That Time Some Woodpeckers Shut Down A NASA Space Shuttle Launch

Brilliance | Dec. 09, 2017

So, here are two things that don't mix: birds and rockets. In 1995, NASA found that out the hard way when a fleet of woodpeckers royally sabotaged a shuttle launch. Mating season will do that to you, ya know?

If It Weren't For You Meddling 'Peckers!

The space shuttle Discovery was propped up on its launch pad in Cape Canaveral all ready for its big trip in June 1995. Then nature happened. No, not anvil clouds, lightning, a hurricane, or any of the other items from the laundry list of ways to throw off a rocket launch. NASA was forced to indefinitely postpone this launch because of some libidinous birds. Nice going, you yellow-shafted flickers.

The STS-71 Shuttle-Mir docking mission was originally scheduled for June 22, but NASA had to reassess their plan after a swarm of woodpeckers chiseled about 200 holes in Discovery's fuel-tank insulation. The damage was too severe for technicians to fix from a basket on a crane at the launch site. Wheel her back to the Vehicle Assembly Building, boys.

Oh, Get A Room

These birds weren't messing around: the holes they jabbed were as big as about four inches (10 centimeters) across. Bruce Buckingham, a spokesman at the Kennedy Space Center, said that, weirdly, the woodpeckers were more aggressive than ever that year. "There's been some history to this kind of problem," he told the New York Times, "but not to this degree." Bird specialists from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service that were called to the scene said that these birds usually hammer into tree limbs or tin roofs to attract female attention. Pecking into a space shuttle fuel tank was quite the opportunity for a next-level mating dance.

How can you prevent woodpeckers from using rockets as flirting tools? The bird specialists suggested NASA rig up a decoy owl near the launch pads. Just setting it up wasn't enough; NASA employees had to move the decoy to different spots so the woodpeckers wouldn't figure out it was fake. To top it off, they played tapes of hooting great horned owls, predators of woodpeckers. Leading up to the launch, NASA even set up a team known as Bird Investigation Review and Deterrent (BIRD) to patrol the area. Known as "pecker patrol," these people would blast airhorns when they saw a woodpecker nearing the shuttle on the pad. What do you know, it worked. Discovery was back on its way on July 13, no pesky little flickers in sight.

To get behind-the-scenes stories from NASA, check out the bestseller "Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond" by NASA flight director Gene Kranz. The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible, and your click helps support Curiosity.

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