Fifteen years ago, today, on 20 February 2001, Space Shuttle Atlantis alighted on concrete Runway 22 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., closing out the 13-day STS-98 mission and a remarkable chapter in the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). Aboard the orbiter, Commander Ken Cockrell, Pilot Mark “Roman” Polansky, and Mission Specialists Bob Curbeam, Marsha Ivins, and Tom Jones had become the seventh group of humans to visit the infant station and had supported a trio of complex EVAs and an equally challenging series of robotics operations to install the Destiny laboratory module. As well as serving as the centerpiece of U.S. research aboard the ISS, Destiny would also provide the heart and brains of the station and evolve into a space-based National Laboratory.
Following then-President Ronald Reagan’s announcement of a permanent Space Station in January 1984, early conceptual designs envisaged two U.S. laboratory modules, although this was reduced to one following a major redesign in the months after the Challenger disaster. By August 1988, in the spirit of Reagan-era politics, the station received the name “Freedom,” and contracts to fabricate hardware were signed shortly thereafter. Under the language of the initial Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA)—which included the nations of the European Space Agency (ESA), the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA)—about 97 percent of the lab’s resources would be allocated to NASA and the rest to Canada, in return for its contribution of robotic assets to the orbiting outpost.
Significant budgetary challenges plagued the Freedom program in the late 1980s, but by the spring of 1992 the U.S. lab was slated to arrive during the sixth shuttle assembly mission. Measuring 28 feet (8.5 meters) in length and 14.5 feet (4.4 meters) in diameter, its delivery would enable Man-Tended Capability (MTC) of Freedom and around half of its 24 internal racks would be devoted to research payloads, whilst the remainder would support Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), Thermal Control System (TCS), Electrical Power System (EPS), and other operational needs. “The lab is really the guts of the space station’s research and command and control capabilities,” Tom Jones told a NASA interviewer. “It becomes possible to do science and make the science quality science, because of the arrival of the lab.” Of course, the lab’s 14.5-foot (4.4-meter) diameter was dictated and restrained by the width of the shuttle’s payload bay. Following the extensive redesign of Freedom—and its eventual rebirth as the International Space Station—the fabrication of the lab’s main structure was completed by prime contractor Boeing in September 1995, with a targeted launch date in the fall of 1998.
It then underwent machining for various functions, including the drilling of holes for hatch seals and berthing mechanisms, followed by the installation of Micrometeroid Orbital Debris (MMOD) shield blankets and various mechanical systems, ahead of pressure testing and painting. By the late spring of 1997, delays to the program had pushed the first launch of ISS hardware to no sooner than July 1998, which in turn pushed the U.S. lab about six months downstream. According to Tom Jones, in his memoir, Sky Walking, veteran astronaut Mark Lee—who had spacewalked on the first untethered demo of the Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue (SAFER) backpack and at the Hubble Space Telescope (HST)—approached him in the spring of 1997 to participate in underwater tests in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), just to the north of the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. “I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” Jones wrote, “but Mark seemed to be carrying around some good news, although he was not quite certain how to share it.”
Early in June 1997, NASA announced Lee and Jones to begin training for three spacewalks to install the lab on shuttle mission STS-98, then planned for launch no earlier than May 1999. The lab would be installed at the aft “end” of the Unity node, necessitating the robotic removal of Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-2 from this interface. Initial plans, crystallized by Lead EVA Officer Kerri Knotts, envisaged Lee and Jones wiring up the lab’s backup heaters to keep its electronics warm during the bitter orbital nighttime, then hooking up power, data, and cooling umbilicals, together with a grapple fixture for the subsequent installation of the Canadarm2 robotic arm. Finally, the spacewalkers would assist in the robotic relocation of PMA-2 to its new location at the forward end of the newly-installed lab. “The EVAs were central to the success of the mission,” Jones wrote. “If we failed to get the job done, the lab could be irreparably damaged and the space station’s future research and control capabilities seriously degraded.”
Yet the delays—particularly in relation to Russia’s Zvezda service module—continued, with the launch of the first station elements postponed until the end of 1998. This correspondingly pushed the flight of STS-98 and the lab until no earlier than October 1999. In anticipation of this revised schedule, in August 1998 NASA assigned Ken Cockrell, Mark Polansky, and Marsha Ivins to round out the STS-98 crew, with the expectation that the Expedition 1 increment of Commander Bill Shepherd and his Russian comrades Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev would be aboard the ISS for the lab’s installation. Within weeks, however, the Russian financial collapse factored into the late delivery of Zvezda, and STS-98 was pushed until no sooner than January 2000. As circumstances transpired, the service module did not rise to orbit and dock at the ISS until July 2000, which shoved each successive shuttle assembly mission further downstream and moved STS-98 to no sooner than January 2001.
