Shuttle Engineering Support Center is key component in Space Shuttle
When Space Shuttle Endeavour lifts off on its scheduled mission Nov.
29, a group of NASA engineers gathered in three windowless rooms
deep inside a cavernous, non-descript government building in Huntsville,
Ala. will provide an extra set of eyes and ears to ensure a safe
and successful launch.
For every launch since that first historic launch of a Space Shuttle
in 1981, engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville
have closely monitored Shuttle propulsion system data at its Shuttle
Engineering Support Center, an area carved out of Marshall’s Huntsville
Operations Support Center.
“We never forget that safety is our primary focus,” says Jolene Martin,
Marshall’s Shuttle Integration manager and a member of Marshall’s launch
support team. “By working with the team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida,
our group at Marshall has helped keep the countdown on track and prevent
launch delays and cancellations by identifying early on potential propulsion
concerns and resolving those concerns.”
For each Shuttle launch, Marshall management and technical personnel
and contractor personnel support the Mission Management Team at Kennedy
During pre-launch preparations, engineers at Marshall’s support center
monitor the Shuttle’s main propulsion elements -- the Main Engine, the
External Tank, the Reusable Solid Rocket Motor, the Solid Rocket Booster
and the Main Propulsion System to identify and analyze any hardware
related problems. The Marshall Center is home to the Space Shuttle
propulsion system where it was designed, developed and is still
“To achieve orbit, the Shuttle must accelerate from zero to a speed
of almost 18,000 mph (28,968 kilometers per hour) a speed nine
times as fast as the average rifle bullet,” says Martin. “To make that
happen, we work as a team with the Space Shuttle Mission Management
Team at Kennedy.”
Marshall’s Shuttle Engineering Support Center was first used during
the early 1960s’ Saturn rocket era. Even for the first Shuttle flight,
the center still housed a computer main frame and monitors similar to
those seen in 1960s sci-fi movies. Today the facility houses a sophisticated
communications network that ties the Marshall Center to NASA and its
contractor personnel throughout the country, providing the up-to-the-second
information needed for a safe and successful launch.
“We work so closely during launch that it’s almost as if we are holding
hands…except it’s by telephone and computer,” says Scott Schutzenhofer,
manager of the Shuttle Engineering Support Center. “We’ve actually become
more than a set of eyes and ears because we have such a high level of
expertise. Our engineers look at propulsion data every day. They’ve
seen it all…what works, what doesn’t work, and why it does or doesn’t
work. That makes the support center a key component during the launch.”
The Kennedy-Marshall-contractor network also allows the launch team
to simulate propulsion situations before actual launch, providing additional
data for the team.
“That level of expertise has helped us ‘earn our salaries’ during launch,”
adds Schutzenhofer. “We definitely make a contribution because we know
the nitty-gritty details – every little part of all four elements.”
For the 50 people who staff Marshall’s Shuttle Engineering Support
launch, show time begins at T minus 10 hours about 12 hours
before launch and continues through launch, Main Engine cutoff
and separation of the External Tank.
Launch day begins with a teleconference with the Kennedy Center’s Mission
Management Team to discuss the launch weather conditions and any other
concerns. Then, the eyes of the support center’s engineers are glued
to computer monitors as propellant loading begins on the Shuttle. At
T minus 20 minutes, the launch team conducts a poll of the managers
of the four propulsion elements to determine if any group is working
any issues. Another poll is taken at T minus 9 minutes. If nothing
is reported, countdown continues to launch.
Even when the Shuttle has lifted off the pad, engineers remain focused
on the flight. Marshall’s Space Shuttle Projects Office is responsible
for the first eight-and-a-half minutes of each Shuttle launch. During
those crucial 510 seconds, the Reusable Solid Rocket Motors generate
enough energy to power 87,000 homes for a full day, the Solid Rocket
Boosters accelerate the Shuttle to 3,000 mph (4,828 kilometers per hour),
the External Tank feeds 535,000 gallons (2,025 kiloliters) of liquid
propellants to the Main Engine, and inside the combustion chambers of
Shuttle’s three main engines temperatures are hot enough to melt steel.
Once the Shuttle’s main engines reach cutoff, engineers at Marshall’s
Engineering Support Center begin gathering reams of data generated by
the launch. The information is then cataloged for post-flight study.
“The Shuttle is a great vehicle, but we never forget that it takes
a lot of tender loving care,” says Martin.
The Marshall Center is NASA's lead center for development of space
transportation and propulsion systems and advanced large optics manufacturing
technology, as well as microgravity research — scientific research in
the unique low-gravity environment inside the International Space Station
and other spacecraft.