where we started, there by the assembled security, rescue, and fire personnel, the direct route up the pad was right through those two portable signs that said `stop' and 'personnel not permitted beyond this point'. Those signs were close enough to each other that I touched 'em both as I walked through.

And right past the Lockheed security monitor in his van as we headed on up the slope.

He waved at us as we went by.

We waved back and smiled.

And as we get farther and farther up on the pad it's getting quieter and quieter.

Real quiet.

No machinery running.

Not a soul around.

Echoey.

Lonesome.

Spooky.

"Umhh, kimosabe. Heap big quiet around here. Me thinkum too quiet."

Jack laughed.

And here we are at the foot of the FSS.

Right where the guard that checks your badge to be sure you're allowed to be up there (being allowed inside the pad perimeter fence don't mean you're allowed up on the tower, you gotta have the proper numbers on your badge) sits in his/her little cubicle.

Except that there's nobody there.

"Think we oughtta tell somebody about this?"
"Nah...maybe after we get back down. We got work to do."
"Ok."

Press the button and the elevator door opens up, and up we go.

And out at the 135 foot elevation level.

Not a soul to be seen or heard.

Just a light breeze whispering through the steel structure.

Across the catwalk to the PCR anteroom for another badge check and sign in ceremony. Once again, just being up on the tower don't mean you're authorized entry into the PCR. Gotta have the good numbers on your badge. And open the door and there at the security desk sits....

Nobody.

"Boy, I don't like this. This is gettin weird."
"Me neither. Where the hell is everybody, anyway?"
"I dunno. Whatta ya wanna do?"
"I dunno. May as well go on in. We got work to do."
"Ok."

Through the air shower. It's a little phone booth of a closet with doors on both sides (ya gotta walk THROUGH it to get into the PCR) where strong jets of filtered air blow dirt and contaminants off ya. So as you don't ruin the sensitive payloads that may or may not be stashed in the PCR. Which of course we don't bother to turn on. After all, there's nobody around. Nothin's goin on. Not required.

And into the airlock. Where you put on your bunny suit and stuff so as to keep the PCR in its pristine state of cleaner-than-an-operating-room-at-the-hospital cleanliness.

Hundred million dollar payloads don't like to get dirty.

So Jack, God love him, says, "Well let's at least put on the booties."

The booties are sittin there on a shelf in the airlock for anybody to pick up and put on. For the rest of the 'bunny suit' you gotta go down into the bowels of the pad, inside that 50 foot concrete hill, to a place called the PTCR (Pad Terminal Connection Room) and requisition it from a guy who stands there behind a dutch door. He hands it to you hermetically sealed in a plastic bag you gotta TEAR open.

This makes not a lick of sense to me. But I go ahead and pull these pitiful little booties, low-top cheap- cloth slippers really (but cleaner than hell of course), over the bottoms of my big, clunky, filthy construction boots anyway.

Just to make Jack happy.

Otherwise we are in no way different from the way we were an hour ago, crawlin around on the grungy, half-built structure of Pad B.

Now, once again we've gotta stop and visualize this.

There we were in the airlock.

On the other side of THOSE DOORS, yeah those double ones RIGHT THERE, on the other side of those doors is the holiest of holies.

The PCR.

The altar where supplicants come to pay homage to the Great God Teck-No-Logy.

Where human hair isn't allowed fer chrissakes.

Where you can't hardly breathe for fear of ruining some damn thing or other that costs more than the gross national product of half the countries in the world.

And we're groady!

Little clouds of dust are comin off us as we walk.

And hair.

And dirt.

And who knows what the hell else that satellites that are so expensive it'll make you vomit are allergic to.

We've been crawlin around on a half built structure with tobacco spittin ironworkers just a half hour ago.

We're cruddy.

We're crusty.

We're covered in dirt as only a construction site can produce.

And we're going on in.

Pray for us.

While we're on the subject, and I can see people out there scratching their heads and going 'What on God's good Earth did these two yo-yos think they were doing by going in there?'; allow me to explain what we were doing by going in there.