Although Zvezda’s eventual arrival “would break the assembly logjam and kick off a series of major construction milestones,” according to Jones, the makeup of his crew had also changed significantly. In September 1999, it was revealed that Mark Lee had been removed from the STS-98 crew, for undetermined reasons. In Sky Walking, Jones expressed intense disappointment over the decision—Lee’s “leadership and hard work” in preparing for the mission, he wrote, “had been not only superlative but, to me, indispensable”—and the crew’s efforts to win a review of the situation from the Office of Space Flight at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., were fruitless. Lee was replaced by veteran astronaut Bob Curbeam, who had himself been in training for more than two years in support of another ISS construction mission. “Beamer and I had never worked together,” Jones recalled, with their respective duties and previous missions having “kept us from being more than nodding acquaintances,” although Curbeam blended seamlessly into the crew. In fact, it was Curbeam who proposed attaching the main power and cooling umbilicals onto Destiny during the first EVA, thereby pushing the lab’s activation two days earlier than planned.
As a consequence, Jones now assumed the role of “EV1,” the chief spacewalker, for STS-98 and as launch neared he and Curbeam averaged about 200 hours performed underwater training in the NBL. And with the resumption of ISS construction activity on the STS-92 and STS-97 missions in the fall of 2000—together with the arrival of the Expedition 1 crew to begin the permanent occupation of the outpost—the stage was set for the arrival of the U.S. lab, which had by now received the name “Destiny.” Originally targeted to launch on 18 January 2001, the need to resolve a problem associated with the separation ordnance of the left-hand Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) delayed the rollout from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to Pad 39A. The wiring was X-rayed and revealed crumbling electrical cable shielding, which was repaired without the need to de-stack the vehicle, but postponed the launch until later in January. At length, after also weathering a computer malfunction within the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP), the shuttle arrived at Pad 39A on the 3rd. Unfortunately, more trouble was afoot, as assessments of the SRB separation ordnance issue prompted a decision to roll the stack back to the VAB for testing to confirm the health of the wiring. This pushed the launch to early February, with managers eventually settling on the 7th.
Liftoff occurred a few minutes after local sunset, at 6:13 p.m. EST—coincidentally on the Expedition 1 crew’s 100th day in space—and lit up the darkened Florida sky as Atlantis speared for the heavens on a two-day chase of the space station. “Atlantis surged upward, the bag and rattle settling into a more tolerable, yet still pronounced shaking,” Jones wrote in Sky Walking. “Atlantis began to rotate onto the proper track to chase the ISS up the East Coast. I felt the orbiter pirouette gracefully, swing past the mark, then gently correct the overshoot. Heads down now, we arced over the Atlantic; my body slid tightly against my shoulder straps and stayed there.” Riding the “full-throated scream” of the SRBs for the first two minutes, the stack also endured the “rising howl” of the slipstream passing Atlantis’ walls and the “pulsing vibration” of the shuttle’s three main engines, before the five astronauts achieved their initial orbit just 8.5 minutes after departing the Cape.
Shortly after orbital insertion, the crew opened the payload bay doors, unfurled the Ku-band antenna, and conducted checkouts of the Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm and tests of the Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs) which Jones and Curbeam would use for their trio of EVAs. Despite evidence of a possible oxygen leak in a third, spare EMU (which ultimately proved erroneous), the suits checked out satisfactorily.
Throughout the first two days, Cockrell and Polansky executed a series of rendezvous “burns” to draw closer to the space station and by the early hours of 9 February the pilots pressed into their final procedures as Atlantis reached just 9 miles (15 km) from its destination. At 11:51 a.m. EST, Cockrell performed a smooth docking at the Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-3 interface, located at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Unity node. This was the second such docking at PMA-3, and Cockrell was required to adopt a “tail-forward” attitude—with Atlantis’ nose directed along the station’s long axis—thereby creating the proper conditions for the installation of Destiny. Shortly after the completion of customary pressure and leak checks, the hatches between the station and the shuttle were opened for a few hours of greetings between the two crews, then closed again, to prepare for the first EVA.
America’s Destiny was almost ready for business.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.