The Flight That Wasn't: 30 Years Since the Unflown Mission 51E (Part 1)

The "core" NASA crew of Mission 41F, scheduled for launch on 9 August 1984 for a seven-day flight. From left to right are Commander Karol "Bo" Bobko, Pilot Don Williams and Mission Specialists Dave Griggs, Rhea Seddon and Jeff Hoffman. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

The “core” NASA crew of Mission 41F, scheduled for launch on 9 August 1984 for a seven-day flight. From left to right are Commander Karol “Bo” Bobko, Pilot Don Williams and Mission Specialists Dave Griggs, Rhea Seddon and Jeff Hoffman. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Thirty years ago, this week, the shuttle program lay on the cusp of chaos. Discovery had suffered a harrowing launch pad abort, seconds before liftoff, on 26 June 1984, which pushed the entire manifest into disarray. Astronaut Karol “Bo” Bobko, commander of one of the next flights, Mission 41F, and his crew—Pilot Don Williams and Mission Specialists Rhea Seddon, Dave Griggs, and Jeff Hoffman—felt this backlash with particular harshness, for they had been due to fly Challenger on 9 August 1984 for seven days to deploy a record-setting three communications satellites, as well as a retrievable scientific platform, known as “SPARTAN.” Yet with commercial customers paying millions of dollars to keep their satellites in storage, NASA promptly canceled Mission 41F and combined most of its payloads into one. Poor Bobko and his crew found themselves reassigned to Mission 51E in early 1985, but could scarcely have imagined that the lightning of bad luck would strike them twice.

It had all seemed quite different when they were named in September 1983, originally to Mission 41E, and targeted for launch aboard the second flight of Discovery in early June 1984. The crew were tasked with the deployment of Canada’s Anik-C1 and the U.S. Navy’s Syncom 4-1 communications satellites, together with the operation of the Large Format Camera (LFC) and activities with an experimental solar sail, fabricated by NASA’s Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology (OAST). However, the shuttle manifest in the pre-Challenger era was notoriously tumultuous, and within weeks Bobko’s payload had changed and the crew was reassigned to fly Mission 41F in August 1984 with three satellites—SBS-4 for Satellite Business Systems, Syncom 4-2, Telstar-3C—and the SPARTAN free-flyer. The latter would be deployed and retrieved by the shuttle’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm, requiring significant robotics and EVA training for the crew. “We got rendezvous training and there were a lot of EVA contingencies,” Hoffman recalled, “so Dave and I had to learn to do a lot of arm and SPARTAN underwater stuff. Normally, you only get 20 hours or so, if you just have contingency EVA training, but then we got payload training on top of that. We ended up with about 50 hours underwater, which is a lot more than most crews got.” Surprisingly, their payload combination remained stable for six months, and the crew confidently anticipated their launch on 9 August.

The 41D pad abort changed everything, and, on 3 August, NASA announced that Bobko’s crew would now fly Challenger on Mission 51E, with launch targeted for no sooner than 12 February 1985. They would deliver Anik-C1 and NASA’s second Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-B)—part of a network of enormous communications platforms to provide near-continuous voice and data traffic between the shuttle and Mission Control—and the LFC and OAST solar sail were dropped and reassigned to two other flights. In reflection of the reduced payload, Mission 51E was shortened to a “baseline” of four days, but the crew picked up a sixth crew member in the form of France’s Patrick Baudry, who would operate an advanced echocardiograph on the shuttle’s middeck. “Any first flight is a great flight, but that was certainly a lot less intrinsically interesting than the SPARTAN,” Hoffman admitted.

Poor Karol "Bo" Bobko (second left, rubbing nose) supported his crew through two canceled missions before they finally made it into orbit on 12 April 1985. Photo Credit: NASA

Poor Karol “Bo” Bobko (second left, rubbing nose) supported his crew through two canceled missions before they finally made it into orbit on 12 April 1985. Photo Credit: NASA

Equally disappointing was the fact that Mission 41F had been scheduled to perform the first “automated” shuttle landing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., as part of efforts to develop procedures for contingency situations. The crew even created a self-deprecating Latin motto for themselves—Vide, mater, sine manibus (“Look, Ma, no hands!”)—but in Bobko’s mind the automatic landing posed the added difficulty of having to define a “box” of performance during the final approach to the runway, whereby he could still recover from the autoland if problems arose and still execute a safe manual touchdown. “The problem was to try and define how to recognize when the auto system was diverging,” he explained later, “and not let it get so far that I couldn’t take over and make a safe landing.”

The mood after having their mission snatched away was somber, and being forced to work through another six months of preparations before launch was acutely disappointing. “To go that far,” Don Williams later told the NASA oral historian, “and be within three months of flying and then go back to square one was tough.” Bobko saw it as his responsibility to keep the crew together and invited the crew over to his house for dinner on a number of occasions to aid morale. “He was our leader and our shepherd and our instructor and a teacher,” Williams added. “Bo really knew the systems and the shuttle backwards and forwards. I had a lot of respect for him as a crew member, but later on as an officer and a person and particularly as a pilot.” Jeff Hoffman was equally vocal in his praise for Bobko: “He was a great commander, never raised his voice once the entire time we worked together; just a very good example of the way leaders are supposed to lead.” Rhea Seddon also admired her commander’s unruffled response and “great aplomb” in the face of the delays. “We went home and put a fist through the wall, felt sorry for ourselves,” Seddon remembered, “and then came back and started over.” Bobko’s attitude was not to worry; his experience within NASA had certainly taught him the value of patience.

