Note: I’m hoping this post will be the beginning of a series I’d like to write. If it is well received, I will continue it with each post providing a small glimpse into part of the shuttle program’s history. This series would be different from most of what you’ve read about the shuttle program before, because it is not about the hardware, but rather the people behind it.
In the early days of the space shuttle program, orbiter processing didn’t exactly go as it had originally been touted. I always laugh when I see the old charts showing a two–week turnaround between missions. It didn’t take long to figure out that it was not going to be that easy. The maintenance required turned out to be much more involved than previously thought. Hardware that was expected to last for 100 flights sometimes required replacement after only a few. The difficult part was that the orbiters were not built with this type of work in mind because it was not anticipated to be needed. This meant that vehicle processing could be quite tricky.
Fortunately, the workers were up to the challenge. At the Hypergolic Maintenance Facility (HMF) where the Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods and Forward Reaction Control System (FRCS) modules are processed, they improvised or built the things they needed to get the job done. Equipment stands, fixtures, and installation/extraction tools materialized due to pure necessity. They modified hand tools so that they would work in the areas they needed them to. They were proud of the way they were able to tackle the obstacles that sprang up.
The HMF consists of several buildings scattered over approximately eight acres. Most of the buildings were constructed in 1964 in support of the Apollo program where they were used for cryogenic testing and later for shuttle solid rocket booster aft skirt hot testing. When the facility began to be used for processing of the OMS pods and FRCS modules in the early 1980s, there was not much in the way of storage space. Ground support equipment, including the improvised fixtures, was stored in every possible nook and cranny (even in the women’s bathroom) and spilled over into a trailer that was known as “the horse trailer.” Equipment filled the horse trailer, and some that wouldn’t fit inside was stashed beneath it. It wasn’t the greatest storage solution, but everyone was too busy working to worry about it.
According to the story I was told, one day a new director or high level manager decided to come down to visit the area. When he arrived, the unsightly horse trailer with its tangle of equipment underneath must have been too much for him. Before he even got out of the car, he proclaimed, “This place looks like a *%$#!@ pig sty!” The workers were lectured about their slovenliness.
This didn’t go over too well with the technicians. According to my co-worker, “We’d done the best job we knew how- there was no appreciation for it. Everyone was really down.” Christmas was coming, so she bought some little plastic pigs- about ten for a dollar. She wrote each worker’s initials on the back of their respective pig and wrapped them up in “funny papers.” She said she handed them out and made everyone open theirs at the same time. Twenty-nine little pigs for the HMF pig sty. A good laugh for everyone.
The little pigs went to live on top of a document case on the wall in the hallway of one of the buildings at the HMF. They were glued in place there roughly 25 years ago, but only a few still remain. They serve as tiny artifacts from a little known part of space shuttle program history: the history of the people who made it possible.