When the countdown reaches 13 seconds, orange-colored flame spurts from the main shuttle engine. At launch, the booster rockets roar and concrete begins to shudder. The rocket lifts, hangs momentarily in billows of fire and thunder, and then streaks incessantly upward.
What has happened, in essence, is that a flight vehicle that weighs as much as 60 fully loaded semi-trailers is lifted by more than a million pounds of thrust, until it reaches a speed of 17,500 miles per hour, to a yards-wide pinpoint in space more than 200 miles up.Behind each launching is a history of technological advances, decades of trial and error, and successes that have been accomplished after failures and fatalities.
A number of Church members at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral (which was re-named Cape Kennedy for a short period of time) are involved in some of the most significant aspects of the space program. One who has seen firsthand the liftoffs and splashdowns of America's space program is Craig E. McCreary, former bishop of the Titusville (Fla.) Ward and a NASA engineer for more than 26 years.
McCreary, a soft-spoken supervisor, is one of perhaps four dozen members who are part of a 17,000-person work force on this Merritt Island facility. When he joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, it was just six years old.
His first project was overseeing the mechanical operation of Gemini 3, the first two-man space flight with astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young.
The Gemini flight was successfully launched, and McCreary's next assignment was Apollo 8, a three-man capsule carried into space by a 36-story-high Saturn rocket, so large it required a freight train with 96 tank cars to bring in its fuel. This "moon look" flight was also successful, launched from the Kennedy Space Center. His next assignment was Apollo 11, also with a Saturn rocket, which culminated in the successful moon landing effort July 20, 1969.
"On both Apollo flights, I was in the firing controlT room," he recalled. "We monitored conditions in the spacecraft." A few times, he said, he relayed instructions to the astronauts to correct problems.
When the Apollo returned from the moon and successfully splashed into the Pacific, it was also a splashdown of America's space program, a traumatic interlude following success.
Thousands of people were laid off. The impact was severe on the Titusville Ward, which lost two-thirds of its members who had to move away in search of other jobs. At the time, McCreary was bishop of the Titusville Ward. "I was bishop - and employment specialist," he said. "Most of those who left never came back to Titusville. We wanted to keep things together so when new people came, they would have something to come to."
McCreary was next assigned to the Orbiter, or space shuttle. He worked on "all the things that make it an airplane - the flaps, landing gear, flight controls."
Because of pressing launch dates, projects at the center often reach high-stress levels. McCreary and others have, in the past, worked up to 12 hours a day, week after week, month after month. "Being a Church member has helped me handle stress better," he said. "The work load strains families, LDS families too." But members seem to withstand the pressure better.
Work in the space industry has very high emotional moments, and very low times. He recalled one of the lows came in 1967 with fire that took the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. "It was about the same as the Challenger disaster," he said. "But it was more personal. It happened right on the ground." The Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986, during the 25th flight of a space shuttle, was an "emotionally devastating" event for space workers. It cast a pall across the space community for months. Hundreds of workers were laid off as the scheduled flights abruptly halted.
He said one of the things about being a member of the Church is that after such a disaster, one is better able to cope with the emotional strain and trauma.
Prior to the Challenger disaster, McCreary was assigned to work on the landing gear design of the four space shuttles. In a recent Church News interview, he explained the engineering problems involved - the ships have little area for landing gear storage during flight, so the wheels must be very small. Yet the ships land at 220 miles per hour and its nose-down-landing increases air pressure, doubling the weight of the ships. And, "the tires are always a problem," he said, in an engineer's matter-of-fact way. "You don't want a tire to go flat in space, or have a blowout while landing.
"I mothered that program for almost six years. We never had a problem with the landing gear."
Today, he's working on futuristic projects - the proposed Space Station and an Advanced Launch "big booster" System, to be operable by 1995 and 1998, respectively. The ALS system will use rockets similar to the moon-flight Saturn rockets, to be large enough to carry a payload of 200,000 pounds.
Since the Challenger disaster, other LDS engineers have joined the space community, most assigned with safety responsibilities. Among them is George McKaige, systems assurance engineer for Morton Thiokol, who takes part in overseeing reliability of the booster rockets.
McKaige, high priests group leader and Sunday School teacher in the Titusville Ward, said, "There are many members of the Church working at Kennedy Space Center. We kind of show up everywhere."
Byron Bonds of Teldyne-Brown Engineering and a Scoutmaster in the Titusville Ward wears a medical-like cap and gown in a nearly dust free environment as he works on payloads. One payload, for example, is a scientific telescope made to observe changes in wavelengths of ultraviolet light.
"The LDS members are respected here," said Bonds. "A lot of questions about the Church are asked in the office."
Another who came in the wake of the Challenger is Richard Price, Titusville Ward mission leader, who works with the computers in the Firing Room and oversees proposed changes in equipment.
Since the Challenger accident, "an astronomical number of things are tracked (for safety)," he said. "My concern is that the changes actually make an improvement, and that there are no secondary effects. My job is also to have the computers used at their fullest potential."