Science and Exploration

Inside the Firing Room with the Space Shuttle Launch Director

By Keith Cowing
May 24, 2013
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Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach seated inside the Shuttle Firing Room 4 and backdropped by tributes to Orbiters Columbia and Challenger he inspired and designed. Launch Director Leinbach gives the final “GO” for a shuttle launch from this console. Credit: Ken Kremer

Ken Kremer, Kennedy Space Center: As Shuttle Discovery was being processed in the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for her very final mission of exploration (STS 133), I interviewed the Space Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach inside the Shuttle Firing Room 4 at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) – where access is highly restricted.

Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach seated inside the Shuttle Firing Room 4 and backdropped by tributes to Orbiters Columbia and Challenger he inspired and designed. Launch Director Leinbach gives the final “GO” for a shuttle launch from this console. Credit: Ken Kremer

Ken Kremer, Kennedy Space Center: As Shuttle Discovery was being processed in the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for her very final mission of exploration (STS 133), I interviewed the Space Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach inside the Shuttle Firing Room 4 at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) – where access is highly restricted.

Launch Director Leinbach graciously spoke to me in the midst of an extremely busy and momentous day at KSC as the 100 ton orbiter was hanging by narrow cables from a bridge crane under the roof of the VAB for mating to the ET/SRB fuel stack that will power her last mission to the high frontier.

Leinbach has served as the Space Shuttle Launch Director at KSC for a decade, since being named to the post in August 2000. He has led the launch team for all shuttle missions since then. Leinbach has the ultimate responsibility to give the final “GO” command to launch the orbiters and their precious payload of people and cargo to space.

We discussed the looming end of the shuttle program and transitioning to the post shuttle Era, his departing colleagues on the shuttle team and the story behind the shuttle tribute displays which Leinbach and the flight teams created to honor the orbiters’ legacy for future generations.

Thus the backdrop to our conversation was simultaneously exhilarating and bittersweet.

Let’s start with the truly uplifting story of the tribute artwork to the orbiters stemming from inspiration by Launch Director Mike Leinbach and how fortunate I was to chat one-on-one with Leinbach in the Firing Room.

With the end of the shuttle program fast approaching, Leinbach came up with the idea for creating lasting shuttle tributes this past February.

“I personally really wanted something permanent in the Firing Room to honor the orbiters and their legacies, the processing teams, and the launch teams I have worked with as launch director throughout the last 10 years,” Leinbach said to me.

“The orbiter tributes were a labor of love. It means a lot to me to have them there.”

“I designed the Columbia and Challenger displays. There are very few people left here who launched Challenger. The picture of Columbia is from the first launch – STS-1. We wanted to honor each crew – no question. We chose Challenger to display a landing. Challenger had the first spacewalk. The Columbia and Challenger pictures of the crew show their official crew portraits,” explained Leinbach. “The individual teams for Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour came up with their own concepts – with some tweaking from me,” Leinbach explained.

“One of the background star fields is from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. All the other star fields are from the Hubble Space Telescope. Both telescopes were deployed by the orbiters. Columbia launched Chandra. Discovery launched Hubble.”

Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach seated inside the Shuttle Firing Room 4 and backdropped by tributes to Orbiters Columbia and Challenger he inspired and designed. Launch Director Leinbach gives the final “GO” for a shuttle launch from this console. Credit: Ken Kremer

“We started on the Atlantis tribute mural first in April and had it done and mounted just a month later on May 7. The display had to be ready in time for Atlantis’ final scheduled launch for STS 132 on May 14,” he said. A space remains to add one more patch for the proposed STS 135 mission as the very last shuttle flight if it is approved.

I first toured Shuttle Firing Room 4 in late May and published an initial article and photos on Atlantis display tribute and last landing here and here:

“We got to work on the other four tributes in June and July in one shot,” said Leinbach. “We decided to put them all up at once so everyone could enjoy them for all the remaining launches.” The displays are mounted on the wall above the launch control consoles in the order in which the orbiters first arrived at KSC from their manufacturing site at Rockwell International in California.

