When Space Shuttle Endeavour lifts off on its scheduled mission Nov. 29, a
group of NASA engineers – gathered in three windowless rooms deep inside a
cavernous, non-descript government building in Huntsville, Ala. – will
provide an extra set of eyes and ears to ensure a safe and successful

For every launch since that first historic launch of a Space Shuttle in
1981, engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville have
closely monitored Shuttle propulsion system data at its Shuttle Engineering
Support Center, an area carved out of Marshall’s Huntsville Operations
Support Center.

“We never forget that safety is our primary focus,” says Jolene Martin,
Marshall’s Shuttle Integration manager and a member of Marshall’s launch
support team. “By working with the team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida,
our group at Marshall has helped keep the countdown on track and prevent
launch delays and cancellations by identifying early on potential propulsion
concerns and resolving those concerns.”

For each Shuttle launch, Marshall management and technical personnel and
contractor personnel support the Mission Management Team at Kennedy Space

During pre-launch preparations, engineers at Marshall’s support center
monitor the Shuttle’s main propulsion elements — the Main Engine, the
External Tank, the Reusable Solid Rocket Motor, the Solid Rocket Booster and
the Main Propulsion System – to identify and analyze any hardware related
problems. The Marshall Center is home to the Space Shuttle propulsion
system – where it was designed, developed and is still maintained.

“To achieve orbit, the Shuttle must accelerate from zero to a speed of
almost 18,000 mph (28,968 kilometers per hour) – a speed nine times as fast
as the average rifle bullet,” says Martin. “To make that happen, we work as
a team with the Space Shuttle Mission Management Team at Kennedy.”

Marshall’s Shuttle Engineering Support Center was first used during the
early 1960s’ Saturn rocket era. Even for the first Shuttle flight, the
center still housed a computer main frame and monitors similar to those seen
in 1960s sci-fi movies. Today the facility houses a sophisticated
communications network that ties the Marshall Center to NASA and its
contractor personnel throughout the country, providing the up-to-the-second
information needed for a safe and successful launch.

“We work so closely during launch that it’s almost as if we are holding
hands.except it’s by telephone and computer,” says Scott Schutzenhofer,
manager of the Shuttle Engineering Support Center. “We’ve actually become
more than a set of eyes and ears because we have such a high level of
expertise. Our engineers look at propulsion data every day. They’ve seen it
all.what works, what doesn’t work, and why it does or doesn’t work. That
makes the support center a key component during the launch.”

The Kennedy-Marshall-contractor network also allows the launch team to
simulate propulsion situations before actual launch, providing additional
data for the team.

“That level of expertise has helped us ‘earn our salaries’ during launch,”
adds Schutzenhofer. “We definitely make a contribution because we know the
nitty-gritty details – every little part of all four elements.”

For the 50 people who staff Marshall’s Shuttle Engineering Support Center at

launch, show time begins at T minus 10 hours – about 12 hours before
launch – and continues through launch, Main Engine cutoff and separation of
the External Tank.

Launch day begins with a teleconference with the Kennedy Center’s Mission
Management Team to discuss the launch weather conditions and any other
concerns. Then, the eyes of the support center’s engineers are glued to
computer monitors as propellant loading begins on the Shuttle. At T minus 20
minutes, the launch team conducts a poll of the managers of the four
propulsion elements to determine if any group is working any issues.
Another poll is taken at T minus 9 minutes. If nothing is reported,
countdown continues to launch.

Even when the Shuttle has lifted off the pad, engineers remain focused on
the flight. Marshall’s Space Shuttle Projects Office is responsible for the
first eight-and-a-half minutes of each Shuttle launch. During those crucial
510 seconds, the Reusable Solid Rocket Motors generate enough energy to
power 87,000 homes for a full day, the Solid Rocket Boosters accelerate the
Shuttle to 3,000 mph (4,828 kilometers per hour), the External Tank feeds
535,000 gallons (202.5 deciliters) of liquid propellants to the Main Engine,
and inside the combustion chambers of Shuttle’s three main engines
temperatures are hot enough to melt steel.

Once the Shuttle’s main engines reach cutoff, engineers at Marshall’s
Engineering Support Center begin gathering reams of data generated by the
launch. The information is then cataloged for post-flight study.

“The Shuttle is a great vehicle, but we never forget that it takes a lot of
tender loving care,” says Martin.

The Marshall Center is NASA’s lead center for development of space
transportation and propulsion systems and advanced large optics
manufacturing technology, as well as microgravity research – scientific
research in the unique low-gravity environment inside the International
Space Station and other spacecraft.