This Texas Tech alumnus knows what it means to shoot for the stars.
Ken Peek has always been the kind of person who, in the face of disaster, calmly looks for what went wrong, determines how to fix it and then tries again.
It's a trait that has served him well throughout his career because he works in space flight, and he knows accidents just happen sometimes.
The Texas Tech University alumnus remembers becoming interested in space at age 5, when his mother allowed him to stay up all night watching news coverage of one of the final Apollo space missions. Watching the ghostly images of the astronauts floating around their vehicles, Peek realized he wanted to do that.
Just over a decade later, the Tulia High School junior and the rest of the world watched as space flight made the news again with the Challenger explosion.
“I think, like everybody else, it was shock and disbelief; that was the first real accident of the shuttle program,” he said. “Like most folks, you see it as a symbol of NASA and of the country, to a certain extent. Then you see those images where the vehicle breaks up and yeah, it's a shock.”
But it did nothing to change his dream of going into space.
“I was ready to go up the next day,” he said. “I don't know, maybe it's more of an engineering mindset. It's something you've got to learn what happened, you've got to fix it and you've got to keep going about what you do.”
After graduating from high school, Peek attended Texas Tech and earned his bachelor's degree in engineering physics in 1994.
“I had to learn how to study at Texas Tech,” he said. “Things came pretty easy for me in high school, but that doesn't always translate well to university academics. So I had a lot of difficulty in my first couple of years, especially with math. But you learn good study habits, use professor visitation, tutors, classmates, etc. And you dig in and stick to it.”
While at Texas Tech, he started dating a fellow student, Shawna Cote, who earned her bachelor's degree in English and theatre arts and her master's degree in special education. They got married in June 1991.
After graduation, Peek bided his time for a few years, waiting for the right opportunity.
“My first job after graduation was on an assembly line at Texas Instruments, not exactly what I'd planned for,” he said. “I knew I wanted to end up working for NASA in Houston, so I took a couple of energy sector jobs down there while I waited for a job to open up at Johnson Space Center.”
In 1997, he made it. He was hired at United Space Alliance, a spaceflight operations company that did contract work for NASA. While there, he worked on the ground crew for numerous Space Shuttle missions, focusing on payload operations such as repairing the Hubble Space Telescope and deploying the Chandra X-ray Observatory. He also handled various science missions, the Mars and lunar analog missions and International Space Station assembly missions.
He applied a few times for the NASA Astronaut Corps but eventually decided he'd rather work the ground crew.
“I think everybody in this industry at one point or another wants to wear the pumpkin suit or the white suit and go into orbit, so lots of people apply for a few jobs, and I have as well,” he said. “I call mission operations the second-best job in the world because, you can launch into orbit and work a mission every two years and you get a great view, but if you work the ground side of it, you get to work a lot more missions. I just ended up that way. It's where I want to be. If I can't be in orbit, I'll be working on stuff that is.”
And one day in late January 2003, he was doing just that: working an extra shift at Johnston Space Center to fill in for a coworker, monitoring flight STS-107, the 28th mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia.
It was an unremarkable shift. He listened to the air-to-ground conversations and glanced at the video constantly coming in from the shuttle. The crew, commanded by fellow Texas Tech alumnus Rick Husband, seemed busy but happy. Just a few days later, on Feb. 1, Peek was in downtown Houston when he heard the first reports that something had gone wrong with Columbia.
The shuttle, due to land in Florida at 8:16 a.m. Houston time, instead broke apart on re-entry, killing all seven crew members and scattering pieces of the shuttle across East Texas. The only thing Peek could think of was getting to the Mission Control Center as quickly as possible and doing whatever he could to help.
By the time he arrived there, it was several hours after the accident. Everyone there was in a state of shock. He and several other operators who had come to help kept busy looking at telemetry and getting food for the team until everyone was sent home. He spent the evening watching the news emerging from East Texas, with early images of debris being found. He told his 3-year-old son Ethan the shuttle had broken apart and he needed to go help find the pieces.
“It's almost like a calling,” he said. “You feel like you need to do it, and so we did.”
On Feb. 3, Peek and several coworkers headed to Lufkin, the acting command post for the search. They had no official backing or leave from work to help in the search, so they took vacation time and paid their own way. Once there, they met NASA employees and others who had done the same thing.
