Enlarge /. Flight Director James M. (Milt) Heflin, in Mission Control while the STS-26 was in flight in 1988.
The call from the "mountain" to Mission Control in Houston came almost at the worst time. It was the early hours of Thanksgiving morning in 1991. Up in space, the crew members slept aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. Now, Lead Flight Director Milt Heflin was suddenly faced with a crisis.
The flight dynamics officer at Mission Control told Heflin that the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force station, which was tracking orbital traffic, had called to warn that a dormant Turkish satellite had a possible connection with the space shuttle in just 15 minutes. In addition, this potential wreckage was to occur in the midst of a communications failure with the crew as the spaceship passed over the southern tip of Africa.
Heflin's engineers had no way of calculating an evasive maneuver, waking up and communicating with the crew before the lockdown period began. Heflin was furious – why hadn't the Air Force warned of a possible collision? As a rule, a period of around 24 hours was observed. By God, if this satellite hit Atlantis, they might very well lose the astronauts in their sleep. The STS-44 crew could never wake up.
A veteran flight director who had started his work at the space agency more than two decades earlier during the Apollo program and carried out ocean restoration operations after the moon landings, Heflin was largely steadfast. But now he was getting tense. "When I think about all of my time, I don't remember ever being as nervous or upset about anything as I was then," he recently told Ars.
What Heflin didn't know at the time, however, was that he had been sniffed by two of his air traffic controllers during an otherwise boring night shift, during a fairly routine multi-payload shuttle mission for the Air Force. There wasn't a dilapidated satellite – the Thanksgiving allusion to "turkey" had gone over his head. But the story didn't end there.
In the beginning, NASA wasn't the buttoned-up space agency it is today. Early on, especially during the Mercury program, NASA decision makers were moving quickly and often flying past the seats of their pants. There was also more room for practical jokes, even within the mission control sanctuary.
In his book The Birth of NASA Manfred "Dutch" von Ehrenfried wrote about a fabled joke that took place a few weeks before John Glenn's first orbital flight in 1962 on an Atlas rocket. Chris Kraft, NASA's legendary maiden flight director, led his teams through long days and nights of training, simulations, and discussions about mission rules for this critical flight.
At the time, missions were being planned and managed from the Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and there were multiple exfoliants up until Glenn's flight. One night, Kraft's Lieutenant-in-Chief Gene Kranz decided to play a prank on his boss the next day when two activities were supposed to happen at the same time to overcome the boredom. Kraft would lead a mission simulation while Kranz led a launch pad test with the Atlas missile. While running the mission simulation, Kranz knew that Kraft would be watching the pad activity on a console TV.
Working with John Hatcher, a video support coordinator for the control center, Kranz had an old video of an Atlas launch in Kraft's feed replaced. In addition, Kranz and Hatcher have set the point in time so that the rocket appears to start immediately after the "Firing Command" switch is activated as part of its simulation.
This is how Ehrenfried characterized what happened next in Florida:
As the simulation progressed, Kraft asked Kranz how the pad test would go, and Kranz gave him a quick status check with a straight face and bowed head. When the simulation came to take off, Hatcher started the old Atlas take off video on Kraft's console TV the moment Kraft hit the switch. Kraft's eyes bulged and his brow furrowed as he stared at the television. He turns to Kranz and says: "Did you see that?" Kranz plays stupid and says: "See what?" Without a pause, Kraft says, "That damn thing took off!" Hatcher and Kranz tried to keep their faces straight, but they both couldn't hold back the laugh. Kraft says, "Who the hell did that?" Then he realized that he had been "had" and laughed half-heartedly. Kranz and Hatcher pulled Superman's Cape and survived!