The Countdown Has Begun Everything is already prepared for the launching of the “Columbia” Space shuttle, and inside of it Colonel Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli Astronaut. In Houston, the astronauts are going through final exercises in preparation of the flight and are practicing the experiments that they will conduct in Space. In Cape Canaveral, the launching spot, engineers and technicians are in the end-stages of testing the shuttle itself. Given no last minute changes, July 19th will grant us a representative in Space. Colonel Ilan Ramon, a final personal column before the launch

Shalom and greetings for IAF day,

The big day is getting closer and closer, and now it is just around the corner. Our crew, the STS-107 crew, is now called the “Prime Crew”. We are the next ones to be launched into Space!

After conducting joint training for almost two years, we’re in the last stages before the launch. The shuttle in which we will be launched, “Columbia”, has also gone through intensive preparation for the flight in the past three months.

The ground round of the shuttle, meaning the phase in which it is on planet Earth between landing and takeoff, is at least four months long. Throughout this round, the engines and cargo equipment that served the shuttle in the previous flight are dissembled, and in a methodical and unbelievably planned manner begins the work of assembling the equipment and engines for the next flight.
The shuttle goes through the majority of preparation in a hangar called OPF (Orbiter Processing Facility), in which it is placed among several platform floors that allow access to every one of its parts and crevices. The shuttle’s systems are examined one by one, the technicians and engineers suction and refill the cooling liquids and assemble the experiments and flight equipment in the shuttle’s cargo.

After this, the shuttle’s three main engines are assembled in its rear segment, and two giant pods that hold dozens of smaller engines are installed on each side of the tail. After the installation, integration examinations are conducted on all shuttle equipment and systems. At the end of these tests, the shuttle is towed from the OPF to the VAB (Vertical Assembly Building). Before moving the shuttle into the building, two solid-fuel rackets are installed inside it, along with the large orange liquid-fuel tank. The rackets (SRB1) are connected with eight screws to the launching platform. In fact, the entire shuttle stands on these eight screws. This is the only link to the launching platform.

The shuttle is towed, as I said, to the VAB building. There, it is “hung” on a special crane, swung to a vertical position and connected to the giant fuel tank for five days. Only then is the shuttle prepared to ride to the launching pad. Together with the two solid-fuel rackets and the fuel tank, the shuttle is towed by using a giant tractor-which travels at one mile per hour-toward the launching point.

And what about the crew members? Even before swinging the shuttle to a vertical position, as it still is in the OPF building, we’ll arrive for an examination day called CEIT (Crew Equipment Interface Test). We’ll fly four T-38 planes from Houston to Cape Canaveral, in order to examine the equipment in the shuttle and its suitability to the needs of the flight. This is one of two special waypoints in the final preparations for the flight. On this day, the astronauts test every drawer, check every switch, and make sure that every component is aligned with the demands and expectations. Afterward-the work needed to correct matters will be completed.

Our last main waypoint in our final preparation will be two weeks before the flight, in the TCDT (Terminal Court Down Test). This is a perfect final rehearsal for the launch. We will board the T-38 planes again and take off from Houston toward Cape Canaveral. There, we will practice everything-absolutely everything-that we will go through two days before the launch: Including, for example, the pre-flight weather briefing, the official ceremonies, the traditional elevator ride down the residential building and the waving toward the cameras.
The more serious aspect of the TCDT includes all the stages of suiting up, the ride to the launching pad and the elevator ride up to the “White Room”. That room, at 195 Feet, is the room in which every astronaut goes through the last examinations before going into the shuttle. After them, other astronauts will help us strap into our seats, which are positioned at a 90 degree angle.
Simultaneously, all groundwork that is needed in preparation for the launch will be conducted. All observation and control decks will be manned , and the countdown process-all of its stages and details-will be conducted as if toward a real launch. Everything, absolutely everything, up to “timezero”, which is the moment of igniting the engines. This is the only thing that will not be performed in the final rehearsal.

At the launching spot, the situation will be taken advantage of in order to practice our evacuation in cases of emergency. We-tied in chairs, at 90 degrees-will have to free ourselves from the straps, the parachute, the cooling system and communication systems and open the Hatch (the round opening of the shuttle) without the help of anyone else. Afterward, we will run a predetermined track toward a net-woven basket system, with the help of which we will “Omega” from 195 feet to the bottom of the launching pad. From there, we will run toward an emergency bunker, or-if the situation demands additional distance-we will board a “Zelda”, with which we will tear the gate surrounding the launching pad, and distance ourselves. The TCDT will be conducted, as I mentioned, two weeks prior to the launch. When it ends, we-the crew-will return to Houston, for true last-minute preparations. One week before the takeoff we will be put in isolation, in order to prevent us from contracting any illnesses. The only ones who will be able to see us (once a day) will be our partners, after they go through medical examinations as well.

Meanwhile, we are continuing training and practicing in simulators here in Houston in preparation for the flight. These simulations include the entire control crew, the MCC (Mission Control Center), and at times the entire team of scientists and those responsible for the experiments. Some of them are at the control center in Houston, and some at other control center throughout the United States, such as the NASA center in Goddard, near Washington.

Additionally, there is the media. We will participate in press conferences leading up to the flight, and NASA’s television channel conducts personal interviews with each of us, which are intended to collect information that will be televised before and during the flight.
Even throughout the flight itself there a number of opportunities planned for us to give television interviews, which will be broadcasted live. In addition, every day we will edit a daily movie, which will include the highlights of that day’s activities. This film will be broadcasted to planet Earth, screened on NASA’s television channel, and will later be transferred through tapes to the families. Toward the end of the flight, one 20-minute broadcast is planned especially for Israel. It will be transferred to all television stations in Israel and will be edited in the Hebrew language, of course.

You all, I assume, are asking yourselves the same question-how am I feeling, and whether or not I am excited. And well, the answer may surprise you-this is all very similar to the situation before every special mission at the IAF. There is no time to get excited. You are so busy and focused on preparing for the mission, so focused on making it work, that there is no time to think about getting emotional.

I assume that in the morning of the launch, as I put on the spacesuit, and later when I ride the elevator toward the shuttle-I will feel emotional. But right now, despite the fact that we are a mere few weeks away from the launch-there is no time for excitement.

Happy holidays in honor of IAF day, and with a salute and much appreciation for all soldiers and officers of the IAF,

Your soon-to-be representative in Space,

Colonel Ilan Ramon, Houston