'There's the Orbiter, Go Put a Motor in It'

The first time anyone installed a main engine in a space shuttle in 1980, it took three days and prompted a series of changes that quickly became standard practice.

"The first one, it was, 'There's the orbiter, go put a motor in it,'" recalled Robert "Bob" Rysdyk, a lead engine technician for Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne who helped install that first engine.

There were laser instruments galore marking off all sorts of measurements as technicians tried to set the first engine carefully inside shuttle Columbia's aft compartment.

Rysdyk credits engineer Roy Austin with working out a simple solution.

"He actually went down to the janitor's closet and cut two broomsticks the same length and used those to align the pump to the orbiter," Rysdyk said.

Thirty years and more than 130 missions later, Rysdyk was part of the team that installed what’s expected to be the last set of main engines in a shuttle, this time in Atlantis. It took less than four hours and the team used the same measurements that Austin came up with when he cut the broom handles.

Two years before that first installation, Rysdyk said he had no space program ambitions.

"I was working on four-cylinder airplane engines that would fit on a desk," Rysdyk said. "I got recruited from my next door neighbor who was an engineer out here in '79. Literally, my application was a sheet of notebook paper with my name and what I did on it. I got a job interview and hired within a week."

Michael Kerasotis, a quality inspector with Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, came to Kennedy in 1979 as part of a summer program. He started working on the shuttle's tiles but migrated to engine work within a couple years of Columbia's first launch.

"This has been the longest summer ever," Kerasotis joked. "We got a pass to come out here and see (the shuttle). I never thought I'd be working on it."

One of the most carefully choreographed aspects of preparing a shuttle for launch involves placing three 7,700 pound main engines into the back of the spacecraft.

It takes eight people and a lot of patience.

The machinery involved starts with a cone-shaped fitting specially made to handle a main engine. Because the engines face slightly up toward the rudder, they have to be installed at an angle. So the fitting is welded to a sliding rack. The rack and fitting are, in turn, positioned on the front of a huge forklift known as the "Hyster" for the engine installation.

The engine installer, forklift and the technicians who oversee an installation preach careful control anytime an engine is on the move.

The installer has seen very few changes since it was brought to Kennedy in the late 70s, Rysdyk said.

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