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Of Marriage, Medaka Fish and Multiculturalism: The Legacy of STS-47

Pictured within the spacious interior of the Spacelab-J module, astronauts Mark Lee and Jan Davis became the first married couple to fly together on a space mission. Photo Credit: NASA

Traditions frequently arise from the most unlikely of places. One tradition which had become entrenched in the Astronaut Office since the early Shuttle era was the practice of a crew’s spouses being responsible for organising and hosting farewell parties and other events. Of course, astronauts became as close as family with their crewmates, to such an extent that invitations to dinner or excursions with each other’s kids were commonplace. In the early days, when missions were male-dominated, the parties were organised by wives, but as women began flying aboard the Shuttle, the party-makers tended to be both male and female. It made little difference, of course, and much celebration was planned and executed both before and after missions, with few obvious problems.

Then there was STS-47.

In spite of its numerical designation, Endeavour’s second space voyage was actually the 50th Shuttle mission and proved historic for other reasons, too. Among the seven-strong crew was the first married couple ever to fly into orbit together. Mark Lee and Jan Davis had been assigned as mission specialists for STS-47 in September 1989 and married secretly during training, but only revealed this fact to NASA management shortly before the flight. Although they would eventually divorce in 1998 (the ramifications of which, some speculated, possibly conspired to eliminate Lee’s assignment to an International Space Station mission), the marriage was notable for its novelty…and for the fact that STS-47 included only three crew spouses. With Lee and Davis married and pilot Curt Brown and mission specialist Mae Jemison both single, it was left to Rhea Seddon – an astronaut herself and wife of STS-47 commander Robert ‘Hoot’ Gibson – together with Eleanor ‘E.B.’ Apt (wife of mission specialist Jay Apt) and Akiko Mohri (wife of Japanese payload specialist Mamoru Mohri) to handle many of the partying arrangements.

Of course, in the eyes of the media, Lee and Davis were the main attractions. Mark Charles Lee came from Viroqua, Wisconsin, where he was born on 14 August 1952. After high school, he entered the Air Force Academy and graduated in civil engineering in 1974, then trained as a pilot at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas. He flew the F-4 Phantom II for several years at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, as part of a tactical fighter squadron, and entered Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1979 to earn a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. His specialism was in graphite-epoxy advanced composites. Lee was then assigned to Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts, resolving mechanical and material deficiencies affecting the combat readiness of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft. In 1982, he upgraded to the new F-16 Fighting Falcon jet and served as an executive officer and flight commander. Two years later, in May 1984, he was selected as a member of NASA’s tenth group of astronaut candidates. He first flew in May 1989 and within months was named as a mission specialist – and, from January 1992, as payload commander – of STS-47.

The Spacelab-J module and the attached ‘bridge’ of Getaway Special (GAS) canisters is prepared for installation into Endeavour’s payload bay. Photo Credit: NASA

His crewmate and future wife, Nancy Jan Davis, was born in Cocoa Beach, Florida, on 1 November 1953. Surnamed ‘Smotherman’ at birth, she later assumed her stepfather’s patronymic and received much of her schooling in the Huntsville, Alabama, area. She earned two bachelor’s degrees: one in applied biology from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1975 and a second in mechanical engineering from Auburn University in 1977. Upon receipt of her second degree, she joined Texas in Bellaire, Texas, to work as a petroleum engineer in tertiary oil recovery, before moving to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville in 1979 as an aerospace engineer. Master’s and doctoral credentials in mechanical engineering, both from the University Alabama in Huntsville, followed in 1983 and 1985, respectively. Her career with NASA continued to blossom and in 1986 she led a structural analysis team with a focus on the Hubble Space Telescope and Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility. Shortly before her admission into NASA’s astronaut corps in June 1987, Davis worked as the lead engineer for the redesign of the attachment ring linking the Shuttle’s Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) with the External Tank.STS-47 was repeatedly delayed, as the Shuttle manifest writhed and contorted in response to numerous technical issues, not least of which were the crippling fleet-wide hydrogen leaks in the summer of 1990. The primary payload for the flight was Spacelab-J, a co-operative life and microgravity science mission organised by NASA and the Japanese National Space Development Agency (NASDA, forerunner of today’s Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency). Originally conceived by NASDA in 1979 as the ‘First Materials Processing Test’, it received 103 experiment proposals from the Japanese science community and in March 1980 a total of 62 finalists were chosen for consideration. Thirty-four experiments were ultimately chosen by NASDA and principal investigators were named in July 1984. At around the same time, the mission was formally proposed to NASA as a potential Shuttle payload and a Launch Services Agreement between the two space agencies was signed in March 1984. However, the 34 Japanese experiments did not fill the Spacelab module and NASA developed seven of its own investigations and two joint ones with NASDA to complement the themes of the mission. “On Spacelab missions, astronauts do the science,” said NASA’s Spacelab-J Program Manager Gary McCollum, before the flight. “This mission is typical of how we will routinely work in space for much longer periods when Space Station Freedom begins operations later this decade.”

