Early in March 1985, the Space Shuttle was in chaos. Discovery suffered a launch pad abort, seconds before liftoff, in June of the previous year, effectively scuppering NASA’s plan to fly eight missions in 1984. Astronaut Karol ‘Bo’ Bobko and his 41F crew had felt the resultant backlash with particular harshness. They had been due to fly Challenger in August, but the problems with Discovery meant that the schedule for the rest of the year was overturned. Commercial customers were paying millions of dollars to keep their satellites in storage and NASA, keen to appease them, promptly cancelled Bobko’s mission and combined most of the payloads for both flights onto one. Poor Bobko and his crew of Don Williams, Rhea Seddon, Dave Griggs and Jeff Hoffman would be given a new flight in early 1985…and could hardly have imagined that the lightning of bad luck would strike them twice.
It all seemed quite different when the 41F crew was named in September 1984. Bobko would lead a seven-day mission in June of the following year to place two communications satellites – Canada’s Anik-C1 and the US Navy’s Leasat-1 – into orbit. They would also operate a large format camera for Earth observations and extend an experimental solar sail, built by NASA’s Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology. However, the Shuttle schedule in pre-Challenger days was notoriously unpredictable and within weeks their payload had changed. They would now fly in August 1984 with three satellites – Leasat-2, Telstar-3C and SBS-4 – and a unique retrievable free-flier for astronomy, called ‘Spartan’. Surprisingly, this payload remained relatively stable for six months and they confidently anticipated a launch on 9 August. Discovery’s pad abort changed all that.
Mission 41F was abruptly cancelled, but on 3 August NASA announced that Bobko’s team would fly Mission 51E in February 1985. They would carry Anik-C1 and the second Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-B), part of a network of enormous communications platforms to provide almost continuous voice and data traffic between Shuttle crews and ground controllers. Bobko knew TDRS well. He had flown on STS-6, which deployed TDRS-A; a problem with that satellite’s Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster had failed to insert it into its proper geostationary orbit, but workarounds had been ultimately successful and it had limped into position using its own thrusters. Repairs were made to subsequent IUS boosters and Bobko was confident that TDRS-B would be fine. The large format camera and the solar sail had been dropped – shortening the scheduled duration of the mission to just four days – but the crew had picked up an extra member, Frenchman Patrick Baudry, who would operate an echocardiograph on the Shuttle’s middeck.
The mood, though, was sombre. “It was disappointing,” Don Williams told the NASA oral historian about their reaction to the delay, “because to go that far and be within three months of flying and then go back to square one was tough.” Bobko saw it as his responsibility to keep them together and invited them over to his house for dinner on a number of occasions to aid morale. As 1985 dawned, Mission 51E was scheduled for launch on 20 February and the astronauts were due to head to the Kennedy Space Center in the middle of the month. The crew itself had changed again, with the additional of a seventh member, Senator Jake Garn. A Republican from Utah, he was the chair of the appropriations subcommittee responsible for overseeing NASA’s budget. The choice of a politician to fly on the Shuttle had already caused ill-feeling, for a number of reasons, not least because NASA already had plans to fly civilians, including journalists and teachers, into space.
The agency argued that the man in control of their budget could benefit from hands-on experience and took pains to add that Garn was an experienced jet pilot in his own right. In fact, Garn had been a naval aviator, a long-time Air Force reservist and a member of the Utah Air National Guard and would ultimately accrue more than 10,000 flying hours in military and civilian aircraft. Garn was perhaps only half-joking when he threatened Administrator Jim Beggs that he would not appropriate “another cent” to NASA if he did not get a Shuttle flight. Not surprisingly, his mission attracted much interest from voters in his home state. Others regarded Garn quite differently, as a ploy by NASA to curry political favour with its Washington masters. However, Garn’s arrival was not unexpected and he had undergone training in the Johnson Space Center’s altitude chamber in January 1985.
After a slight delay, on 15 February Challenger rolled out to Pad 39A. Her two satellites were installed into the payload bay and all seemed to be proceeding normally towards a launch date that had shifted slightly to 7 March. By this time, the astronauts had already entered their pre-flight quarantine. It would not last for long. Within days, another hammer blow was to fall on the heads of this unlucky crew. A problem had been uncovered with TDRS-B’s battery and “a timing issue” also demanded attention; on 26 February, prime contractor TRW advised NASA that the problem was sufficiently serious to warrant a launch delay. Three days later, in a Headquarters news release, the space agency announced that Mission 51E had been cancelled outright.
