Willamette University

Up Close: Go at Throttle Up!

By Neil Hutchinson ’61

This summer, Atlantis completed the final mission a space shuttle will ever fly; since 1981, shuttles have flown 135 times.

Here’s a timely testimony from a Willamette space man, Neil Hutchinson ’61, who has sat in the NASA hot seats and spoken at the university about the future of manned space exploration. An alumni citation winner, Hutchinson and his class will be returning to campus for their 50th reunion this month.

I’ve always maintained that it is better to be lucky than good. Maybe it takes a little of both to be successful.

An aerospace career path basically did not exist until after my class graduated from Willamette in 1961, but all the ingredients were moving into place for such a thing, especially with professors who really knew how to teach physics and math (Professors Luther, Purbrick and Stewart, to name three). Armed with some of their knowledge, I set off on a great adventure.

Here’s where a bit of luck comes around. NASA was hiring. Fascinated by John Glenn’s three-orbit flight, I was hooked. I joined NASA in 1962 and almost immediately moved to the newly created Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. In 1967, I became an Apollo guidance officer in mission control, and the next four years saw Apollo flights around Earth, around the moon, and finally the moon landing with Apollo 11. Fortunately, I was active in all of them at various positions in mission control. Of all the close calls we had (and there was at least one on every flight), Apollo 13 was of course the closest — maybe the most daring space flight of all time. All that experience in mission control led to my being selected as a NASA flight director on Apollo 16. I was privileged to lead the team that brought the final moon landing crew on Apollo 17 safely back to earth in 1972.

What followed were flight director assignments on all three Skylab missions and, in 1975, Apollo/Soyuz with the Russians. By this time the U.S. had decided to build a space shuttle, a strange-looking vehicle that took off like a rocket but landed like a plane and could carry lots of cargo and seven crew members in a single flight. Once again, in the right place at the right time, I got the daunting task of leading the team that launched the first shuttle test flight.

Never in the history of human space flight had a new vehicle been launched with astronauts in it without previous unmanned test flights. We spent three years establishing all the ground and spacecraft procedures that would be used to fly the shuttle, and in 1978 my team — along with John Young and Bob Crippen, the prime crew — began training for the flight. We practiced, practiced and practiced some more, honing those procedures and examining virtually every failure scenario imaginable. I was always worried about the solid rockets that burn for the first two minutes or so because you can’t shut them off once they’re ignited.

On top of that, to keep the aerodynamic loads from tearing the shuttle apart, the three main engines must be throttled back in the first stage and then throttled up to full thrust just before those solid rockets are spent and discarded.

Part of the procedure that we developed was a radio call from mission control to the crew saying that everything looked good with the engines back at full thrust: “Go at throttle up!” On April 12, 1981, we were “go at throttle up” in the real flight.

That exact call was just made for the 135th time, to Atlantis, on July 8, 2011, during the final launch of the space shuttle.

Moon Scape