The PCR ain't always so holy. Sometimes it's about as holy as your neighbor's tool shed in the back yard. I'm assumin your neighbor ain't the Pope. When there's no gillion dollar machines to fool around with, or no Space Shuttle on the pad, they take down all that fancy security apparatus and the place is basically open to all comers who get past the guard at the fence way down there at the foot of the pad slope.

Lots of work gets done during these periods and we'd been around for our share of it. If it hadn't been for the assembled emergency vehicles, the flashing amber warning lights, the utter lack of people on the pad, and the deathly silence, it would have been just another day when the pad was open to all comers.

And open the airlock doors to the PCR and...the PGHM's in the way.

It's rolled forward and we can't see diddly.

The PGHM (Payload Ground Handling Mechanism, pronounced `piggum') is a great big five story tall machine with more knobs, levers, stairways, platforms, and mysterious protuberances of all kinds than you can imagine. Looks like something out of one of those old cheap Japanese science fiction movies. And it rolls back and forth inside the PCR on a set of guide rails while it's supported from above by a seriously stout, great big beefy bridge crane.

When the PGHM's rolled forward, it basically fills up the whole damn PCR, which is a BIG room by the way. The PCR's about 70 feet tall, by maybe 50 feet square. A little like one of those atrium things in a fancy hotel where the elevators are made outta glass and ride up and down on the walls.

Kinda hard to imagine something as big and goofy looking as the PGHM even fitting inside the PCR. But it does.

The PGHM's job is to grab hold of the squillion dollar, twenty foot tall, metallic insects that are gonna fly in space and hang on to 'em where the technicians can give 'em the real thorough going over that they all get before they fly.

After that's done, the PGHM rolls forward to where the 60 foot tall doors on the front of the PCR are open and deposits the squillion-dollar metallic insects inside the payload bay of the Space Shuttle.

So anyhow, we open the airlock doors and there sits the PGHM. Just sittin there about two thirds forward, fillin up the whole room to where you can't see around inside.
The place we wanna go is right up on the underside of the set of fixed platforms (fixed as in not mobile) at level 5 on the platform set (there really IS a lot of crap inside the PCR) that's on the far side of the PCR from where we were comin through the doors.
That's where the KU band antenna platform mounting haunch was supposed to go. Except the drawing was all honked up and it wouldn't.

You get there by taking the PCR interior elevator, and you get to the elevator by walking around the front of the PGHM to the far side of the PCR to where the shiny stainless steel door to it is located.

So that's what we did.

Well, almost anyway.

We didn't quite make it to the elevator right away 'cause when we rounded the front of the PGHM we both liked to shit in our pants and stopped dead in our tracks.

There, right there in front of us, right there where we coulda carved our initials in it if we'd wanted to, right there bein held up by the good old PGHM, was 60 feet of live payload stack for the next Space Shuttle mission. RIGHT THERE!!

Right there next to Jack and me standing there in our incredibly filthy clothes.
With the cute little booties on our feet.

To say the least, we couldn't believe what our eyes were tellin us.

No way!

In fact, with very little mental effort, I very quickly convinced myself that it musta been some kind of mock up or simulator or...anything but what it really was.

Yeah, that's it, it's just some kind of mock up for a fit check or something.

Yeah.

But it was a really good mock up.

Had everything.

At about waist level, three feet from my bulging eyeballs, was the rocket nozzle on the bottom of the IUS (Inertial Upper Stage) that was gonna propel the next TDRSS (Tracking Data Relay Satellite, I dunno what that second S stands for, pronounced 'teedress') into geosynchronous orbit twenty-two thousand and some loose change miles straight up.

Up from the nozzle was the main body of the IUS. Nice and round. I had never before really appreciated just how big that baby is. And kinda got a ribbed look to it on the body panels (or whatever they call them). Didn't look very spacey or aerodynamic or anything like that. Just a big piece of hardware. And up at the very top of it, it got wider. Kinda flared out a little so as the very widest point was also the very toppest. Made it look upside down or something. Like maybe they put the nozzle on the wrong end. Looked funny. 

Above that (and ya gotta remember we're talkin fifteen, twenty feet above the floor where we were standing with our jaws hanging open) was the TDRSS.

Weird lookin.