Both TDRS-B and Anik-C1 were removed from Challenger and returned to their processing facility. In the meantime, the Shuttle itself was rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building. The purgatory into which Bobko’s crew had been plunged would not last for long. Another flight, Mission 51D, was scheduled to fly on 19 March and Discovery was almost ready to roll to the launch pad. The 51D crew, led by Dan Brandenstein, would deploy Leasat-3 and retrieve NASA’s Long Duration Exposure Facility. Since the latter required the crew to be rendezvous-trained, it was dropped and Anik-C1 was shifted over from the cancelled 51E. This prompted journalists to speculate whether Bobko’s crew might be kept together for the ‘new’ Mission 51D, now baselined as a five-day flight in April, since they were already fully trained for Leasat and Anik deployment procedures.
“It was a stressful time,” Rhea Seddon remembered. “For most of us, it was our first flight and we didn’t care what they did to us, as long as they launched us!” The identities of the flight’s two payload specialists were also subject to change. A McDonnell Douglas engineer, Charlie Walker, was supposed to fly on Brandenstein’s mission; his company’s experiment, a large electrophoresis machine, had already been installed in Discovery’s middeck and it made sense to keep him on the new crew. With only one other payload specialist seat left, it was no surprise when Baudry was bumped to a later mission, making way for Garn. NASA’s rationale was that the Frenchman would benefit from a longer flight in June, whilst the senator’s “busy Congressional schedule” required him to be aboard Mission 51D in order to participate in “a priority medical experiment programme”.
The sheer number of changes – from 41F to 51E to 51D, from Challenger to Discovery and with a payload specialist complement which changed from Baudry, alone, to Baudry and Garn and finally Walker and Garn – proved somewhat comical for Bobko…since his crew created no fewer than four different patches for themselves! “Mary Lee used to be the lady that arranged the patches,” he told the NASA historian, “and along the top of her office she had different plaques with all the different patches…and then you got to a corner, and there were four of them, which were all for our mission, or its derivatives.”
The mayhem caused by these changes is highlighted by the patches. Originally, 41F in August 1984 was supposed to have been the 13th Shuttle flight and Bobko incorporated a 13-star Betsy Ross flag as his patch’s centrepiece. When 41F was cancelled and renamed 51E (the 16th flight), the flag made little sense, but was retained. Next, when Baudry was added as the mission’s sole payload specialist, a small tab had to be attached to the bottom of the patch for his surname. This changed again with the inclusion of Garn in early 1985 and, finally, when 51E was scrapped and became the new 51D, yet another patch substituted ‘Challenger’ for ‘Discovery’ and again modified the payload specialists’ names to their final configuration of Walker and Garn. Additional humour came from where Garn was positioned on the crew photographs. Whenever he was asked where he wanted to stand, the senator’s response was simple: “I don’t care…as long as it’s furthest to the right!”
Bobko’s crew finally reached orbit, aboard Discovery, on 12 April 1985. The mission proved unexpectedly spectacular: the failure of Leasat-3’s deployment switch led to the fabrication of an impromptu flyswatter and the first unscheduled spacewalk of the Shuttle era. The problems, however, remained. It was clear that the Shuttle could not achieve reliable or routine access to space for its customers and NASA’s incessant focus on meeting punishing schedules and flying unqualified passengers, with little awareness of the safety implications, eventually conspired against the reusable fleet. Nine months later, Challenger launched her final mission…and the fireball which swallowed her 73 seconds later also swallowed the last, mistaken belief that flying the Shuttle could ever be routine.
Ben Evans is the author of “A History of Human Space Exploration”, a six-volume series to commemorate the first half-century of humanity’s adventure in space. The series is published by Springer-Praxis. Copies of the first three volumes in the series – “Escaping the Bonds of Earth” (1961-68), “Foothold in the Heavens” (1969-74) and “At Home in Space” (1974-82) – are available for purchase from the author. Individual books may be purchased for 22 GBP + 4 GBP postage or 58 GBP + 8 GBP postage for all three books. Requests can be made through Paypal to email@example.com.