Thirty-five years ago, this summer, NASA worked around the clock to process the first reusable orbital manned spacecraft for something which had never previously been attempted. For two decades, U.S. astronauts had journeyed to and from space aboard single-use ballistic capsules, but in the summer of 1981 Space Shuttle Columbia had wrapped up a smooth maiden voyage and was being readied for her second flight in the fall. On 17 September 2016, the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF) will honor the 35th anniversary of the STS-1 and STS-2 missions with a panel discussion involving veteran astronauts Bob Crippen, Joe Engle, and Dick Truly.
The three men formed part of a “pool” of astronauts, selected by NASA in March 1978, to fly the opening Orbital Flight Test (OFT) series of shuttle missions. The OFTs were intended to evaluate the myriad systems of the 75-ton Columbia, ahead of “operational” missions for commerce, scientific research, and national defense. Crippen and then-Chief Astronaut John Young were assigned to STS-1, the first flight, with Engle and Truly named as their backups. However, plans to get the shuttle program on-orbit by spring 1979 proved fruitless and it was not until 12 April 1981 that Young and Crippen rocketed into space and spent 54 hours putting the most advanced spacecraft of the age through its paces. AmericaSpace was told by ASF Development Co-ordinator Danielle Getty that, unfortunately, Young is unable to attend the event.
“While we look forward to space flight coming up in the future, we are conscious of space flight history because we administrate the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame program,” Ms. Getty told AmericaSpace, via email. “Most recently the 40th anniversary of Apollo 13 was celebrated, so anniversary events with astronauts that participate with ASF is an easy connection to make. Crippen is a large ASF supporter, and we’d worked with Engle and Truly on various projects. Often with the astronauts it’s about the connections we have or can make through participants.”
As outlined previously by AmericaSpace, STS-1 was arguably one of the most dangerous piloted missions ever attempted. On all previous U.S. spaceflights, astronauts had only ridden a new vehicle or launched atop a new rocket after it had first been trialed and extensively tested in an unmanned capacity. However, in the case of the shuttle, its extreme complexity led many engineers and managers to consider an unmanned flight as far trickier than a manned one. It was felt by some astronauts that having a crew aboard to handle the wide range of problems would make the success potential of the mission much greater.
The risks associated with STS-1 are anecdotally highlighted in a story from around this time. One day, Young went to lunch in the cafeteria at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, with fellow astronaut Joe Allen. Young had no money, so Allen paid for him. Later, Young insisted on paying Allen back. Allen laughed and told him to forget it. “No,” retorted Young, firmly. “You don’t go fly these things when you got debts!”
Looking back through the prism of 35 years, it is easy to regard STS-1 as the enormous success that it was. But on several occasions, the mission came close to calamity. Shockwaves produced by the three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) and the twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) had buckled a strut holding Columbia onto the External Tank (ET). Had it failed, it was later determined, the result could have been catastrophic and steps were taken to strengthen the struts in readiness for future missions.
Then, when Young and Crippen achieved orbit, they found that a number of protective tiles had been lost from one of the shuttle’s starboard Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods. Thousands of tiles covered Columbia and were tasked with guarding her airframe against high thermal loads during re-entry and the fact that some had been shaken loose during the violent ascent underscored a problem which would haunt the shuttle program for the next three decades. Although no tiles appeared to be missing from Columbia’s wings, it was impossible for Young and Crippen to view the craft’s belly, which would bear the brunt of re-entry heating.
Fortunately, STS-1’s tile damage was not severe and the astronauts guided America’s first space shuttle to a smooth touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on 14 April 1981. A week later, the backup crew of Joe Engle and Dick Truly were named to fly Columbia’s second mission, STS-2, which was then scheduled for launch on 30 September 1981. In response to the announcement, Young and Crippen designed a ceremonial “key” to the shuttle, fabricated from cardboard, and presented it to Engle and Truly. The gesture was intended to form the basis of a traditional handover from one crew to the next, although it also generated a measure of humor. “There were so many comments about buying a used car from Crip and John,” recalled Engle in his NASA oral history, “that it became more of a joke than a serious traditional thing. I don’t recall that it really lasted very long.”
The summer of 1981 was a heady time, therefore, as NASA endeavored to prepare Columbia to become the first orbital manned spacecraft to fly a second mission. She returned to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), at the tail end of April, but it soon became obvious that a late September launch target for STS-2 would be difficult. “Tile repair was the primary thing that we probably prepared for as a result of STS-1,” noted Engle. In fact, 350 tiles needed to be replaced, 818 others needed repair, and a further 2,000 would be serviced in-place. A revised launch date of 9 October was set, and on 10 August Columbia rolled from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) into the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for stacking onto her fuel tank and boosters. On the final day of August, she arrived at Pad 39A.
Her first attempt to launch on 9 October was scrubbed, due to an accidental spillage of highly toxic nitrogen tetroxide, which forced 379 tiles to be removed, cleaned, and replaced. A second try on 4 November was also called off when Columbia’s Auxiliary Power Units (APUs) exhibited higher-than-normal oil pressures. After several efforts to rectify the problem within the “window,” the attempt was called off and launch was rescheduled for the 12th. On the evening prior, a Multiplexer-Demutiplexer (MDM)—responsible for providing instrumentation measurements, commands, and data to Engle and Truly’s cockpit displays—failed. A spare was fitted, but also failed, requiring NASA to fly another MDM in from California on the morning of launch day.
The replacement MDM, incidentally, came from the second shuttle orbiter, Challenger, which was then undergoing final assembly and checkout at Rockwell International’s Palmdale facility. Finally, on the morning of 12 November 1981—212 days after returning from her maiden voyage—Columbia speared for the skies again. Engle and Truly worked with the shuttle’s first fully-fledged scientific payload, flown on behalf of NASA’s Office of Space and Terrestrial Applications, and tested the Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm. However, a fuel cell malfunction forced STS-2 to return to Earth after 54 hours, instead of the planned five days.
On 17 September 2016, the ASF will see Crippen, Engle, and Truly attend a panel discussion at Space Center Houston. Moderated by ASF Board Chairman Dan Brandenstein—a former Chief Astronaut, who flew Columbia and commanded the maiden voyage of Shuttle Endeavour—the panel discussion represents the first time that members of the STS-1 and STS-2 crews will have publicly come together to highlight their pioneering missions. Additionally, Brandenstein served at the Capcom’s console in the Mission Control Center (MCC) during both missions.
“The panel discussion will be a variety of topics,” Ms. Getty told AmericaSpace. “We will discuss the background of each mission, the design and reusability of the Shuttle, events following each flight and leave time for an audience Q & A.”
“ASF is excited to offer this intimate and exclusive gathering in Houston, which is something we have never done before,” said ASF Executive Director Tammy Knowles. “Space enthusiasts have expressed their excitement to finally be able to see astronauts Crippen, Engle and Truly together to share what it was like to be involved in this era of space that has helped to make future space exploration possible. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to meet and hear from the legends of this amazing spacecraft.”