How a Shuttle is Launched

By ThinkReliability Staff

The Space Shuttle Discovery is expected to be launched November 4th, assuming all goes well.  But what does “all going well” entail?  Some things are obvious and well-known, such as the need to ensure that the weather is acceptable for launch.  However, with an operation as complex and risky as launching a shuttle, there are a lot of steps to make sure that the launch goes off smoothly.

To show the steps involved in shuttle launch preparation, we can prepare a Process Map.  Although a Process Map looks like a Cause Map, its purpose is to show the steps that must be accomplished, in order, for successful completion of a process.  We can begin a Process Map with only one box, the process that we’ll be detailing.  Here, it’s the “Launch Preparation Process”.  We break up the process into more detailed steps in order to provide more useful information about a process.  Here the information used was from Wired Magazine and NASA’s Launch Blog (where they’ll be providing up-to-date details as the launch process begins).

Here we break down the Shuttle Launch Process into 9 steps, though we could continue to add more detail until  we had hundreds of steps.  Some of the steps have been added (or updated) based on issues with previous missions.  For example, on Apollo I, oxygen on board caught fire during a test and killed the crew.  Now one of the first steps is an oxygen purge, where oxygen in the payload bay and aft compartments is replaced with nitrogen.  On Challenger, concerns about equipment integrity in extremely cold weather were not brought to higher ups.  Now there’s a Launch Readiness Check, where more than 20 representatives of contractor organizations and departments within NASA are asked to verify their readiness for launch.  This allows all contributors to have a say regarding the launch.  One of the last steps is the weather check we mentioned above.

Similar to the Launch Readiness Check, we can add additional detail to the Launch Status Check.  This step can be further broken down to show the checks of systems and positions that must be completed before the Launch Status step can be considered complete.  Each step within each Process Map shown here can be broken down into even more detail, depending on the complexity of the process and the need for a detailed Process Map.  In the case of an extremely complex process such as this one, there may be several versions of the Process Map, such as an overview of the entire process (like we’ve shown here) and a detailed version for each step of the Process to be provided to the personnel who are performing and overseeing that portion of the process.  As you can see a lot of planning and checking goes into the launch preparations!