I mean really weird.

All slick shiny blue black. And not round. Kinda square or hexagonal or something. And on top of all that shiny blue black was more damn gold than I'll ever see again in my life. Gold by the square yard. Gold foil, gold sheets, gold boxes, and gold antennas, all folded up and looking REALLY SPACEY and spindley and weirdly delicate.

And scarey.

Lotta goddamned gold!

And way up above the TDRSS, up in the rafters of the PCR (well not rafters really, the PCR ain't got rafters) safely tucked in the arms of mother PGHM was an ANIK (I think) resting atop its upper stage rocket bottle. ANIK's a Canadian Eskimo word for hideously expensive or something. It was a Canadian communications satellite. But since it was so far away up there, it didn't look like much. That same shiny blue black but smooth round. And without all that gold all over the place. Or at least not where we could see it from where we were standing in slack-jawed amazement.

So after what seemed like forever, we both turn around and look at each other.

"That's gotta be a mock up."
"Ya think?"
"Yeah! Has to be!"
"Howcum?"
"Because if it was real, there's no way theyda let us in
here like this!"
"Ya think?"
"Yeah! Has to be! Get serious."
"Well....I don't know. Sure looks real to me."
"Yeah...it does, doesn't it? I'm gonna go back to the car and get my camera so I can take a picture of it."
"WHAT?!!"
"Sure, why not? I've got a camera permit. Why shouldn't I?"
"Because you're a lunatic, that's why!"
"Whatta ya mean?"
"Look, if this thing's real then they're probably gonna throw us both in jail forever when they find out what we've done by going in here. And if you go takin pictures of it,  that'll just make it worse."
"Ya think?"
"Yes!"
"I'll tell ya what, if we get finished with our work in here, and no sirens or horns go off, and they don't carry us off in the back seat of a car with no inside doorhandles, we'll just go back down to the car and get the camera and bring it back. Tell 'em we forgot to get a lay-out of the haunch or something. Ok?"
"Boy...I don't know."
"Aw come on. As long as they don't arrest us then it must be ok. Right?"
"Well...."
"Not until we're completely finished with the work. Ok?"
"Oh....ok. Come on, we got work to do."
"Ok."

And so it's off to the PCR elevator we go. Press the button and up we go. And out at PCR interior platform level number 4.

Time for more visualizing.

When the elevator door opens up, you walk out into a funny looking triangular shaped room. It's called the elevator lobby but it don't look like any lobby I've ever been in. Just a plain looking metal room with maybe some junk stacked up against the walls. No frills. With a doorway (no door, just a doorway) that opens out onto the PCR interior platforms.

The PCR platforms are a series of porch-sized open spaces on either side of the center of the PCR where the PGHM fits.

And it's a very close fit indeed. The PGHM sits there between the fixed platforms with not an inch to spare. You can step right over onto it.

The fixed platforms (interior, fixed, it's all the same thing) provide access to the PGHM and whatever payload it's cradling up above floor level.

There's five levels of fixed platforms and we wanted to look at the underside of level 5 where our old friend the KU band antenna access platform support haunch lives.

So ok, out of the elevator and through the doorway.

And there, sitting right smack dab in the middle of the doorway where ya gotta squeeze around it to get through, is a computer console sitting on a little table. Although we said nothing about it to each other at the time, we both thought the same thought when we saw the computer.

"Funny, I don't remember ever seeing that thing here before."

And through the doorway.

"Whoooooo....lookit that!"

As it happened, we had come out on the platforms at the exact level of all that gold on top of the TDRSS.

Verrrry impressive.

It was big too. Filled up the whole space between the two sets of interior platforms on either side of the PCR to the point where you couldn't even see the other platform set on the other side of the room.

Gobs and gobs of ultra high tech lookin stuff all covered in shiny shiny gold.
Gold boxes, gold wires, an acre of gold foil.

And really weird lookin gold plated antennas and stuff.

And whenever you moved, it glittered with reflections from the very ample lighting inside the PCR.

It was stupefying.

It took us a while to recover our senses.

