A quarter-century ago, this week, in November 1989, the shuttle embarked on its first launch and landing in the hours of darkness since before the Challenger disaster. And “darkness” was an appropriate metaphor for STS-33, which marked one of the quietest flights in the reusable spacecraft’s 30-year operational history. Dedicated to the Department of Defense, the exact nature of its payload remains classified to this day, but the mission was notable in that its crew featured the first African-American shuttle commander, the first (and only) woman ever to participate in a military spaceflight and rebounded from tragedy, following the untimely death of one of the astronauts during training.
When the STS-33 crew—Commander Fred Gregory, Pilot Dave Griggs, and Mission Specialists Manley “Sonny” Carter, Story Musgrave, and Kathy Thornton—were announced in November 1988, they were expected to launch aboard Discovery in August of the following year. In doing so, Gregory would become the first African-American commander of a space mission, although years later he applied refreshingly little significance to what he described as “these little parochial issues.” In all honesty, he told the NASA oral historian, he had not considered it as anything “vaguely important” and did not even recall much interest from the media over his place on the crew.
Then, just six months into their training cycle, an unexpected and shocking event took place. On 17 June 1989, Griggs was preparing for his role in a weekend air show, flying alone in a single-engine, 1940s-era aircraft, just to the south of the town of Earle, Ark. Shortly after 9 a.m. local time, according to eyewitnesses, he was performing aileron rolls, when one wing inadvertently touched the ground and the aircraft cartwheeled into a wheat field. Dave Griggs—a test pilot, Vietnam War veteran, accomplished astronaut, experienced spacewalker, and Rear Admiral in the Navy Reserve—was killed instantly. He was just 49 years old. His death occurred whilst he was off duty and not in a NASA aircraft, but it sent shockwaves through the astronaut corps, which was still in the process of recovering from the trauma of Challenger.
After the funeral, fellow astronaut Mike Mullane remembered the wake at the Outpost tavern in Houston, Texas, and saw Griggs’ crewmate, Kathy Thornton, her checks soaked with tears, walk in and place one of the wreaths of flowers onto the bar. Although several groups of Air Force Manned Spaceflight Engineers (MSE), selected in the pre-Challenger era, included females in their ranks, Thornton secured a record on STS-33 as the first and only woman to fly aboard a classified shuttle mission. Many have speculated that her assignment came about because, in her pre-NASA career, she served as a research physicist at the Army’s Foreign Science and Technology Center and worked on a NATO-awarded post-doctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, West Germany. Although a spacewalk was not planned on STS-33, Gregory appeared to ruffle a few feathers by insisting that the petite Thornton should be one of the contingency EVA crew members. “I absolutely insisted that she be the EVA person,” he told the NASA oral historian, “over great protest … If we had not insisted, probably a person of her size would never have done something like this. We really had to force the issue.”
Aside from the tragedy of Dave Griggs’ death, the reality was that by June 1989 STS-33 was only months from launch. By this stage, the mission had shifted within the shuttle manifest and been rescheduled for no sooner than mid-November, giving the replacement pilot a considerably shorter period than was ideal to prepare for the flight. A “rookie” astronaut was not advisable and many of the experienced pilots—including Guy Gardner, John Blaha, and Ron Grabe—had already been assigned to other missions or were expected to upgrade to the commander’s seat.
At length, in discussion with Don Puddy, then-head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate (FCOD) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, it was Fred Gregory who requested that Blaha be reassigned to STS-33. “I liked John,” he told an interviewer for CollectSpace.com in September 2011, and felt that Blaha’s prior experience as pilot on STS-29 in March 1989 would benefit his crew. Puddy agreed. Blaha had already been named as pilot of STS-40, but that mission was far enough ahead into the future for a first-timer to be assigned instead. By the end of June, just days after Dave Griggs’ death, Blaha was formally appointed to STS-33 and Sid Gutierrez took his place on STS-40. When the crew produced their official mission patch, a small gold star was added, close to Blaha’s name. It paid tribute to Rear Admiral Stanley David Griggs, who flew STS-33 in spirit.
As their launch neared, it provided some time to reflect on a difficult three years since the loss of Challenger. Fred Gregory had not only lost his pilot in a horrific accident, but he had also been sitting in Mission Control on the day that Challenger exploded and had worked closely with the two teacher observers, Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan. “I had spent a lot of time with Christa and Barbara,” he told the NASA oral historian, “because I had teachers in my family.” Gregory spent many hours with them, talking through the planned lessons and the importance of the Teacher in Space Project (TISP).
His assignment to command STS-33 came in a late-evening telephone call from Don Puddy, after he had returned from a T-38 flight. “I don’t believe that I told my wife immediately,” Gregory recalled. “I wanted to really milk it a little bit … and I did!” Years later, he would remember the crew in its two incarnations—with both Dave Griggs and John Blaha aboard—as the best ever assembled, with the entire team performing like a flawless symphony. “We would get in the simulator,” he reflected, “and our training crew, I’m sure, was attempting to kill us, and we were trying to make absolute fools of them.”
