Long before space shuttle Columbia flew on its STS-1 maiden flight and into the history books, NASA astronauts trained for years before they were ready to fly.
One of the mainstays of training has been the Crew Equipment Interface Test, or CEIT, developed to prepare astronauts for their missions in space while still here on Earth.
CEIT is held at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida about two months prior to launch, and gives astronauts the opportunity for hands-on training with the actual tools, equipment and hardware they'll use in orbit.
But there's more to the training than meets the eye. A lot of preparation goes into making sure all the elements are in place before the astronauts arrive -- and after they leave.
Dave Andrews, Engineering Systems Specialist with United Space Alliance's Flight Crew Systems Engineering Group, knows first-hand what it takes to get ready for CEIT. Since STS-41D, in 1984, Andrews has been working CEIT.
"It was a very new program in the '80s," said Andrews, "and it was exciting to meet all the different folks who worked out here including the astronauts, that we had personal contact with."
Some of the hardware for the shuttle is prepared at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and shipped to Kennedy. Andrews' group installs the flight equipment into the crew module for each training session and mission.
Many requirements come from Johnson but back then there were no computers, so instructions were sent and received by fax, while many procedures were hand-written with pen and paper, recalled Andrews.
With the advent of computers and email, planning for CEIT became less cumbersome, but no less exacting. Each flight has its own set of requirements and equipment.
"Over the years there have been a lot of modifications to the shuttle, so every CEIT is unique in that it incorporates the latest changes to the orbiter," Andrews said.
Aside from the modifications to the vehicles, with construction of the International Space Station underway, CEIT training became slightly more generic in that the vehicle configuration was generally similar. Only the payload was different, based on the needs to accomplish the mission.
The STS-125 mission to service NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is an example of the need for a different scope of equipment and hardware. "That mission," said Andrews, "had its own unique set of requirements because it wasn't going to the station and we had to prepare the vehicle in case it had to stay on orbit and wait for a rescue vehicle if there was an issue."
CEIT is a planned event, which means it's programmed around the astronauts' training schedule in Houston and usually falls on a weekend. The advantage is that during that time there's usually no maintenance work being done on the vehicle so crew and staff can have full access to every area of the shuttle.
While the mock-up shuttle trainers in Houston are amazingly accurate, some of the doors that open will have only a piece of plywood behind them according Andrews, so CEIT is very important for the astronauts to get a "real feel" for the vehicle and for what they'll experience while on orbit.
"During CEIT it might be the first time, first-time flyers have seen the shuttle they're going to fly in -- or have even seen the actual shuttle itself," Andrews said.
About a week before CEIT, Andrews' group installs the hardware into the vehicle's crew module and payload bay. Also installed are hundreds of cables providing connections for video, high-definition television and data links. His team then fit checks or tests the hardware on the ground before fight to ensure those parts can be installed on orbit as planned.
"Every mission is unique for our group so it keeps us on our toes. We get a lot of last minute requests to provide hardware for the space station or last-minute requests from the crew for changes they like to see incorporated," said Andrews. "A lot of times we're putting stuff into the orbiter a day before launch and sometimes our job's not done until the closeout crew closes the hatch on launch day."
In-fight maintenance procedures also are followed precisely so in case there's an anomaly during a mission the crew can practice the repair on the ground first. "It's a good training exercise both for the crew and for the in-flight maintenance crew who also come down here for CEIT," said Andrews.
Andrews said that one of the exceptional things about working with his group is that he gets not only to meet the astronauts but occasionally gets to know them on a personal level. "I'm grateful for the relationships that were established with many of the crew members over the years."
The astronauts have even commented on how important CEIT was to their success in space. Commander Eileen Collins said during the STS-114 Return to Flight CEIT training at Kennedy in July 2004, "from cable routing to tool stowage to tile inspection, CEIT makes us better prepared to carry out our mission."
After the astronauts have returned to Houston, Andrews' group checks all the cabling and hardware configurations before fight.
"We try to capture all the unique interfaces here on the ground to make sure everything is going to fit correctly -- if for some reason it doesn't fit here on the ground we repair the hardware or reroute a cable so it goes from point A to point B as it would on orbit," Andrews said. "We try to do everything here on the ground perfect or as close to perfect as we can so there are no issues on orbit for the crew to have to work or have to work around."
Andrews remarked about how proud he and his group are when the astronauts return from a mission and thank them for the exceptional work they've put into the spacecraft making their stay as issue-free as possible.
"For me it's been a great 26 years," Andrews said. "We all knew it had to end sometime, we couldn't fly the shuttle forever. We were told a few years ago that 2010 was about the time we were going to move on to the next program … It's been a great, great ride."
For more information visit http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/flyout/ceit.html
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