"Now I really AM starting to think it's real."
"Yeah."
"Wouldja just look at all that stuff!"
"Phew."
"Ever see anything like that before in your life?"
"Oh yeah sure, I got three of these back in my garage at home."
"This is just incredible."
"Ya think anybody'd believe us if we told 'em about it?"
"Nope."
"Yeah, not to mention the fact that we'll probably never get out of jail to do any talkin about it."
"Hey, get back you idiot! You wanna contaminate it?"
"Sorry. I forgot."
"We've probably already ruined it."
"Don't say that!"
"Look, whatever's gonna happen is gonna happen. Quit starin at it. We got work to do."
"Ok."

And it's off to work we go.

"Let's see here, how'd they put this haunch in here anyway?"
"Look!"
"Unh huh. They kluged it in there."
"Yep. Just like what we wanted to do over on B."
"Yeah. Cut to suit, beat to fit, and paint to match."
"Got your sketch pad?"
"Yeah, right here. Go over there with my tape and measure that."
"Ok."

And on and on.

And then we're done.

"When we get back, I'm gonna come up here and take some  pictures of this, too."
"You're sick!"

All those thoughts of taking pictures got to me, and I just had to look around some more. So we both kinda walked over to the very front corner of the platform so we could kinda look around to the other side of the TDRSS and see more gold and stuff.

And also see the other platform set across the way there, on the other side of the PCR.

And there, on the other platform, right there on the same level we were on, not more than 25 feet away from us, was a guy!

But he's not a normal guy. He's in SCAPE. A full, by God, with all the hoses and everything, SCAPE suit.

A word or two at this point about SCAPE (Self Contained Atmospheric Protective Ensemble).

In a word, it's death.

You die.

SCAPE suits are worn around the Cape by folks who have to do things to equipment and such like when the air is rendered unbreathable by the horribly poisonous and corrosive rocket fuel and who knows what the hell other kind of secret things that are stored all over the place out on the Cape.

Some of the stuff out there is beyond belief.

Really nasty.

You sure as hell don't wanna pour it over your corn flakes.

And so, in order to ward off the evil effects of this stuff on human flesh, they dress up in SCAPE.

And when they say 'self contained' they're not kidding. A SCAPE suit is exactly like a space suit but it's not as pretty.

It's TOTALLY enclosed.

Totally.

The one this guy was wearing was a kinda greenish slick plastic job with a great big clear face shield. And hoses hooked up to it to bring him air and stuff. And lotsa lotsa tape wrapped around where things like gloves connected to other things like sleeves. Lotsa serious sealant tape over joints that were already designed to be sealed up nice and good without any tape.

This gentleman was not fooling around.

His butt was covered.

Totally.

And Jack and I turned around and looked at each other and at the same time, said the same thing, "Oh shit!"

And our friend in SCAPE was saying things too.

Screaming in fact, from the looks of him.

From a mere 25 feet away.

But we couldn't hear him.

Not so much as a whisper.

'Cause he was totally enclosed.

In SCAPE.

Totally.

And that's why he never knew we were in there with him till he saw us. Not only can sound not get out of a SCAPE suit, but it can't get in either. They talk through radios when they're in SCAPE.

But although sound couldn't penetrate his contraption, light could certainly go right through that nice big face shield of his.

And I could see his face.

Really well.

And it was contorted in some bizarre combination of paralyzing fear and raging hostility while his mouth worked furiously forming words nobody could hear. The veins were popping out on his neck so bad that I thought they were gonna burst.

He looked really, really, REALLY scarey.

They don't put SCAPE suits on just for the fun of it. It's always for a reason.

Always.

And so I just figured that whatever terrible chemical it was that I was pumping in and out of my body through my poor unfortunate lungs was the odorless and colorless variety.

It didn't really matter that we couldn't hear whatever it was that he was trying to share with us. We pretty much got the main idea on looks alone.

And back to the PCR elevator.

HURRY!!!

But don't knock over that computer on it's little table, sitting in the doorway.

And as we're spending the eternity it took for the elevator to arrive, I'm listening for alarm bells and sirens to start going off all over the place.

Into the elevator and press the button.

"God, can you believe how slow this thing is?"

"Hurry the fuck up you lousy piece of shit!"