Launch was originally set for 20 November 1989, but was delayed due to problems with the integrated electronics which controlled the ignition and separation of Discovery’s twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs). NASA rescheduled the attempt for the evening of 22 November, and Gregory’s crew remained at the Cape. By this time, Story Musgrave had already flown two shuttle missions and was preparing for his third and his completion of a master’s degree in literature at the University of Houston in 1987 had imbued him with new skills as a poet and wordsmith. On the day of launch, at 3:00 a.m. EST, he took “rookie” astronauts Carter and Thornton to Pad 39B, surprising the guards and technicians, who greeted them with enthusiasm. “A primitive, primal experience to never be forgotten,” was how Musgrave described it, “welcomed by everybody. That machine looming in the lights, Jupiter overhead, a crescent Moon on the ocean horizon, the fog moving in and out over Discovery … What exuberant exhilaration! What beauty and power.” That power was unleashed at 7:23 p.m. EST that same evening, when STS-33 speared for the heavens in only the third nocturnal launch in shuttle history.
“It was one of those exceptionally clear nights down in Florida,” Gregory remembered in the STS-33 post-mission press conference. “We had a little hold as we were counting down, but essentially we launched right on time. When those main engines started, it felt like some electric motors back there, but when those solid rockets ignited there was no doubt this thing was going to space.” For Musgrave, seated in the center flight engineer’s position, a suitably positioned mirror on the wrist of his Launch and Entry Suit (LES) provided a spectacular “backwards” view of the receding Pad 39B through Discovery’s overhead windows. “You could see the whole of Florida,” he recalled, “lit up like a flashbulb.” For Sonny Carter, seated to his right side on the flight deck, the first two minutes on the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) reminded him of a rumbling freight train, which quickly smoothed out after their separation. None of the crew had flown a night launch before, but for Gregory the sight of the boosters departing and their separation motors firing—and flooding the entire cabin with light—reminded him of looking straight into the throat of a furnace. For poor Kathy Thornton, seated alone in the darkened middeck, her only view was of the shuttle’s galley and a row of lockers in front of her face.
Deployment of their classified payload followed on Discovery’s seventh orbit, approximately 10.5 hours after launch. The Air Force would later admit that the satellite was boosted into orbit atop an Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) and it is today generally believed that it was an Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) platform, possibly codenamed either “Magnum” or “Orion.” It was a successor to the earlier Rhyolite-Aquacade spacecraft and represented the latest in an era of satellites developed under the auspices of the National Reconnaissance Office, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. With a total mass of around 5,700 pounds (2,600 kg), the STS-33 satellite it is thought to have featured a large, gold-colored mesh antenna, measuring perhaps 256 feet (78 meters) in diameter when fully unfurled, and was physically similar to the payload deployed on Mission 51C in January 1985. This antenna “farm” was so large that it was presumably attached to a gimbal mechanism for steering, which permitted it to monitor specific points of interest, such as ballistic missile flight test telemetry and observers have speculated that the rear of the Magnum-Orion comprised a pair of solar arrays and a downlink communications antenna. Other objectives included electronic, radio communications, and radar emissions intelligence, and the Magnum was apparently boosted to geostationary orbit by its IUS.
Since the Department of Defense had openly admitted that only the payloads which could not be reconfigured for an expendable launch were kept aboard the shuttle in the post-Challenger period, the physical size of the satellite was immense … as was its cost, with some estimates placing Magnum-Orions at around $750 million per unit. Sketches of the satellite, attached to the IUS, indicate that it virtually filled the shuttle’s cavernous payload bay. Perhaps, someday, images may be released and the eventual declassification of DoD documents from these years may shine a light on this mysterious payload and upon STS-33 itself.
Launched on the day before Thanksgiving, STS-33 became only the second team of shuttle astronauts—after Mission 61B in November 1985—to spend the holidays in orbit, and only the third group of U.S. spacefarers in history to do so, when one includes the crew of Skylab 4 in November 1973 on the list. In spite of having to contend with 16 orbital sunrises and sunsets during each 24-hour period, the astronauts enjoyed turkey, potatoes, and broccoli, which Gregory described as the sole meal that they enjoyed together during their five days in orbit. Touchdown of Discovery occurred in the late afternoon gloom at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., a day late due to strong winds, at 4:30 p.m. PST (7:30 p.m. EST) on 27 November 1989. For the first time, the reusable shuttle returned from space to alight on Edwards’ concrete Runway 04, a feat which would be repeated by only one other mission (STS-64 in September 1994).
Returning to their families brought joy to the five astronauts, but all had been bitten by the bug and were keen to fly again. “We’re ready to go again,” remarked John Blaha at the post-mission press conference, to which Sonny Carter concurred with a clipped “Absolutely!” Sadly, Carter would be killed in an aircraft accident just 17 months later, before having the chance to fly another shuttle mission, but Gregory, Blaha, Musgrave, and Thornton would go on to chalk up a further ten flights between them and a cumulative 230 days in orbit. It was fitting for the crew of what Gregory described as an ideal mission. “I think it’s the best crew that ever went through there,” he reflected later. “Every time it assembled, people would just come watch it, because it was like a ballet and we had so much fun.”