Discovery Engineer Describes Launch Atmosphere

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Lockheed Martin engineer Mike McGee talks about his concerns and reaction to the successful liftoff of the Space Shuttle Discovery. McGee managed the team that built the external fuel tank on the space shuttle.

Unidentified Woman: Good morning, Discovery, and welcome to tomorrow.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

That's how the astronauts on board the shuttle Discovery started their first full day in space. Their first task is to examine the craft for any signs of damage during yesterday's launch. NASA officials say it appeared that two objects broke off during liftoff, but they do not think that either hit the shuttle itself.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

During liftoff, one of the people watching anxiously was Lockheed Martin engineer Mike McGee. Mike McGee manages a team at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, which built the huge orange fuel tank that towered over the shuttle as it stood on the launchpad.

Good morning.

Mr. MIKE McGEE (Lockheed Martin): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Where were you actually when the launch occurred?

Mr. McGEE: I was right here at the Michoud Assembly Facility. They erected a 30-foot screen, and all of the facility was in the main production building watching the launch together, so it was extremely exciting to be surrounded by all the thousands of people who've worked the hardest over the last two and a half years to get this ready to fly.

MONTAGNE: While the shuttle was lifting off, what was going through your mind?

Mr. McGEE: Actually, I'm an old athlete, and the feeling prior to launch was that of a game day. It was all the emotions from anxiety to nervousness to excitement, and then just seeing Discovery lift off the pad was just an incredible sense of pride in the hard work that everyone's done over the past two and a half years.

MONTAGNE: So what changes did you have to make to the tank and the foam insulation to make it safe for Discovery?

Mr. McGEE: Stopping the foam from shedding off of the tank and preventing ice. Some of the changes were the new bipod heaters that were added to reduce the formation of ice, as well as a low-profile foam insulation on the bipod so it would not shed during assent. We also added the in-flight camera imagery, which you saw during the liftoff, those fabulous pictures that were taken from aboard the external tank.

MONTAGNE: Having worked on it, did you have any sense, in a way, of almost a loss as you watched that huge fuel tank, you know, slip away from the shuttle and start falling towards the sea?

Mr. McGEE: Oh, no, it was not a loss, because that's the beauty in the external tank for us. It's the only non-reusable portion of the space shuttle system, and so our excitement comes from the fact that for its eight and a half minutes, it performed exactly as designed, and then the final chapter in the external tank is to watch its breakup and falling off into the ocean.

MONTAGNE: You and your colleagues helped build the tank that launched the Columbia space shuttle two and a half years ago. How did that affect your work and your feelings about this launch?

Mr. McGEE: Well, it made us that much more committed and focused to producing a perfect piece of hardware, and with this launch, it was almost a way of bringing closure to the past and allowing us to move forward into building the new improved version of the external tank.

MONTAGNE: Mike McGee is an engineer at Lockheed Martin. He managed the team that built the external fuel tank on the shuttle Discovery.

Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. McGEE: OK. Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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