In honor of the last American space shuttle launch, our July Jump a Random Skydiver is astronaut Fred Leslie. He and his wife Kathy were on the Discovery launch jump (a peculiarly Florida tradition of skydiving at the same time a space shuttle launches). We didn’t have room for everything Fred and Kathy talked about with us, so here is a little extra, because pixels don’t cost…much.
“The launch is one of the best things. You do a lot of training in simulators and you also train on the vehicle. When the vehicle goes out to the pad you’ll go out there and strap in and do sort of a dirt dive, [practice] some emergency exits in the thing. It’s usually very active, there are still engineers out there putting things in, checking things out and there are a lot of trucks going by and all kinds of activity. But when you go out on a launch day…nobody’s there. Except just a few people, and they strap you in, real tight, and then they leave. They close the hatch, and I had a window seat, so I could see the white room, that’s the little room you walk in to. And you can see it kind of slowly moving away. And you know that, hey, we’re serious, we’re gonna go.
“But our flight did delay several times. We got called out twice and didn’t go. It is a huge letdown. You’re very ready to go, psyched up, ready to do what you’re supposed to do and then they say, ‘Oh, we’re not going.’ And so it’s tough. The first time was a mechanical problem, and the second time was a weather problem. The first time, we counted down to T-minus twenty minutes and the second time we counted down to T-minus five minutes. And then we held, and held, and then finally said we’re not gonna go. And one something about that is that when they say you’re not going, it takes about an hour to get back out. The crew has to come all the way back out, unlock the elevators, safe the vehicle, come back up, open the hatch, un-strap you, and help you out. But if you go…you’re there in eight and a half minutes. So it’s a lot better to go than to get back out.”
Is there anything remotely comparable to going to space?
“Well, I mean skydiving is something you can do every weekend. Even if you’re a professional astronaut, you’re not going to fly in space every weekend. Typically they’ll make a flight and they may wait five to ten years for the next one…So there’s a long time between flights, typically. But skydiving, you can do that every weekend if you want to. And there’s some stress in skydiving, like important positions and everyone’s counting on you and you’re gonna be on video. You know, you have to concentrate on that just as well. On the shuttle, during the ascent, most of it is automated, so you’re just kind of letting the computer do its thing. And if there’s some emergency, you have some things to do. If we lose an engine and we cannot turn around to land, or we cannot get it to the Transatlantic Abort Site, which is in Zaragoza, Spain, then we would bail out, so we do wear parachutes.”
“If you ever see the crew, when they’re getting in, they’re wearing a harness and inside, on the seat, is a parachute. So when you’re inside and you lay down, they connect a parachute to risers and some side links. If, for some reason, you cannot make it to a hard surface runway, in the even that there’s a problem—you lose an engine, have a power failure, something like that—the orbiter doesn’t float, so you would have to get out. My job was to extend a spring loaded pole below the side of the hatch—there’s a hatch with an explosive bolt that blows off— my job was to pull the release and extend that pole outside the vehicle. Then we would connect what is essentially a static-line to that and we would roll out. It would be automatic from there, there’s a parachute that opens, a 26’ round canopy. It’s small so you are going to hit hard. The intention is to land in water. The suit, the one we wear for the ascent is about 70 pounds, so yeah, you’re gonna hit kinda hard. But not as hard as if you’d stayed in the vehicle.”
And, if you’ve read this month’s issue, you know Fred is the subject of a great conspiracy:
If you still can’t get enough, here’s even more – the full, unedited interview. Beware, it took place on the deck of Skydive DeLand during big-way landings, so there is a considerable peanut gallery: AstronautJARSinterview.mp3