Flying 'blind' inside Mission Control
Ascent Flight Director Richard Jones, seated second from left, confers with his team Friday at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
July 9th, 2011
02:37 PM ET

Flying 'blind' inside Mission Control

Editor's note: Tracy Sabo is a senior producer at CNN. She was granted unusual access to watch Friday's space shuttle launch from inside Mission Control at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Here is her first-person account:

As space shuttle Atlantis was in final countdown on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, I sat in Johnson Space Center's Mission Control in Houston watching the historic mission from a perspective rarely seen by non-NASA employees and contractors.

The feeling of "history in the making" was palpable as Richard Jones, the ascent flight director, stood pacing and scratching his head in the middle of the floor. Jones was poring over data on screens both big and small inside this intense scene at NASA Mission Control.

The weather was a major concern for the launch team as thunderstorms were consistently a "moderate threat." With the world watching this final shuttle mission, the pressure of an on-time launch must have been immense on the shoulders of this team.

However, officials constantly reminded us that "safety comes first" at NASA and the launch would be called off if everything didn't come together perfectly during a narrow window of opportunity. A decision likely would come down "to the final seconds," a spokesman said.

Listening to the flight director poll his Mission Control team in the final minutes sent chills down my spine. Despite the early weather threats, all systems were determined "Go for launch," and the official countdown clock began.

Everyone on the Mission Control floor was intently focused on the consoles and computer screens in front of them - data in all colors, shapes and sizes. Other than the weather radar I recognized, I couldn't begin to describe what each screen represented. However, I got the sense quickly that each person was a master of his or her domain.

I was in awe listening to Jones' calm demeanor as he led his team and communicated with the four astronauts in the final moments before they were to be propelled out of the Earth's atmosphere at almost 25,000 mph.

The countdown began: "Ten, nine, eight, seven . ..."

I searched the room for a live picture of the shuttle on the launch pad - the iconic picture of the rocket boosters igniting for liftoff and heading into outer space. It was soon to be the final NASA space shuttle launch that Americans would ever witness, and the moment the world was waiting to see was less than five seconds away.

And that's when it struck me: There was no live video in Mission Control showing the shuttle launch pad!

Other than a few tiny screens in the back of the room being watched and narrated live on NASA TV by public affairs officer Rob Navius, the massive screens at the front of the room and in front of each console showed nothing but "data." Some of it was numerical; some were maps, and others displayed charts and graphs.

How in the world is it possible these men and women at the helm of one of the most-watched events of the decade couldn't even see the shuttle themselves? Working in television, where the focus is always on live pictures, it was absolutely unthinkable to me.

Sure enough, the historic launch went off without a hitch moments later - yes, without any visual or live picture of the iconic space shuttle for those in Mission Control to witness.

Following the launch, I expressed my shock to Jones that he never even saw the launch he led and oversaw. His response shocked me even more: "Video tells me nothing. ... It's actually distracting."

Turns out, all that data in front of Jones and his team of engineers represents everything they need to see to direct the perfect liftoff, he said. But what about those riveting, emotional, historic pictures the rest of the world was watching Friday?

Jones said that after celebrating with his Mission Control staff and relaxing from a tense day of decision-making, he'll eventually watch those launch pictures at home.

He said he expected "to see a beautiful, beautiful launch." He would not be disappointed.

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Filed under: Atlantis • NASA • Shuttle • Space • Texas
soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. ben

    @Larry L: don't fret NASA is actually doing more pure science without the shuttle than it ever has with. Yes the shuttle was fun but it severe limitations and has held us back from deep space exploration. We're certainly never going to send a team to Mars as long as the shuttle program continues, it's time for the program to die. It should've happened 17 years ago.

    July 9, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ben

    Meant severely, sorry.

    July 9, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
  3. ben

    Actually should've been severely limited us.

    July 9, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
  4. yeah

    i am not too sure. but i think if you are a nice person your life will be nicer. and much happier and better too. you should try it. it sure works for me. kindness is a good thing.

    July 9, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jazzzzzzzz

    I ate a green snot lime kiwee pie for lunch. Then I went to my stall and slept.

    July 9, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Report abuse |
  6. leeintulsa

    @avser: says you. Who are you?

    July 10, 2011 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
  7. ed Bailey

    By by birdie!

    July 11, 2011 at 2:11 am | Report abuse |
  8. Space fan

    The reporter did not do her homework if she "couldn't begin to describe what each screen represented."

    In thinking about it – it's not strange at all there's no video of the launch. You want everyone in that room focused on the piece of the production they are responsible for and not the "pretty picture" that's the final result.

    July 21, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
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