And the door opens up and out across the PCR floor to the airlock doors. At a very very fast walk. Don't wanna start a panicky sprint and fall down or bang into a post or something. Stay calm. Don't lose it now. Right past all that fancy hardware that was so damn interesting just a little while ago. Without so much as an over-the-shoulder glance at it.

And still no alarm bells. No warning horns. Dead silent.

And no dizzy spell, or headache, or funny twinges of pain.

Through the airlock doors. And incredibly, we both stop to pull off those stupid booties and toss them properly into the used booty can. Good troops to the bitter end. Forget the air shower and security anteroom, through the emergency outer doors.

Still no flashing lights. No buzzers going off. Nobody careening up the pad slope doin 85 in an ambulance.

Just the silence of death.

Across the catwalk to the FSS at that same very very fast walk. Don't wanna panic. Don't wanna go over the railing 80 feet above an unfeeling concrete slab.

Clankclankclankclank go your feet on the steel grating.

Press the button for the FSS elevator and wait. And wait.

And wait.

"God, is it ever gonna get here?"
"Where is everybody?"
"I dunno. Seems like by now there oughtta be swat teams and guard dogs and machine guns and..."
"Get in!"

On the ride down, my mind really started running. Jack didn't say too much other than a few comments along the lines of 'If I ever get out of this alive, I'm NEVER comin back here.' But I'm starting to think of all kinds of weird stuff. I just KNEW that there was gonna be a very unfriendly reception committee at the foot of the tower when we got out. With handcuffs and everything.

But I'm not pukin my guts out, or gettin faint, or dizzy, or anything. Maybe we're not gonna die after all. Wouldn't that be nice? No doubt now about whether or not that sonofabitch was real. All too real. They don't work on mock ups in SCAPE. Where's all the sirens and alarms?

Ok, the elevator's stopping. Doors open, and out. And waiting for us there at the foot of the FSS is....

Nobody.

"What the hell's going on here anyway!? Where is everybody?"
"I dunno. This is crazy. Where's the swat team? Where's the guard dogs and machine guns? Where's all the sirens and  alarms?"
"I mean, that guy in the SCAPE suit was real wasn't he?"
"Yeah, he was real alright. Oh damn was he ever real!"
"So how come he hasn't called Security and Safety and President Reagan and everybody else?"
"Beats me."
"Well, lets head on down back to the gate."
"Ok."


And we start trudging on across the pad. By now it's been a little while since the festivities have begun and we're still not feeling like we've been poisoned. We're just walking along the pad deck all by ourselves with nothing going on around us.

Things start to look funny to me.

Suddenly everything's hilariously funny. Hysterically funny. And I think that's just what was going on with me. The onset of hysteria. But I didn't know that at the time and so I just kept laughing at everything. Jack, by contrast, is sliding into some kind of depression. Nothing at all looks funny to him. Who could blame him.

So we keep on walking, down towards the gate. And all the firetrucks and ambulances and security monitors and guards and everything and they're all JUST SITTING THERE. We can see 'em plain as day, way off down there at the foot of the pad slope. And we know they can see us too. Also plain as day. And we keep trudging and they keep sitting. Weird.

By now, Jack has perked up a little and he's saying things like 'Maybe they don't know what happened. If they don't say anything lets just get the hell out of here and get back to Pad B.', and I'm still laughing about everything but I keep saying 'No way, we've gotta let somebody know about this. Somebody's gonna get killed if it happens again'.
And down the slope we go. Till we get to the Lockheed security monitor who's STILL sitting there in that damn van when I walk over to him and say:

"Hey, we've got a problem here."

"We sure do, you want to tell me about it?"

So apparently, somewhere along the line somebody said SOMETHING. Somewhere.

But not much, judging by the very relaxed attitude of all the potential participants.

At this point, we all (Jack, me, and the Lockheed security guy) walked over towards the guard shack where the Lockheed guy said in a theatrically loud voice, "Who gave you authorization to go up there?" And Jack and I, at the same time and saying the same thing, again, pointed over to the white-haired kindly-looking gentleman manning the post and fairly shouted "He did!"