Twenty-four experiments focused upon materials and processes in the microgravity environment, with emphasis upon the production and analysis of protein crystals, electronic components, fluid dynamics, glasses and ceramics, metals and alloys. The frequent-flying Protein Crystal Growth investigation sought to yield crystals by the vapour-diffusion and liquid-to-liquid diffusion processes, whilst four high-temperature furnaces – the Gradient Heating Furnace, the Image Furnace, the Crystal Growth Furnace and the Continuous Heating Furnace – were employed to melt and solidify a variety of materials.

The Gradient Heating Furnace facilitated the exploration of crystal formation processes in semiconductors, ceramics and alloys and featured three temperature zones, which allowed gradients to be ‘moved’ up to a maximum 1,100 degrees Celsius along the length of a sample. During the Spacelab-J mission, the furnace was employed to process specimens of lead-tin-telluride for potential electronic applications, including fire security and imaging systems.The Image Furnace supported investigations which used the ‘floating-zone’ growth procedure, whereby a liquid ‘zone’ was moved through a material during the crystal-formation process, and its samples included indium-antimonide, a compound whose Earth-bound applications span a broad area of the infrared technology arena, ranging from thermal imaging cameras to missile guidance systems and telescopes. Other experiments sought to understand flow processes in a viscous, gold-laced glass sphere. Finally, the Continuous Heating Furnace provided high temperatures of up to 1,300 degrees Celsius, together with a rapid-cooling capability, to two samples in tandem. Specific materials heated and cooled in the furnace included compounds of aluminium-lead-bismuth, silver-copper, silver-yttrium-barium-copper and silver-yttrium-barium-copper. The choice of the Continuous Heating Furnace for these samples meant that two could be heated as two others were being cooled, thereby achieving increased processing efficiency. A Large Isothermal Furnace uniformly heated large samples, including tungsten, to maximum temperatures of 1,600 degrees Celsius, then rapidly cooled them through helium purging. Protein crystal growth formed an additional important thrust of the research conducted in the Spacelab module and middeck.

The remaining 19 experiments focused upon life sciences and employed a variety of organisms, including the seven STS-47 astronauts, together with female frogs, the osteoblastic (bone-forming) cells of rats, kidney cells, fungi, chicken embryos, a pair of Japanese carp – one of which had its gravity-sensing organ, the otolith, purposely removed before flight to enable comparisons of space adaptation processes with its twin – and the mutative effects of cosmic radiation upon the larvae of fruit flies. Notably, the frogs’ eggs were fertilised in orbit and examined at various developmental stages, from the embryonic level to tadpoles and to adulthood.

As the United States and Japan moved together as partners in the Space Station Freedom development effort – soon to become the International Space Station – a key investigatory component of Spacelab-J was the underlying cause of space sickness, which is known to affect around a quarter of all astronauts and cosmonauts. Aboard Endeavour was the Autogenic Feedback Training (AFT) experiment, previously flown on Spacelab-3 in April 1985, which included electronic instrumentation to record physiological data such as sweat, pulse, heart and respiration rates. The experiment offered clear insights into the effects of crew workload and behavioural responses to environmental stress; ‘baseline’ information which proved important when planning future long-duration missions.

For NASDA, the presence of a Japanese payload specialist aboard Spacelab-J was of fundamental importance in these studies. Mamoru Mohri, a chemist by profession, received scans of his spine and legs before and after the mission, from which comparisons would be drawn about changes in the muscle volume of his calves and thighs, changes in fat and water content in his spinal bone marrow and changes in the volume, shape and water content of his spinal vertebrae. Mohri subjected himself to blood and urine specimens to assess his stress levels, the extent of bone-muscle atrophy in the peculiar microgravity environment of low-Earth orbit and the impact of the adaptation process on his normal body biochemistry. He also participated in advanced studies of space sickness, including tracking flickering light targets, whilst anchored in different orientations within Spacelab.

