NASA And The Woodpecker

NASA and the woodpecker. It’s a title that resembles the one of a tale. But make no mistake, it heralds a true story. Everything was shaping up for the best. On May 11, 1995, the Discovery shuttle for mission STS-70 was brought to the launch pad of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch was scheduled for June 8 with the mission of putting NASA’s TDRS-G communications satellite into orbit.

Although appearing as usual, this launch presented some new features. Indeed, it was the hundredth American manned flight and the crew only included 5 astronauts instead of the usual 7. Finally there was a technical novelty: one of the three engines was the first of a new generation of engines, Block 1.

Another point is that the launch of the STS-70 mission had a constraint date. Because of technical reasons, a shuttle could not take off until the other shuttle had finished it mission. At this time the Atlantis shuttle was already present on another launch pad for STS-71, which had a mission of great importance: to join the Russian space station MIR and realize the first American docking to the station. The STS-71 mission was scheduled to launch at the end of June 1995, just three weeks after the STS-70 mission. The latter therefore could not afford to fall behind schedule.

Delays in space launches are not uncommon, we can say that they are even quite frequent. They may be due to the delay accumulated during the design of rovers or satellites, for exemple. But there may be delays at the time of launch due to the weather, a nearby plane or boat or even technical problems with the launch rocket. This last type of delay was finally quite frequent at the time of the space shuttle Discovery: the shuttle being complex, it was not uncommon to postpone the launch for safety reasons.

However it is for a completely different reason than those mentioned above that the STS-70 mission will finally be postponed to July 13, 1995. The American shuttles were launched at the Kennedy Space Center, located in Florida, a place known in particular for its abundant wildlife. Animals are frequently observed roaming freely around the Kennedy Space center, with the exception of dangerous areas where teams will make sure to keep them away using means that do not endanger their lives.

It was during the month of May 1995 that technicians noticed a multitude of abnormal holes on the upper part of the outer tank of the shuttle. Not understanding their origin, they observe the videos coming from the surveillance cameras. And it was at this moment that they discovered something very surprising: the cause of the hundreds of holes was a flaming woodpecker trying to dig its nest on the reservoir covered with protective foam. While trying to dig a sufficiently deep hole, he stumbled against the metal casting of the tank and unable to continue digging, he moved from place to place and dug a new hole.

The technicians initially attempted to repair the damage to the launch site but ended up concluding that it was not possible. In consequence the shuttle had to be brought back to the assembly area and the whole launch process had to be started over again. The launch date ended up being postponed to July 13, 1995 after the STS-71 mission.

Meanwhile the launch crews had to make sure that the woodpecker did not repeat its attempts to dig a nest in the reservoir. NASA is keen to preserve the species living near the space center. As a result, the Bird team was formed. Its mission was to find a way to keep the bird away without touching it. They then had the idea of installing a plastic owl statue near the shuttle to scare the bird. But woodpeckers are intelligent birds and as long as the owl was still, it was not a source of danger.

A rotation system was therefore set up and several teams of technicians took turns to change the owl’s place, in order to give the impression that it’s alive, and to use a foghorn to scare the woodpecker. As fun as these maneuvers may seem, they were effective and kept the bird away until takeoff.

On July 13, 1995, the Discovery shuttle was finally able to take off from the Kennedy Space center for the STS-70 mission to put NASA’s TDRS-G communications satellite into orbit. These were satellites designed to serve as communication relays with various scientific vessels and satellites as well as with the Hubble telescope. These are satellites that allow almost constant communication with the vessels and replace the ground installations which are less efficient. The crew took advantage of this flight to carry out various scientific experiments. Due to this rather amusing incident, a Woody Woodpecker plushy even became the mascot for this mission.

In the end, and despite the delay, the crew was able to complete their mission and this story has now become a fun anecdote to tell.