From Lufkin, they were sent to Hemphill, where they were sent out to begin a grid search. Even though he wasn't officially representing NASA at the time, he and the other space-industry volunteers dispersed themselves to as many search teams as possible to assist in debris identification. At first, anything found – even things they were fairly certain weren't from the shuttle, like beer cans and car fenders – was marked with GPS receivers to help define the debris field. A collection team would later come through to pick up items and transport them to the Kennedy Space Center.
But, prepared to find the worst, Peek had a frustrating first day; his team didn't find anything at all. The second day, they found a small electrical capacitator, and in a nearby stream was a mostly intact electronics box, probably a computer hard drive. Peek knew the serial and parts numbers would help investigators track where on Columbia that part had been located. And that's when it hit him.
“Normally I would see items like this in an environmentally controlled ‘clean room,' wearing a protective bunny suit to keep the material free of contaminations,” he said. “Seeing this shiny aluminum box in a little stream far from civilization was surreal. It was very hard to leave that first item, but we knew we had to press on.”
They went on to find part of a laptop computer's charred motherboard, small bits of metal from the radiators and probably the payload bay.
“I say probably because even though many of us are very familiar with the shuttle, some of the debris was so charred and deformed that I doubt anyone will ever be able to tell what part of the orbiter it was originally from,” he explained.
The piece he found that was the most emotional for him was a paper EVA checklist used for spacewalk preparations.
“To think that had survived re-entry and the vehicle breakup and all the way to the ground and it was paper… They think it was just how that checklist was contained and bagged and in a certain part of the vehicle,” he said. “It just survived the breakup and then it was freefalling for a while until it hit the ground or fluttered to the ground. It was amazing to find something like that.”
He went back to Houston after the third day of the search, but he would return in late March – this time as an official representative of NASA and the United Space Alliance – to help sort, process and identify debris. It was important to find as much of the shuttle as possible to determine what had gone so wrong.
“Had to find the parts to help find the issue,” he said simply. “Find it, fix it and fly again.”
Eleven-and-a-half years later, Ken, Shawna and their two sons, Ethan and Emmitt, had moved to Virginia for Peek's new job with Orbital Sciences Corporation, an aerospace manufacturer and defense industry company. He had earned his master's degree in space studies from the University of North Dakota and was working as a mission director for flights on Cygnus spacecrafts, unmanned one-time-use space vehicles that transport supplies to the International Space Station and then burn up in Earth's atmosphere. Each Cygnus vehicle is named after a deceased NASA astronaut.
“When people ask me what I do, I say I'm a delivery driver with a really fancy delivery van,” he joked. “It's somewhat analogous to a NASA flight director for shuttle missions or space station increments, with more of a commercial aspect. You run the operations team during the mission. For Cygnus, that is everything from pre-flight planning to simulations thru real-time operations. We coordinate with our NASA customers both on the operations and program side for how we rendezvous, berth and depart from the International Space Station.”
His latest mission, ORB-3, was scheduled to launch on Oct. 27, 2014, with a planned docking at the space station on Nov. 2. This was to be the fourth Cygnus mission to the space station, following a successful Cygnus demonstration in 2013 and two operational missions, all of which Peek had worked as a mission director. ORB-3 was the first nighttime launch for both a Cygnus spacecraft and the Antares launcher. Less than 10 minutes before the launch, a sailboat entered the exclusion zone and the mission was delayed a full day.
At 10:22 p.m. Oct. 28, the Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus lifted off. Peek was the on-console mission director for the launch. He was waiting while the Antares launch team did its part, and his team would pick up control of the Cygnus once it separated from the rocket.
Fifteen seconds later, the rocket exploded and the flame-engulfed spacecraft fell back to Earth, almost in slow motion, before erupting in a fireball, shooting sparks and flaming debris high into the suddenly illuminated night sky. Smoke from the launch mixed with smoke from the explosion, which was felt 20 miles away.
“Our streaming video was a bit behind real time, so we didn't see it as it was happening,” he said. “We did hear the launch voice loops go off-nominally quiet, so we knew something was wrong. Then we lost telemetry. Then the video caught up. This all happened within seconds, but it seemed like a lot longer.
“I'm pretty sure I dropped an f-bomb. After a few moments of shock, we locked down the control center, started reviewing and securing data for the investigation that was just starting, and support the launch team in their contingency procedures. So I was making sure that was going as it needed to. And you watch your folks, look out for them as well to see how they are dealing with it and doing what we need them to do or not to do.”
Peek said losing the ORB-3 was much different than losing the Columbia.
“We lost the vehicle and cargo on ORB-3, but there were no fatalities,” he said. “It sucks to lose the vehicle, but you can fix the problem and build a new one, which we have. Losing people is exponentially harder, even if you understand the risks involved. But again, you assess, fix the problem and move forward.