The multi-faceted crew of STS-47. Seated are Jay Apt (left) and Curt Brown, the leaders of the respective 12-hour shifts. Standing, from left to right are Jan Davis, Mark Lee, Robert ‘Hoot’ Gibson, Mae Jemison and Mamoru Mohri. Photo Credit: NASA

Mohri was born in the town of Yoichi, famed from its fruits, its wines and its whiskies, on Japan’s second-largest island, Hokkaido, on 29 January 1948. He attended school in the local area and later studied chemistry at Hokkaido University, from where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1970 and his master’s credential in 1972. Mohri earned his doctorate in chemistry from Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1976, and spent the following decade as a faculty member at Hokkaido University’s Department of Nuclear Engineering. By the early 1980s he had risen to the position of associate professor, with extensive interests in surface physics and chemistry, high-energy physics, ceramic and semiconducting thin films, environmental pollution and biomaterials spectroscopy.

At the time of the naming of principal investigators for Spacelab-J in July 1984, a call was issued for astronaut candidates. Mohri applied and in July of the following year he and two others – aerospace engineer Takao Doi and physician and physiologist Chiaki Naito (later Mukai) – were selected from 533 qualified candidates reviewed by NASDA. Four months later, NASA’s final pre-Challenger manifest listed Spacelab-J on Mission 81G in February 1988. The loss of the Shuttle and her crew led many flights to be suspended indefinitely and in 1987 Mohri was appointed as an adjunct professor of physics in the Center for Microgravity and Materials Research at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. During his two years in Huntsville, he was involved in microgravity experiments in alloy solidification and liquid behaviour at the Marshall Space Flight Center’s drop tower. In April 1990 he was named as the prime Japanese payload specialist for Spacelab-J.

By the time that Mohri officially joined the crew, the NASA members of the science team had already been announced. In September 1989, veteran astronaut Mark Lee was named as the Spacelab-J payload commander – with primary oversight and responsibility for the mission’s scientific objectives – together with fellow mission specialists Jan Davis and Mae Jemison. Selected alongside Davis in June 1987, Mae Carol Jemison was the first African-American woman to undergo NASA astronaut training and on STS-47 became the first black female to venture into orbit. She was also designated as the first ‘science mission specialist’. “Under new NASA guidelines for missions requiring a payload specialist not provided by the customer,” noted a Spacelab-J summary brochure, “NASA selects a mission specialist to fill those duties…Since the chosen NASA astronaut will be performing payload specialist duties and is a trained mission specialist, the term ‘science mission specialist’ has been developed.” Serving as Jemison’s backup in this unique role – a role never seen again in the Shuttle era – was a University of California at Riverside biochemist and protein crystal growth specialist named Stanley Koszelak.

Born in Decatur, Alabama, on 17 October 1956, Mae Jemison was the daughter of a maintenance supervisor father and an elementary school teacher mother. Unlike many youngsters of her generation (and ethnicity), Jemison always assumed that she would someday reach space. Her interest in the natural sciences was inspired from an early age and in kindergarten, when asked by her teacher what she wanted to do, the young Jemison responded that she wanted to be a scientist.

The teacher looked puzzled. “Don’t you mean a nurse?” she asked.

