TDRSS and the End of Space Shuttle’s Mentos Era

So one thing Heather and I have decided while working on “Bold They Rise” is that the TDRSS may be one of the worst things to have happened to the American space program. (If you don’t know what TDRSS is, be patient, I’ll explain in a second.)

You ever see one of those classic 80s-era shows where the climactic solution is always the same? No matter what else they try, the Voltron team is always going to win in the last three minutes by forming Voltron and creating the mighty sword. There were few problems KITT couldn’t solve with Turbo Boost. For the A-Team, it was van modifications.

In writing the book, we’ve notice that, in proper 80s-era fashion, the pre-Challenger space shuttle program had its own version — LOS.

You see, when the space shuttle program started, astronauts in orbit could only talk to mission control in certain locations. There were communications stations on the ground, and the shuttle had to be in range of one of those in order to talk to people on Earth.

You came into range, and you could talk. You were AOS — Acquisition of Signal.

You moved on, and you went LOS — Loss of Signal. No contact between space and ground.

And then came TDRSS — the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System. Now, instead of communicating directly with ground stations, spacecraft communicate with a network of satellites, and those communicate with the ground. TDRSS covers pretty much anywhere in orbit — AOS and LOS are a thing of the past.

Back in the olden days, though, LOS was when things happened. During AOS, you worked with the ground, and you followed the book.

But sometimes, going by the book didn’t work.

In those occasions, which were not in frequent, LOS was when things got done. With no one to tell them not to, astronauts moved the shuttle’s robot arm in ways it was never designed to move. They reached out and grabbed satellites in ways that weren’t entirely nominal. They did what they thought needed to be done, and, as a general rule, it worked.

Mission control would lose contact with the shuttle facing an insurmountable problem. With AOS, the problem would be mysteriously solved.

And then came TDRSS, and the mystery solutions ended. Progress does have its costs.

All of that, Heather and I agreed on. The thing we disagreed on is this:

Heather imagines the shuttle going AOS, mission control finding out what happens, and people slamming things down when they realized that the crew had played fast and loose with things with which one should not play fast and loose. “Those darn astronauts …”

I, on the other hand, picture the scene in mission control as being more like the end of one of the classic Mentos commercials, in which someone has done something annoying but is immediately and amusedly forgiven for their wacky antics when they flash a pack of Mentos.

“Oh, you guys …”