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'Main Engines, Throttle Up'

Space Shuttle Discovery blasts into space with redesigned main engine turbopumps, thanks to a Trojan engineer's work

August 11, 2005 —
Space Shuttle Discovery blasts off on a 13-day mission to the International Space Station on July 26, 2005, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Jose Carlos Abesamis was into some serious nail-biting by T-minus-10 seconds in the countdown to the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on July 26, 2005.  
A graduate student in the Viterbi School’s Distance Education Network (DEN) program in engineering management, Abesamis and his wife were part of a special VIP group invited to watch the “Return to Flight” launch of STS-114 at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The couple chose a front row seat in the 350-seat grandstand reserved for press and VIPs.  “It was hot,” said Abesamis, who works in the turbomachinery division of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Inc. “A group of us were being interviewed by Boeing News and I could not stop sweating.  I don’t think I put one coherent sentence together.”

First Lady Laura Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were seated less than 20 feet away from the couple, but the throngs of people in the stands prevented him from getting any photographs. By the final countdown, Abesamis’s eyes were glued to the Discovery launch pad three miles away.  

“At T-minus-six, the shuttle’s three main engines ignited,” he said. "There are four turbopumps for each main engine, two liquid hydrogen pumps and two liquid oxygen pumps. The turbopumps are probably among the most complex systems on the shuttle.”

Abesamis and wife, Rose, in front of the Discovery launch pad.
They watched as the engines lit up, creating billowing clouds of steam around the launch pad. Although the turboengines are small —  not much larger than automobile engines — each generates 360 times the horsepower, Abesamis said. The shuttle’s main engines consume 1,000 gallons of fuel every second during the trip to space.

The 4.5-million-pound shuttle “slowly lifted off the pad, rolled and accelerated upwards,” Abesamis recalled. “Then the sound hit us. It was like a thunder clap, but hundreds of them in succession.

“Everyone was cheering, people were crying, I was filming a video, and I could hear my wife, Rose, screaming next to me,” he said.  “It was awesome.”

The solid rocket boosters separated about two minutes after launch, free-falling into the Atlantic Ocean, “which led to another round of cheers,” Abesamis said.  “At this point, the shuttle was barely visible and some people had started to leave.  But we stayed, because I knew that our engines were just warming up.”

As the shuttle vanished above blue sky, Abesamis waited to make sure the turbopumps were operating normally. He stood staring at the faint, arcing contrail left in the sky, as the shuttle high above throttled up and accelerated. At eight minutes into flight, Houston mission control announced main engine cut-off over a loudspeaker.

Jose Carlos Abesamis and wife, Rose, center, with STS-114 astronauts Commander Eileen Collins and Pilot Jim Kelly.
“I was very happy,” Abesamis said. “I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities in the last few years to advance my career, thanks in part to USC. This was the culmination of all of our hard work on the turbopumps, vividly displayed, for the whole world to see.”