Mae Jemison, pictured during Spacelab-J pre-flight training. Photo Credit: NASA

“No,” replied Jemison, “I mean a scientist.” There was nothing wrong with being a nurse, of course, but Jemison simply wished to follow a different career…a career which was not readily accessible to women at that point in time. The arts were also a fascination and she pursued dancing – ballet, jazz, modern, traditional African – and even auditioned for the role of Maria in ‘West Side Story’. She did not get the part, but her dancing skills were sufficiently impressive for her to be given a place as a background dancer. As she approached the end of her secondary education, Jemison was faced with a choice: she could become a professional dancer or enter medical school. Her mother helped resolve the issue with wise words of advice: “You can always dance if you’re a doctor,” she said, “but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer.”Jemison left Chicago’s Morgan Park High School in 1973 and entered Stanford University to study chemical engineering. As an undergraduate, she met resistance both as a woman in an engineering discipline and as a black woman in an engineering discipline. “Some professors would just pretent I wasn’t there,” she reflected, years later. “I would ask a question and a professor would act as if it was just so dumb; the dumbest question he had ever heard. Then when a white guy would ask the same question, the professor would say ‘That’s a very astute observation’.” Upon receipt of her undergraduate degree in 1977, Jemison proceeded to Cornell Medical College and gained her medical degree in 1981. Following her internship, she worked as a general practitioner and in 1983-85 joined the Peace Corps, based in war-torn Liberia and Sierra Leone. Whilst there, she provided medical care, wrote self-care manuals and helped research vaccines.

On one occasion, a volunteer was diagnosed with malaria. As the disease progressed and worsened, Jemison became convinced that it was meningitis and called for an Air Force hospital aircraft, based in Germany, to extract the casualty. A medical evacuation cost $80,000 and embassy personnel asked Jemison if she had the right authority for such a call. “I don’t need anyone’s permission,” retorted the 26-year-old physician, “for a medical decision.” She accompanied her patient to Germany, remained with them for 56 hours, and was later able to report a full recovery. Jemison had been preceded into space by four African-American men – Guy Bluford, Ron McNair, Fred Gregory and Charlie Bolden – and like them had been inspired by one high-profile black actress: Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in ‘Star Trek’. In June 1987, Jemison was selected by NASA, alongside future Spacelab-J crewmates Jan Davis and Curt Brown.

Like several previous Spacelab flights, the STS-47 crew was divided into two teams, each working 12-hour shifts to operate the multitude of experiments around-the-clock. The ‘red’ team consisted of Brown, Lee and Mohri, whilst the ‘blue’ team comprised Apt, Davis and Jemison, with Gibson, as the mission commander, free to anchor his schedule across both. The biological nature of many of the experiments meant that from around 30 hours before launch many of the ‘time-sensitive’ items – the frogs and the carp, for example – had to be carefully loaded into the Spacelab module, which was by now in a vertical orientation on Pad 39B. Consequently, a technician was lowered in a special sling-chair down the connecting tunnel between Endeavour’s middeck and the Spacelab module. Other samples, including the seed cultures for the protein crystal growth investigations, were loaded even later in the countdown, barely 14 hours ahead of the 12 September 1992 liftoff.

Endeavour roars into orbit on her second mission, STS-47. Photo Credit: NASA

“You are aware that you are sitting on a controlled explosion,” Mae Jemison remembered of her first and only launch into space, “but you also realise that you’ve taken all the precautions. You trust the people you have been working with and you know they have worked to try to keep things safe. After that, you have to leave it alone. If you keep worrying about it, then you’re not going to be able to do your job.” Endeavour rose perfectly from Earth at 10:23 am EDT that morning and entered a circular orbit of 160 miles, inclined 57 degrees to the equator, whereupon Gibson and Brown set to work readying their vehicle for a scheduled seven days of scientific research. Led by payload commander Mark Lee, the activation of the Spacelab-J module was begun a little over two hours after launch and – according to NASA’s post-flight summary – experimental work began “almost immediately to ensure maximum exposure to the microgravity environment”. Jay Apt’s blue team retired to bed for their first sleep period at around this time and one of the earliest experiments to begin running was the Space Acceleration Measurement System (SAMS), an instrument designed to record low-level vehicle motions during orbital operations. Its main unit was situated near the rear of the Spacelab module, with sensor heads located close to major experiment facilities.For the next seven days, the crew of STS-47 stepped smartly through their scientific work, with hardware located not just in the pressurised module, but also inside Endeavour’s middeck and outside on a specialised ‘bridge’ in the payload bay. The Israeli Space Agency Investigation About Hornets (ISAIAH) sought to observe the effects of microgravity on combs constructed by oriental hornets, which are know to have a unique ability to build combs in the direction of gravity. Elsewhere, the Solid Surface Combustion Experiment tested flame spreading along an instrumented sample of filter paper in a test chamber of 35 percent oxygen and 65 percent nitrogen at a pressure of 1.5 terrestrial atmospheres. Outside, behind the Spacelab, in Endeavour’s payload bay, was a bridge of nine Getaway Special (GAS) canisters, supporting a range of student and government investigations. The Boy Scouts of America supplied a variety of experiments into capillary pumping, cosmic radiation, crystal growth, fibre optics and fluid physics, whilst others explored enzyme crystallisation, the thermal conductivity of fluids in microgravity conditions, materials processing, the behaviour of breat yeasts and crystal growth. The experiments involved students and investigators from Sweden, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Of particular note was the Boy Scouts’ experiment, which formed part of ‘Project POSTAR’, a portmanteau of ‘post’ and ‘star’, which involved the participation of Explorer Posts and Sea Explorer Ships. It got underway in late 1978, when TRW purchased a GAS canister for $10,000, but was extensively delayed in the wake of the Challenger accident. The United Kingdom experiment – which originated from the girls-only Ashford School in Kent – was the result of a competition organised by Independent Television News. After its return, the experiment was displayed in the London Science Museum.

