Ahead of and during a shuttle flight, a whirl of activity happens that most people don't hear about. Many people are familiar with the moment when the crew comes out of some building on the Kennedy Space Center, dressed in their orange flight suits - the crew climbs into a van and is driven to the launch pad.
But what happens behind the scenes? What about their families? To tell people about these often-tense days, I talked to astronaut Hans Schlegel's wife, Heike. On STS-122, Hans Schlegel flew for the second time and his family was there to participate in the event.
Schlegel is one of Europe's most experienced astronauts. He was first selected for the German astronaut program in 1988 which was preparing people for flights on the Shuttle. He also trained as backup cosmonaut for another German national who flew on the Mir space station '" on the Mir-97 mission in 1997. His first flight was Spacelab-D2, in 1993, the second German sponsored Spacelab mission. After that, he moved permanently to Houston to run the European astronaut corps, and was later selected to fly on STS-122, an assembly mission that added the European Columbus module to ISS.
Schlegel's wife Heike is just as accomplished - she was a member of the German astronaut corps, but did not fly. She was a champion swimmer in Germany and a member of the German national Olympic swimming team in 1976. She also graduated from medical school, and is currently a Lufthansa First Officer, flying the 747 aircraft. The Schlegels have three children, two boys and a girl.
What is life like before a shuttle flight?
The crew families know each other, there are informal times when we get together, but about two years before a flight, a specific crew is announced and the families start to get together a lot more. The more experienced spouses pass on their knowledge of what the preparation for a flight is like, NASA provides some basic briefings but there is a lot that the families will still need to know. As a spouse of a crew member, we are checked by the NASA Flight Surgeon and so we can see the crew later when they are in quarantine; this protects them from catching anything like a cold shortly before flight. Kids are more likely to be infected and so they cannot see crews when they are in quarantine.
At about 5 or 6 months before the scheduled flight, the crew families start to have more scheduled activities - NASA asks us what kind of wake up music the crew member would like, for instance. For the 6 months before flight, there are many more training events and travel to prepare the crew for the mission, they will have very limited time to fix things around the house. So you will probably be asking your friends for more help as well. A couple of months before the flight, the crew has two junior astronauts assigned to them as crew support people - to escort them around Florida and help them in case some crisis comes up.
Hans had to go into quarantine in the crew quarters on the Johnson Space Center, about a week before flight. Just before we all left for Florida, we had a dinner with the NASA Administrator in the crew quarters, so NASA management could say thanks for all of the sacrifice that we had all made up to that point.
What did your kids do during this time?
The crew and families got together many times before flight and so by this time we knew each other well. Since some of us had kids that were smaller, they could not see the crew, which was in quarantine. I had my older daughter (who lives in Germany) and a friend stay with us so they could entertain the kids. We all flew to Florida three days before the scheduled launch - the crew flew on NASA aircraft and we flew commercial.
Two days before launch, the spouses and crew (no kids were allowed) had an informal dinner at the Beach House, a casual place on the Kennedy Space Center where the crew can relax before flight. The day before launch, NASA had a bus tour of the major facilities, including the launch pad, for the families so we could see the shuttle that the crew would fly. There were two separate tours - one with the crew and their spouses and one with the families, since the crew was still in quarantine and could not mix with the children. The kids did get to see Hans, but only from a short distance away.
When we had free time, my older daughter and my friend took the kids to the beach, so they had a great time. I had many small details to finish since I was hosting a party for about 200 people right after the launch.
What happens the night before a launch?
There is a tradition where the families host a reception for their guests the night before launch. We had invited about 200 guests from Europe and from the US, and the process of getting them all official guest passes was a major job! As it turned out, ESA had a big reception the night before launch, and we all went to that. Many of our friends and colleagues were there and we would have missed them otherwise.
Fortunately, the informal astronaut spouses' group has put together a book of places and details for many party locations, so you have a list of places to choose from. Of course, the last few nights before any launch, all the places in the region around the Kennedy Space Center were booked with events from many other groups. I had my party the night after the scheduled launch, when most people were going to the airport to fly home. But the STS-122 flight was scrubbed very late in the countdown. The launch was delayed until February, so many of them did not see the launch.
For the February launch date, I had a smaller group of guests and there was no scheduled tour. Each crew gets one set of tours and events and if your flight is delayed, you have used up your events.
How did the kids handle the preparation for flight?
The kids have always known the children of other astronauts, and everyone has parents that fly in space, so it is very normal for them. Of course, they were a little worried, but they thought it was a good chance to get out of school and go to Florida for a few days. The kids from the crew members' families often went around as a group so they were with people their own age who they knew.What was the day of launch like?
On that day, spouses and children are taken on a bus from the hotel to the VIP viewing area, right by the Saturn 5 display building on the Kennedy Space Center. Our other guests had to take another bus to various viewing areas such as the Causeway between KSC and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Before the Challenger accident, families used to mix with other guests, but since then, families have a separate set of bleachers. If there are any concerns about the flight, it is easier to have them go back to a waiting room. We had a great time at the viewing area and the launch (on the second attempt) was beautiful and problem-free. We took the bus back to our hotel and got ready for the party. The next day we flew back to Houston to get back to our normal routine, as much as we could while Hans was in space.
What do you do during the flight?
Since we have been around the shuttle for a long time, it was not much different from other times that Hans has been on travel. Except that we could watch him on television every day - the news channels covered the flight really well. For the children, many of their friends also have had parents on shuttle missions and it was not unusual at all.
What happens on landing day?
At the scheduled end of the flight, we took a commercial flight to Orlando, were picked up by a van and taken to the Cocoa Beach area, and stayed in a hotel. We got there a day before landing. NASA kept up well informed of when the landing was scheduled, that was much easier to predict than the launch! We took a bus to watch the touchdown, and then met Hans in the KSC crew quarters about 5 hours after they landed. They had to have a medical checkup before we could see them.
The next morning we flew back to Houston, where we went to the crew reception at Ellington Field. Lots of our friends were there to welcome them home. Then we all went home ourselves, and collapsed! The long preparation for the mission, followed by the mission, and all of the activities around it had worn us out. But the next week, my son had to go to school and life had to get back to normal.
Heike Schlegel has a unique perspective on how the astronaut families have been affected by a shuttle flight, and her experience shows how European (and other) astronauts were accepted into the shuttle family. Many people are familiar with the flight crews, but don't understand the many demands that a flight puts on the families of the astronauts. They have to coordinate with schools for their children, with guests that are invited to see the launch, and with the protocol events that NASA has traditionally scheduled. But Schlegel's family has been a part of a unique community where the children grow up expecting their parents to fly in space. The families find spaceflight, and seeing their parents on television, to be a normal part of life.
As the shuttle program ends, and no astronauts will fly from the Kennedy Space Center for the foreseeable future, these traditions may well be ended. That unique community of people is dispersing.
- Kennedy Space Center
- Johnson Space Center
- flight suits