Mike Butler is too busy to unpack. At the rear of his office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., stacked cardboard boxes of paperwork and supplies almost block the view from his window of rolling green pastures and low, tree-lined hills.

Butler doesn’t have time to deal with the boxes — reminders of his team’s recent move to new quarters closer to the rest of the Shuttle Propulsion Office at Marshall. And the only view he’s interested in these days is the one looking down from atop the Space Shuttle Discovery’s massive External Tank, the 154-foot-tall, orange fuel tank built for NASA by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of New Orleans. In May, the External Tank will help lift the STS-114: Space Shuttle Return to Flight mission to space.

Like most of the nation, Butler will be watching Discovery’s historic flight. But he may be watching more closely than some. He manages the team responsible for the External Tank-Mounted Shuttle Observation Camera, which is mounted in a recessed area of the External Tank’s liquid oxygen feedline, the 70-foot conduit that delivers propellant to the Shuttle Main Engine. The camera team is spending the final weeks before flight ensuring the camera, a primary tool for recording Discovery’s launch, is in proper working order, and securely mounted to withstand the powerful energy of liftoff, as the Shuttle accelerates — in a little more than eight minutes — toward its 17,500 mph orbital cruising speed. From its vantage point, the feedline camera will record the ascent, maintain a bird’s eye view of the Orbiter and, most importantly, document the behavior of foam insulation covering several key areas of the External Tank.

The polyurethane foam is a critical safety element. Once the External Tank is loaded with the 535,000 gallons of super-cold liquid hydrogen fuel and liquid oxygen propellant needed to loft the Shuttle into the sky, the insulating foam helps maintain the interior temperature and prevents buildup of potentially dangerous ice on the exposed aluminum exterior. After the loss of Shuttle Columbia in February 2003, it was determined the foam itself posed a potential debris risk during liftoff. Preventing foam loss — and documenting future instances to provide an early warning system and permit repairs — were critical recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Together with cameras on the Shuttle’s Solid Rocket Boosters, still and video cameras used by the crew in flight and enhanced cameras on the ground and on “chase planes” that fly in the Shuttle’s vicinity, the feedline camera will help NASA develop a comprehensive, second-by-second picture of each launch. The camera, a Sony XC-999 ultra-compact integrated camera module with a heavy, shatterproof quartz lens, can record 30 high-resolution frames per second. Butler is satisfied it will function smoothly — it previously recorded breathtaking images of Shuttle Atlantis’ ascent during the STS-112 flight in October 2002, the first mission in which a camera was installed on the tank.

But there’s no time to breathe easy just yet. Butler switches team-lead hats, checking in with various tank engineers on fresh issues. He manages what are known as “launch commit criteria” for the External Tank — the final set of safety checks used by spacecraft managers on the day of launch to verify whether Shuttle hardware is indeed ready to fly. Butler oversees more than a dozen launch criteria for the tank, and works closely with criteria managers for other Shuttle components, helping to ensure NASA launch personnel are prepared to finalize Discovery’s go/no-go status on the pad.

Butler routinely huddles for updates via conference calls with Shuttle teams across NASA: tank manufacturers at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans; launch facility managers at Kennedy; members of the Astronaut Corps at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “There are a lot of reviews, a lot of voices speaking up,” he says. “Everyone is working to make this flight the safest it can be. We’re confident we’ve achieved that.”

Butler was born in Pensacola, Fla., and raised in Huntsville. He earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1984 from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, before joining Marshall’s Systems Analysis and Integration Office the same fall. He was promoted in 1988 to the Systems Engineering Project in the Shuttle Propulsion Office, and has climbed through the office’s ranks ever since. A tall, rangy outdoorsman, Butler still looks like the young man who ran track for the Crimson Tide. And his athletic nature has proved handy at NASA over the years.

“We’re constantly on the move, solving problems, staying ahead of issues,” he says. “The last two years have really shown what NASA is willing to give for the American people. This is good work. And a great team.”

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