“The Endeavour tribute highlights the Cupola dome sent skywards on STS-130 and the sailing ship HMS Endeavour for which she is named. It’s very special.”

“The Endeavour launch picture is based on original photos from an actual launch – STS-100 on April 19, 2001. The sky streak and water reflection are also from actual launches that were then blended into the nebula,” according to Amy Simpson, the Management Support Assistant to Leinbach.

“The Discovery tribute is dominated by the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver (RPM) conducted as the Orbiters approach the ISS,” said Leinbach. The RPM photo is from the first such maneuver performed.

“We all love the orbiters – as much as the crews – and have a great affection for them. Each of the Orbiters are distinctive in their own way and we’ll all miss them greatly”.

“I hope they remain in Firing Room 4 forever. It will be a lasting tribute to the orbiters and the processing teams,” says Leinbach.

For this author it was a moving experience to witness all the display tributes first hand, especially in remembrance of the sacrifice of the brave souls of Columbia and Challenger.

The Shuttle Firing room faces out to a magnificent panoramic view of the twin shuttle launch pads 39 A and 39 B through giant reinforced windows.

Enjoy my photos herein and this 360 degree panoramic view from inside Firing Room 4 showing all five Shuttle tribute displays; recorded during my visit with Mike Leinbach courtesy of

The window view will change shortly as Pad 39 B is demolished to make way for a new twenty first century space launch complex.

Under the 10 year tenure and leadership of Mike Leinbach, the Space Shuttle system is safer and more productive than ever and he is emphatic about sharing the credit with the entire NASA and contractor team.

“The whole NASA team has made the shuttle safer than it’s ever been before. And it’s not just the launch team here at KSC. But also all the engineering folks here at KSC, as well as at many NASA centers including the Johnson Space Center, Marshall, Michoud, Stennis and thousands more hard working and dedicated people all around the program and across the country,” stated Leinbach.

“Throughout the shuttle program we have made big, big strides in safety and reliability.”

“We felt like we were really starting to hit our stride pretty good. So it’s really sad to see the shuttle program ending. I was really hopeful that the new program [Constellation] would kick in and take over. Then we could retire the shuttle with something else to transition into – for the people working here as well as for the nation too,” he added.

Inside the Space Shuttle Firing Room 4 with NASA Shuttle Launch Commentator George Diller, Space Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach and Ken Kremer at NASA Public Affairs console seen during live TV broadcasts. Windows face toward shuttle launch pads 39 A and 39 B at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer

Since the return to flight, the program has almost run like clockwork – averaging four flights per year with few problems – thanks to the highly dedicated and talented workforce. The shuttle team has been extremely busy and accomplished all the objectives of the aggressive launch schedule. All the ISS assembly missions and the final Hubble servicing mission have been resoundingly successful. Plus the Ares-1-X development test flight was also in the mix.

I asked Leinbach about what’s beyond for the shuttle workforce and NASA in the post-Shuttle era as Congress and the White House debated what course to pursue in the very uncertain time period since the cancellation of Project Constellation and before the enactment of new legislation.

“We do not know what the future is,” Leinbach replied.

“Everybody working here at KSC on the shuttle program is asking the same question. That includes both the NASA civil servants and the contractor work force, which numbers several thousand people.”

“We need policy decisions as soon as possible, and after we get those from Congress, the White House, and NASA, then we can react and get on with firm planning for the future.”

“After the shuttle, we have lost American manned access to the Space Station on American rockets for years to come,” says Leinbach.

“You can all pick a number for how many years it’s going to be. But for sure it’s going to be a number of years before America is launching American astronauts again. And that to me is sad.” “One of my major disappointments is that after shuttle stops flying we will be totally dependent on the Russians to get to the ISS. They are an extremely reliable partner, but one thing you learn in this business is that redundancy isn’t just good, in some situations it’s essential. And, God forbid, if they have some sort of significant issue – then we have no access to the space station at all,” explained Leinbach.

