The phone call from the “Mountain” to Mission Control in Houston came at just about the worst possible time. It was the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning in 1991. Up in space, the crew members on board space shuttle Atlantis were sleeping. Now all of a sudden, Lead Flight Director Milt Heflin faced a crisis.
The flight dynamics officer in Mission Control informed Heflin that the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, which tracked orbital traffic, had called to warn that a dormant Turkish satellite had a potential conjunction with the space shuttle in only 15 minutes. Moreover, this potential debris strike was due to occur in the middle of a communications blackout with the crew, as the spacecraft passed over the southern tip of Africa.
There was no way for Heflin’s engineers to calculate an avoidance maneuver, wake the crew, and communicate with them before the blackout period began. Heflin was livid—why had the Air Force not given more warning about a potential collision? Typically, they provided about 24 hours’ notice. By God, if that satellite hit Atlantis, they could very well lose the astronauts as they slept. The crew of STS-44 might never awaken.
An experienced flight director who had started work at the space agency more than two decades earlier during the Apollo program, conducting oceanic recovery operations after the Moon landings, Heflin was largely unflappable. But now, he grew tense. “When I think about all of my time, I don’t remember ever being so nervous or upset about something as I was then,” he told Ars recently.
What Heflin did not know at the time, however, is that he had been snookered by two of his flight controllers during an otherwise boring overnight shift, during a fairly routine shuttle mission to deploy several Air Force payloads. There was no derelict satellite—the allusion to “turkey” on Thanksgiving had gone over his head. But the story did not end there.
Back in the beginning, NASA was not the buttoned up space agency it is today. Early on, especially during the Mercury program, NASA’s decision makers moved quickly, often flying by the seats of their pants. There also was more room for practical jokes, even within the sanctum of Mission Control.
In his book The Birth of NASA, Manfred “Dutch” von Ehrenfried wrote about a fabled practical joke that took place a few weeks before John Glenn’s first orbital flight, in 1962, atop an Atlas rocket. Chris Kraft, NASA’s legendary first flight director, led his teams through long days and nights of training, simulations, and discussions on mission rules for this critical flight.
At the time, missions were planned and managed out of the Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and leading up to Glenn’s flight there were several scrubs. One night, to break the tedium, Kraft’s key lieutenant, Gene Kranz, decided to prank his boss the next day when two activities were due to occur simultaneously. Kraft would be leading a mission simulation while Kranz led a launch pad test with the Atlas rocket. While performing the mission simulation, Kranz knew Kraft would be watching the pad activities on a console television.
Working with John Hatcher, a video support coordinator for the control center, Kranz had an old video of an Atlas launch substituted into Kraft’s feed. Moreover, Kranz and Hatcher timed it such that the rocket would appear to liftoff immediately after Kraft threw the “Firing Command” switch as part of his simulation.
Here’s how von Ehrenfried characterizes what happened next in Florida:
As the simulation proceeded, Kraft would ask Kranz how the pad test was going and Kranz would give him a quick status check with a straight face and his head down. As the simulation got down to liftoff, at just the same moment Kraft threw the switch, Hatcher started the old Atlas liftoff video on Kraft’s console TV. Kraft’s eyes bulged and his forehead wrinkled as he stared at the TV. He turns to Kranz and says, “Did you see that?” Kranz plays dumb and says, “See what?” Without a pause, Kraft says, “The damned thing lifted off!” Hatcher and Kranz tried to keep a straight face but they both couldn’t hold back the laughter. Kraft says, “Who the hell did this?” He then realized he had been “had” and gave a half-hearted laugh. Kranz and Hatcher pulled Superman’s Cape and survived!