The delay carried further misfortune for Dave Griggs, who was originally scheduled to fly as pilot on Mission 51F, the Spacelab-2 mission, then planned for April 1985. With his first flight now having been pushed into the spring of that year, the close proximity between the two missions made it impractical for Griggs to participate on them both, and in October 1984 he was replaced by fellow astronaut Roy Bridges.

The Boeing-built Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) is here pictured at the base of a NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) on an early shuttle mission. Had it not been cancelled, Mission 51E would have delivered a satellite of this type into orbit. Photo Credit: NASA

The Boeing-built Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) is here pictured at the base of a NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) on an early shuttle mission. Had it not been cancelled, Mission 51E would have delivered a satellite of this type into orbit. Photo Credit: NASA

As 1985 dawned, Mission 51E settled on a revised launch date of 20 February and the crew was almost ready to head to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the middle of the month. Their number had also changed yet again, with addition of a seventh crew member, Senator Jake Garn, a Republican from Utah, who served as chair of the appropriations subcommittee with responsibility for NASA’s budget. The choice of a politician to fly aboard the shuttle had already induced much ill-feeling, but the space agency argued that the man in overall control of its budget could benefit from hands-on experience and took pains to add that Garn was an experienced jet pilot in his own right. Having succeeded Wallace Bennett for Utah in 1974, Garn had won a second term in November 1980, and in the early years of the shuttle program he was perhaps only half-joking when he threatened to not appropriate “another cent” for NASA unless he gained the chance to fly into space. Unsurprisingly, his flight aboard Mission 51E attracted much interest from his electorate, with a 69 percent approval rating, and he admitted that it was important to actually fly something, before agreeing to vote for it. In fact, he had already done so during the Air Force’s efforts to secure funding for the B-1 bomber.

NASA Administrator Jim Beggs, in his oral history, remembered being “bearded” frequently by Garn into letting him have a payload specialist slot on a shuttle flight. Eventually Beggs agreed, and in January 1985 Garn undertook training in the altitude chamber, together with medical exams, meetings, and a flight aboard the KC-135 aircraft, at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. And therein lies an interesting tale: Astronaut Mike Smith—who later lost his life in the Challenger tragedy—had shadowed fellow astronaut Loren Shriver, who was training as pilot of Mission 51C, but who was feared to have been exposed to German measles. “They had given [Smith] extra training to make him ready,” recalled Bobko, but ultimately Shriver flew his mission, “so he took Jake under his arm and got him ready, so that it was easy to integrate him into the crew.”

In her oral history, Rhea Seddon remembered that Bobko received word of Garn’s assignment from George Abbey, then-head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate (FCOD). “The four of us that were flying on the flight deck were in the simulator, when Mr. Abbey called Bo over,” she recalled. “He came back and said Mr. Abbey said he could tell the crew, but not anyone else, because it hadn’t been announced. As we were getting ready for another simulator  run, [Bobko] wrote a little note so our training team wouldn’t hear us on the intercom: Jake Garn is on our flight. We all looked at each other.”

Affixed to her External Tank (ET) and twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), Challenger rolls to Pad 39A for final preparations for Mission 51E. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Affixed to her External Tank (ET) and twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), Challenger rolls to Pad 39A for final preparations for Mission 51E. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

When the news of his addition to Mission 51E reached the ears of the media in early February, it marked “the quickest astronaut selection-to-flight sequence in history,” according to Flight International. In his own oral history, Jeff Hoffman remembered hearing about Garn’s assignment as he and Griggs left the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) at the Cape, following a long day of equipment testing. “We just cracked up,” laughed Hoffman. “We thought this is never going to happen; this is crazy. Then, we got home to Houston, and, sure enough, not only was it going to happen, but he was going to be on our flight!”

In his memoir, Riding Rockets, astronaut Mike Mullane poured scorn on the idea of assigning politicians to shuttle missions on the basis of a need for hands-on experience. “If I walked into Congress an hour before a critical vote … would I then understand the intricacies of congressional lawmaking? Not in the least,” he rhetorically asked and answered. “So it was with NASA. Anybody wishing to understand its operations needed to go behind the scenes … to understand the flow of hardware, to watch Mission Control in action, to understand the difficulties associated with developing propulsion systems, to every NASA center director’s office to understand the conflicting pressures of budget, schedule and safety they labored under.” Flying a shuttle mission, to Mullane and others, was no more representative of the entirety of NASA operations than casting a vote in Congress was a window into real-life politics.

The reception of Garn by the other astronauts was mixed. Bobko exhibited nothing but praise for the senator’s work ethic in those final weeks of training, although he did admit to some uncertainty about how to integrate a new payload specialist into a crew which had already been working together as a close-knit unit for more than a year. “But Jake was a great person,” Bobko said. “He had more flying time than I did!” Don Williams remembered a somewhat different reaction—“Oh, man, this is just what we need, a Senator as part of this crew!”—although it was Rhea Seddon who brought them all back to the realisation than Garn would shine a positive spotlight of publicity on their otherwise “vanilla” mission. “He knew how to be a crew member,” Williams concluded. “He knew how to fly airplanes … He was actually a very down-to-earth individual, even though he was a very powerful individual, one of a hundred of the most powerful people in the country.”

Perhaps most importantly, for NASA, Garn was a strong supporter of the space program. In fact, his first words to the crew when Bobko introduced him were: “Call me Jake!”

 

The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.

 

 

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1 comment to The Flight That Wasn’t: 30 Years Since the Unflown Mission 51E (Part 1)

  • RealSpace Models

    This is a pretty interesting view into the complexity of scheduling space flights. So much politics and REAL politicians!

    In the ninth paragraph where Rhea Seddon is commenting I think it’s supposed to read: “The four of us that were flying on the flight deck were in the [simulator], when Mr. Abbey called Bo over,”