“Without new crews the whole Space Station program is going to be in jeopardy, after a period of time. It won’t happen right away. So the whole thing to me is sad.”

“We should have the ability to launch American astronauts to the ISS on American rockets as soon as possible. My personal view is that we should not go through a protracted period where we can’t launch Americans into orbit.”

“The real tragedy on the people side is with the contractor work force that I love so much,” said Leinbach. “I was just in the VAB and it’s the last time that Discovery will be rolled inside there – ever !”

“I have many friends on the contractor work force – mostly technicians – who will be laid off on October 1. Some of them have no future plans. And they have just weeks left to work. The future will be tough,” said Leinbach.

“Soon they will all be gone. They have worked on the shuttle for many years at KSC. In some cases there are even second generation shuttle workers in their families – Fathers … Grandfathers .. all gone !,” he concluded.

“We don’t want to lose all of our core capability and skills at KSC. It’s sad that all these highly skilled people will be gone. Some of them will have a difficult time trying to find new positions.

“When a new rocket program comes here, we’ll need very skilled labor. Some of the people I love so much could get back to work on that new program. But they may not be here because they have moved on or retired,” said Leinbach.

Indeed some of the very folks who processed Discovery for the upcoming STS-133 flight won’t even be employed any more at KSC by the time of the Nov.1 launch. Over 1,100 more shuttle workers were laid off at KSC as of Oct. 1. And they will no longer have their access badges for entrance to the facility.

Hundreds more workers lost their jobs simultaneously at local shuttle subcontractors in the surrounding Florida Space Coast communities. The local unemployment rate already stands at almost 12%. Roughly 8,000 jobs will be lost at KSC when the shuttle program completely shuts down after the last flight sometime in 2011.

Shuttle worker layoffs are rippling across America. Lockheed Martin, ATK, Boeing and other NASA contractors announced the end to thousands more shuttle jobs at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, rocket manufacturing facilities in Utah, and NASA facilities in Alabama, Texas and elsewhere.

I asked Leinbach about NASA’s future plans and modifications to convert the facilities and hardware for Pads 39-A and B into a 21st Century launch complex after the shuttles are retired.

“Depending on what NASA decides, a new super rocket could fly off the existing facilities we have at 39-A. The idea is to leave Pad A in shuttle configuration while we wait and see what the new vehicle will be,” Leinbach said.

“We have the infrastructure and virtually all the services you would need at the launch pad. The new rocket won’t need the massive Rotating Service Structure (RSS). But the LOX, hydrogen, hypergols, servicing and most of the rest like power and other interfaces and services would stay. By and large the ground support would be the easy piece of it.”

Pad 39-B had been destined to serve as the launch pad for the Ares 1 booster rocket under Project Constellation. To accommodate Ares 1, NASA already constructed a new Mobile Launcher (ML).

“The new idea is NASA will raze the pad right down to the concrete and make it adaptable and useful for any type rocket that may want to launch off complex 39 B. Just like what we were going to do with the ML for Ares. NASA would then market pad B for other rockets,” Leinbach explained.

“Most companies that NASA leadership is talking to say they don’t want a fixed service structure. They want a clean pad. Just give us a launch pad with services like LOX and liquid hydrogen and so forth, they say. Let us build our own mobile launcher and tower to bring the rocket back and forth to the VAB for maintenance. Get it away from the ocean, say those companies.”

“So the overall concept is to make Pad 39 B available for use by anyone else. Pad 39-A would be left alone for now. It will be modified later to some extent to accommodate whatever type new rocket NASA decides on,” according to Leinbach.

“NASA will also have to decide if it would be cheaper to build a new Mobile Launcher than modify the existing one built for Ares 1. Then NASA would put a tower on it to service the upper stage of the new super rocket. Then eventually extend the tower so that you can get astronauts into it – just like the old Apollo tower on the mobile launcher.”