Now before we all pounce on that poor guard, let us remember that the Lockheed security guy who just got finished asking who it was that gave us permission to 'go up there' and who was now posturing like some kind of detective who's cornered the prime suspect, is also the very same dingbat who looked over at us when we started up there in the first place an WAVED to us.

The same guy.

So anyhow the poor guard is asked to explain himself. And as he stammers and stutters through his version of things, he involves Jack in the discussion. Now Jack ain't doin too durn good either right now and during his recounting of the events leading up to the near disaster spits out a remark along the lines of 'We asked the guard if the PTCR (Remember the PTCR?, it's that place down in the bowels of the pad where you get your bunny suits. Remember?) was open, and he said yes.'

No such kind of thing ever happened of course but it was too late. The guard, with thoughts of 'how the hell am I gonna make the next mortgage payment after I get fired for this?' running through his head, instantly jumped on the PTCR bandwagon and we're off to the races. The issue was sufficiently clouded at this point that there was no way anybody was ever gonna prove that anyone said anything.

So over we go to the OPS (operations) building just outside the gate. They took us into a room and we sat down and had a little chat. Jack's looking really glum about things again so the security guy says to him: "You think you got problems? I gotta explain all this to my boss tomorrow!"

Jack didn't think too much of this poor slob's attempt at reducing the tension in the room but I burst into loud laughter.

Nothing much happened after that. They asked us to write down a recounting of what happened and we did. Jack did his in 25 words or less and I filled up a full page or two. Everything was still funny.

And that was it. They let us go. So we went.

Jack swore over and over during the whole drive back to Pad B that he was never going to return to Pad A again. And I just kept laughing at everything and thinking of all the fun I was gonna have telling people this one.

Jack went home that night and barfed his guts up from all the tension. I just went home. Finally quit laughing at everything and started wondering what we had been breathing in there.

They never did tell us directly.

About a week later our bosses got this snotty sounding letter from NASA with a copy of the incident report (they called it a 'near miss') and a typewritten description of what happened (which looked suspiciously like a thinly disguised paraphrasing of the description of the events I'd written there in the ops building).

In the closing paragraph, the wise and wonderful NASA safety operative summed up his understanding of how things went as follows: "Request you advise this office as to what precautionary measures will be taken to prevent inadvertent access to controlled areas in the future." 

I've got the whole thing framed and hanging on the wall. It's a great conversation piece. But I'm still not sure what it is that my boss can do to take precautionary measures that will ensure that the pitiful safety/security apparatus that's in place out at the pad will do its job and maybe keep some poor slob like myself from stumbling into a lethal cloud of poisonous gas or ruining an irreplaceable payload.

 

EPILOGUE

A month or so later, Jack and I were back at Pad A (Jack disavowed his previous solemn oath to never return) and were in the process of showing our credentials to the guards there at the gate when they began to recount to us the highly improbable adventures of two idiots who walked right up to a very very sensitive payload while dressed in street clothes and very nearly got themselves killed in the process.

We allowed the story to proceed for a while before I couldn't stand it any more and blurted out to the fellow telling the story that he was 'in fact talking to the two individuals in question'. Our friend the storyteller got an incredulous look on his face and his buddy who'd been laughing in all the right places as the story unfolded got real quiet.

At first they were at a loss as to what to say, but when Jack and I indicated no hard feelings at being the butt of the story and went on to provide additional details that made it even funnier and more unbelievable, they loosened right up. To the point where they informed us that not only did the poor guard who let us in there in the first place not lose his job, but that we had actually SAVED the jobs of about forty (his number) additional guards. Including themselves.

Seems as though the wise cost cutters at Lockheed (they were the ones with the contract to process the Shuttles at the Cape back then) determined that all those guards employed by Pan Am (different contract for facilities maintenance and such all) weren't really necessary and that a crew of crack guys like the one who waved at us from his van could handle all the security tasks there on the pad. All the paper had been signed and filed, and it was only the phenomenal events surrounding our misadventure that derailed the impending lay-off.

Needless to say, following that, we got along just fine with all the guards. But that Lockheed security monitor would turn and look away whenever we tried to say hi to him from then on.

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