As STS-47’s flight engineer, Jay Apt was in charge of Endeavour’s flight deck whilst the blue team was on duty, and he found that his geographical training enabled him to look up from his work and instantly recognise where he was. Apt had seen the grand peaks of the Himalaya during his first mission, STS-37, but now in a higher-inclination orbit, was able to see a much broader swath of Asia: the vast Taklimakan Desert, the giant depression of Lake Baikal and the forbidding boundary of the Ural Mountains. But there was something else that Apt wanted to see…something which eluded him, but which remains a popular misconception to this very day. “We spent several passes looking for the Great Wall of China with no luck,” he wrote in his 1996 book Orbit, co-authored with Michael Helfert and Justin Wilkinson. “Although we can see things as small as airport runways, the Great Wall seems to be made largely of materials that have the same colour as the surrounding soil. Despite persistent stories that it can be seen from the Moon, the Great Wall is almost invisible from only 180 miles up!”

For Mamoru Mohri, each day of STS-47 felt like he was an extra for Alice in Wonderland. “Everything I saw no longer fit within its known parameters,” he explained in a later NASA interview, “so as a scientist I could explain what was occurring around me and yet I was very much entranced.”

“Like Alice in Wonderland”: Mamoru Mohri was enchanted by the strangeness and beauty of the microgravity environment. Photo Credit: NASA

Economical expenditure of consumables enabled the Mission Management Team to authorise an additional (eighth) flight day and it was late on 19 September 1992 that the final deactivation of the Spacelab-J module got underway. At 7:52 am EDT on the 20th, Endeavour’s orbital manoeuvring engines roared silently into the vacuum for 153 seconds, committing the vehicle to a hypersonic dive back through the atmosphere, towards a touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center, on the opposite side of the planet. Concluding her second mission, the orbiter landed safely at 8:53 am on concrete Runway 33. Gibson and Brown deployed the drag chute satisfactorily, ahead of nose gear touchdown, bringing STS-47 to a close after almost eight full days.

Notwithstanding Mae Jemison’s desire not to be remembered as the first black female spacefarer, her presence on the STS-47 crew led to great public interest. Her first view from orbit, she later noted, was a glimpse of her hometown, Chicago, and she is said to have carried with her a photograph of another famous black female resident of the Windy City: Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman aviator.

When Jemison returned to her alma mater a few weeks after the mission, she was keen to share that human imagination and human ability were only constrained by themselves; and her imagination and ability had certainly expanded well beyond the sphere of what others expected of her as a youngster growing up in the early years of civil rights in America. Her accomplishments before and after STS-47 had already been recognised by a plethora of awards: Woman of the Year in 1990 for the Gamma Sigma Gamma fraternity, one of McCall’s Ten Outstanding Women of the ’Nineties in 1991, a Black Achievement Trailblazer in 1992 and an inductee of the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. It was more than ethnicity which marked Jemison out as something special, for she was also one of relatively few women to reach space…and an example of a person for whom hard work and an unswerving devotion to the importance of education and following dreams could pay enormous dividends.

“When I grew up in the 1960s,” she said, “the only American astronauts were men. Looking out the window of that Space Shuttle, I thought if that little girl growing up in Chicago could see her older self now, she would have a huge grin on her face!”

Never were truer words spoken.

 

This is part of a series of History articles, to be published each weekend, barring major news stories. Next week’s article will focus upon two other international missions from International Space Year, 1992.

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