Shuttle launch controllers work at consoles inside Firing Room 4 of the Launch Control Center (LCC) with the newly mounted shuttle artwork displays. During launch countdowns about 180 people are on console monitoring shuttle, payload and flight critical systems. Credit: Ken Kremer

“It makes more sense to me personally that you develop one rocket that can either launch cargo or astronauts, much like the Saturn V that did do both. A one vehicle design would minimize development problems. If NASA builds one rocket where the configuration is essentially the same whether its cargo or manned, we could put either the Orion or a new cargo stage on top,” he suggested.

“My involvement and experience are more in the launch processing activities and operations side here at KSC, rather than in designing the rocket system. The launch team gives inputs into the requirements for the rocket design to make it easier to process.”

“For example, a lot of the requirements derived for Constellation were modified by KSC to make the Ares 1-X rocket more user friendly – more processing friendly.

“For the new rocket, I suspect we would have the same inputs into the design from a processing perspective – to make it more processing friendly.”

NASA planners have significant choices to make on how to reach a range of deep space destinations including asteroids, Lagrange points, the Moon and Mars. They need to decide what is the purpose, what are the advantages and what is logical.

A servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope with Orion is something Leinbach hopes will be considered.

“Orion could be designed to return to Hubble to accomplish a servicing mission. Hubble has a lot of life left in it. I hope we can take advantage of it.”

“It’s there. It’s useful. Hubble continues to amaze people with new scientific discoveries. Why let that go away ! The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) could be another target,” Leinbach postulated.

NASA has equipped both Hubble and JWST with built in grapple fixtures that a robotic arm on a deep space vehicle like Orion could latch on to.

“For the last 10 years I have worked entirely on the shuttle. In my spare time I put together the Ares-1-X Constellation launch team. And I have committed to remain as Shuttle Launch Director and fly out the Shuttle through to the end of the program,” stated Leinbach.

Leinbach’s modest office is perched just above the Shuttle Firing Room – located inside the Launch Control Center (LCC) – with a breathtaking view overlooking the shuttle launch pads, the launch control consoles and the display tributes.

His duties include responsibility for overall Shuttle launch countdown policy, planning, and execution activities. Leinbach has received numerous achievement awards, including the Presidential Rank Award in 2004 given by the office of the President of the United States for “Exceptional long-term accomplishments.”

“Being the Shuttle Launch Director is the best job in the world !”, beams Leinbach

Read my earlier reports about the Shuttle tribute displays in Firing Room 4 and Atlantis last launch and landing here, here and here

Read my earlier STS-133 reports on Discovery’s last rollover and bolting to the fuel tanks here and here.

Five 3 D Orbiter tributes mounted above Shuttle countdown clock in Firing Room 4 highlight significant events from the actual space voyages of the individual Orbiters launched from KSC over three decades. Credit: Ken Kremer

Space Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach in his office overlooking the twin Shuttle Launch pads 39 A and 39 B about 3 miles away. Credit: Ken Kremer

Framed inscriptions with replicas of the tributes are mounted on the north wall of Shuttle Firing Room 4 with what each design element means. Credit: Ken Kremer

Shuttle launch controllers monitor flight systems at consoles inside Firing Room 4. Windows face twin launch pads 39 A and 39 B. Credit: Ken Kremer

Hoisting Discovery inside the VAB for the final time for STS-133 mission on 9 Sept 2010. Credit: Ken Kremer

View of Shuttle Launch Pad 39 B looking out from inside Shuttle Firing Room 4 through the giant windows of the Launch Control Center at KSC. Pad 39 B is being demolished to make way for a new 21st Century launch complex. Credit: Ken Kremer

View of the VAB, Launch Control Center (center) and Ares 1 Mobile launcher (right) at KSC. Space Shuttle Firing Room 4 is inside the LCC facing the shuttle launch pads. The fate of the Mobile Launcher and KSC is unclear following the cancellation of Project Constellation. Credit: Ken Kremer

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.