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Mission Control

When Pam Melroy, SM ‘84, commands the space shuttle, laughter is an essential part of the voyage.
August 19, 2008

Astronaut Pam Melroy, SM ‘84, had traveled to space twice before. But last October 23, she boarded the space ­shuttle Discovery in charge of a mission to transport what NASA calls a “high-tech hallway and Tinkertoy-like hub” to the International Space Station. On her watch, the crew would perform multiple space walks to deliver the hub; the crew would also move a giant truss element holding solar arrays to a new position on the space station and redeploy the arrays. The mission would enable the European Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to attach new laboratories to the space station, significantly expanding its size and research capacity.

Halfway through the 15-day mission, former president George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush called Melroy and the shuttle and space-station crews to congratulate them on the successful installation of the hub. The video of the call shows crew members assembled in a circle as Melroy and space-station commander Peggy Whitson speak to the Bushes with as much gravity as is possible in microgravity. What it doesn’t show is any evidence of the high-altitude high jinks that had just taken place.

Right before the Bushes arrived at Houston’s command central, the astronauts had spontaneously disappeared into hiding spaces. Melroy explains that the newly installed hub was empty, completely equipment free. “There were these indentations where you could hang out right next to the camera so you wouldn’t be seen,” she says. “The capcom [capsule communicator] started to get nervous. Time was ticking, and it was 30 seconds to the time the president was going to come in, and the room was empty as far as he could tell from the camera. The capcom said, ‘Uh, I think you might want to start thinking about getting ready.’ And we burst from our hiding places and were all neatly assembled in our positions in 20 seconds. He said, ‘Oh, you guys got me good.’”

Humor, Melroy discovered early on, was the linchpin that would hold her team together. Space travel may be an adventure, but it’s a high-stakes, high-pressure adventure fraught with danger. One wrong decision could foil the mission’s goals–or kill the entire crew. And train as you might, there is no earthly equivalent of the chaos and uncertainty found 122 nautical miles above the planet.

A sea kayaking expedition in Alaska comes close, however. So Melroy, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who flew in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, assembled her crew in Alaska, where the astronauts traded a high-tech command-control interface and pressurized space suits for paddles and life vests.

The training exercise challenged the astronauts physically and let them practice living, problem-solving, and working together. Crew chemistry is always a big unknown in space missions; astronauts are chosen for their skills, not necessarily for how they’ll gel as a team. “It can have a big impact on performance in orbit if people are not getting along,” Melroy explains. “It’s very important to acknowledge that it’s an extremely stressful job. We’re the only ones who really understand what the other is going through.” On the rough Alaskan waters, she quickly learned that her team loved to laugh together.

“I was lucky because this particular crew had good chemistry, and also really enjoyed laughing,” she says. Some commanders might have been less tolerant of humorous antics, fearing a loss of focus. But Melroy saw that humor could help relieve stress that might otherwise sap the crew’s mental energy. “The most important way I could help them was to let them laugh and joke around,” she says. “This might be the opposite of what you’d expect, but the more they laughed, the more focused they were.”

Melroy describes her Discovery mission–NASA’s 23rd shuttle flight to the space station–as “a laugh a minute,” noting with pleasure that the crew decided to add a blooper reel to the official video of mission highlights. “We had so many funny moments that we couldn’t fit into the regular story of our mission,” she says. “But they were so funny that we couldn’t resist having them.”

Delivering the space-station hub made ­Melroy only the second woman in NASA history to command a shuttle mission. She’d been determined to become an astronaut since watching the first lunar landing at the age of seven, and she made her first flight, as shuttle pilot, in 2000. On that first mission, she says, she was the baby of the crew; on this third one, she was the parent. “The biggest adjustment to make when you become the commander is all of the additional responsibilities that come with it,” she says. “You don’t know how it feels until you have to make the decisions for yourself.”

Melroy had to weigh in with the mission management team on plenty of time-critical decisions in orbit, such as whether to shift the crew’s sleeping schedules so that the shuttle could land during the day rather than at night. When the mission got behind schedule, she had to adjust the crew’s assignments on the fly. And when the solar array hit a snag and tore as it unfurled in its new location, she faced the biggest decision of the mission: was the crew really ready to undertake an emergency space walk to make repairs? Melroy hints at the loneliness of being in command as she recounts the story of the day that walk took place.

“The ground put together a plan for us to send a space walker out farther than we had ever sent anyone before,” she says, putting him a 45-minute trip from the airlock in a suit that could only support a 30-minute oxygen leak. “We had to kludge together the robotic arm from the station with the boom from the shuttle for him to be able to reach it, and the solar array was fully charged. There were a lot of risks that we didn’t have time to fully assess. We had to just try to do our best to be careful. I remember feeling very clear in my head that I was going to be the one to say, ‘Scott, you’ve got to stop doing that and come in now.’ I felt that everyone else was so hugely committed to succeeding that they would keep going no matter what, and it was my responsibility to be the safety person who called it off if need be. Fortunately, I didn’t need to do that, but I felt pretty lonely at that moment when I thought, ‘I’m not going to be very popular if I have to make this decision. But I’m going to make it if I have to.’”

During that space walk, Melroy focused on each approaching milestone–and on her watch. “The clock was ticking,” she says. “I was very alert and intensely focused on the consumables and the risks. After the solar array deployed and the whole crew was cheering and excited, I had to be the one to remind everyone that Scott was still way out there and we needed to hold off on celebrating until he and Doug were safely back inside.” She reports that Scott Parazynski and Doug Wheelock did make it back safely, Parazynski having traversed a record-setting distance of about 140 feet. “Afterwards, it’s like, wow, that was really cool,” Melroy says. “But at the time, you realize you could be a hero or a goat, or someone could get hurt.”

In her role as mission parent, Melroy was strict, insisting on lights out at the designated time. She says the workload was so intense that people kept at their projects right up until bedtime. Each night, she placed a two-hour countdown clock at mid-deck. “I warned everyone,” she says. And when the clock hit zero, “I just turned the lights out and said you can’t work anymore.” Whitson, the space-station commander, was “less strict about lights out,” a crew member told her. “So the kids would go over there if they wanted to stay up a little bit later.” On her own flight deck, astronauts would be bundled in sleeping bags, free floating, saying their good-nights to each other in the dark, not unlike a space-age version of the Waltons.

In orbit, Melroy had plenty of opportunity to put theory into practice, to critically assess technical problems, and to apply general principles to novel situations–all skills she says she gained at MIT. But that left her little time to ponder the historical significance of the fact that both the shuttle commander and the space-station commander were women–a first that the Associated Press called “a giant leap for womankind.” Later, she would marvel that “25 years ago, the idea of a woman commander of a spacecraft was something I was thinking about and aware of and hopeful for. But it never crossed my mind that we would have had two at the same time.”

Moving from pilot to commander required a shift in perspective. “On ascent and entry, pilots are charged with keeping the systems running to support our trajectory,” she explains. “As commander, the big picture and the trajectory are your responsibility: Where are we going? Are we headed the right way? Can we make it there?”

Melroy ably shouldered that responsibility, keeping Discovery and her crew on track–and laughing–for 6.25 million miles and 238 orbits of Earth. Mission accomplished.

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