“I tell my team this all the time: we're going to have great days and we're going to have bad days. That's just how this job is. You need to be able to work through that or you may want to change businesses.”
Back to space
On April 28, 2015, exactly six months after the ORB-3 explosion, an unmanned Russian Progress spacecraft called M-27M was launched for a planned six-hour rendezvous with the space station. It reached a low-Earth orbit, but a malfunction shortly before the spacecraft's separation from the rocket sent it spinning wildly through space and damaged communications. It was deemed a total loss.
Two months after that, on June 28, an unmanned SpaceX Falcon 9 booster carrying a resupply Dragon spacecraft to the space station broke up 139 seconds into the flight after its launch from Cape Canaveral.
For the crew on the International Space Station, who needed their supplies restocked, it was a tense time.
“Losing three vehicles within eight months is almost unprecedented for the space station logistics chain,” Peek said. “They plan for a certain amount of interruptions, but not that many. It was a big deal to get that stuff up to the station.”
The space station didn't just need new supplies, however. It also needed to have its trash taken out.
“The station doesn't have any way to discard the things they don't need anymore without putting them in these vehicles and taking them away,” Peek said. “Imagine if you lived in your house and had to store your trash for a few months because the truck only shows up once every so many weeks. Getting all that stuff off the station is important too. Space is big, but space storage isn't. They've got foam, broken experiments, food waste, human waste, things they just don't need anymore. So we take that all away. We've got a saying: We show up like Santa Claus and leave like Wall-E.”
Since the ORB-3 accident, Orbital Sciences Corporation had merged with the defense and aerospace divisions of Alliant Techsystems to become Orbital ATK. With the merger came the new mission designation OA. In the wake of the recent failures, the next two missions were especially important. OA-4 successfully launched on Dec. 6 using an Atlas rocket purchased from United Launch Alliance. But because the improved Antares rocket planned for OA-5 was still being developed in the aftermath of the ORB-3 failure, they skipped ahead to OA-6, procuring another Atlas booster. Mission OA-6 aboard the S.S. Rick Husband launched successfully on March 23, 2016.
For Peek, it was especially meaningful to lead a mission named after a fellow Red Raider.
“I didn't know him that well, but Johnson Space Center is a small community so we ran across each other a few times,” Peek said. “Back at Orbital, we find out pretty late in the flow who the vehicle is named after. Operationally it's OA-6, but when I found out the name, it was pretty special.”
After 81 days attached to the International Space Station, in which the crew unloaded 7,900 pounds of cargo and filled it with materials for disposal, the S.S. Rick Husband detached on June 14.
It deployed four CubeSats, toaster-size satellites that orbit Earth and track ships. In addition to its delivery role, the S.S. Rick Husband also got to be a science vehicle.
“That's the first time we've done that,” Peek said. “NASA/Glenn Research Center is studying combustion in space in a pressurized environment, trying to make future spacecraft more resistant to fire propagation. The Apollo 1 fire in an oxygen environment basically burned up the capsule before anybody knew what was going on. There's been a lot of work since then to make vehicles more fireproof. So what we're doing on Cygnus, since we're a disposable spacecraft anyway and we've already left the station, we can use a pressurized environment to run this experiment and purposely set part of our spacecraft on fire to see how fire propagates in space.”
The mission ended successfully on June 22.
“I wasn't really nervous during the mission, too busy I suppose,” Peek said. “But OA-6 was pretty smooth overall. S.S. Rick flew like a boss.”
Onward and upward
Flight OA-5 launched on Oct. 17 on the improved Antares rocket, and it's docked at the International Space Station. The next flight, OA-7, is scheduled to launch early next year.
On the home front, Ken and Shawna are getting ready to launch something of their own: their first child into a new phase of his life. Their son Ethan is now a high school senior, and he's considering following in his parents' footprints as a Red Raider.
“We were actually at Texas Tech during the open house in early October,” Peek said. “Ethan was very impressed overall and is thinking about studying mechanical engineering.”
He said the advice he'd give his son is simply to enjoy the experience.
“I jammed a four-year degree into five-and-a-half years,” he joked. “It seemed like forever at the time, but in retrospect it flew by.”
He hopes to make it back to Lubbock soon, but until then, he hopes Lubbock can look up and see a bit of him.
“Look up occasionally on those starry West Texas nights,” Peek said, “and you may see us flying overhead.”