By the summer of 1984, the Space Shuttle had enjoyed success and disappointment in equal measure. Astronauts had successfully tested a new jet-propelled backpack, the Manned Manoeuvring Unit (MMU), and spacewalkers had retrieved and repaired NASA’s crippled Solar Max satellite. The maiden voyage of the new orbiter Discovery, despite a hairy main engine abort, seconds before liftoff, had gone well, but the failure of two Payload Assist Module (PAM)-D boosters to properly insert Western Union’s Westar-6 and the Indonesian government’s Palapa-B2 communications satellites into their proper orbits on Mission 41B had raised an interesting possibility: could the versatile Shuttle and its astronauts be used to effect a salvage operation? For NASA – still “riding on the coat-tails of the successful Apollo missions, successful Skylab, successful Apollo-Soyuz,” according to astronaut Joe Allen – there was a simple answer: Yes.
Over a period of several weeks in the spring of 1984, the lopsided orbits of Palapa and Westar were lowered from an apogee of around 620 miles to some 220 miles, thereby enabling the Shuttle to reach them. “During this process,” read NASA’s 51A press kit, “the spin rates of the satellites will have been reduced to around 1 rpm. The satellites will be in near-identical orbits, with Palapa trailing Westar by about [600 miles].” Launch requirements were constrained not only by the need to insert Discovery into the same orbital plane as the satellites, but also by the requirements of 51A’s other two customers, another pair of communications satellites, the Navy’s Syncom 4-1 and Telesat Canada’s Anik-D2.
Liftoff was originally scheduled for the opening of a tight, 18-minute ‘window’ on 7 November 1984, but was scrubbed when it became evident that predicted wind speeds at altitude would impose shear loads in excess of the design limits of the vehicle. Next day, the situation improved and Discovery – carrying astronauts Rick Hauck, Dave Walker, Anna Fisher, Dale Gardner and Allen himself – thundered aloft at precisely 7:15 am EST. “History now shows we were also possibly very lucky,” Joe Allen told the oral historian, “because both of the tragic accidents, that of the Challenger and that of Columbia, involved launching through very high wind shear conditions and there’s some thinking now that high wind shears and Space Shuttles do not go safely together.”
Deployment of Anik-D2 followed on the second day of the mission and its attached PAM-D successfully boosted it towards geostationary orbit. So similar was this satellite to Westar and Palapa that, in the weeks before launch, Allen and Gardner had been cheekily told by their fellow astronauts not to confuse them. “In other words,” Allen recalled wryly, “don’t bring home the satellites that we’d just taken there!” The third day of the mission was devoted to Syncom 4-1, which rolled, frisbee-fashion, out of the payload bay and propelled perfectly into geostationary orbit.
With two satellites safely deployed, the next task was to rendezvous with Palapa. Hauck and Fisher were first to spot it as a steadily-brightening star, from a distance of more than 90 miles, on the morning of the 12th. The rendezvous was officially completed at 8:00 am EST. By this time, Allen and Gardner were already clad in their water-cooled underwear and Dave Walker was getting their suits ready in the airlock. Years later, Allen would recall Walker’s intense focus on ensuring that every aspect of the checklist was followed; the pilot came away with a fearsome headache and was forced to dig into the medical supplies for a pill. At length, with the two spacewalkers in the airlock, Walker was almost ready to pass Allen his helmet, when he stopped.
“Dave, I’m hungry,” said Allen. “I really need a cookie or something to eat.”
“Oh, Joe, how could you? We’re slightly…”
Allen was indignant. “Dave, I need a butter cookie.”
It was not idle gossip, nor a minor grumble on Allen’s part. According to the timeline, he and Gardner would be outside for at least six hours and simply operating in their bulky suits demanded enormous reserves of energy and stamina. “So he goes off into the food pantry,” Allen recalled, “and comes back with a butter cookie. I open my mouth. Keep in mind, I can’t use my hands now. He puts the butter cookie into [my mouth]…then he hits my jaw shut!” Walker clicked Allen’s helmet into place and then sealed the two men into the airlock. “We could feel the hatch being sealed,” Allen wrote, “and we waited quietly for 25 more minutes, whilst the airlock was depressurised.” The plan was for the EVA to begin during a period of orbital daylight to allow them to set up their tools and prepare the MMUs.
Every person who has performed a spacewalk has come back with their own stories about it, with many regarding it as incomparably surpassing any other experience on a mission. For Allen, when he pushed open the outer hatch and poked his helmeted head into the payload bay at 8:25 am EST, his first view quite literally took his breath away: for there was Palapa, slowly spinning, directly beyond the forward bulkhead. “I fastened myself into the MMU as darkness fell,” he wrote, “tested its two propulsion systems, released the lever that held it to the bulkhead and I glided across the bay. Dale helped me to attach the stinger and, once it was secure, I made another short test flight to see how the MMU flew.”
As the Sun rose on another 45-minute period of orbital daylight, Walker gave the call – “Let’s go get it” – and Allen flew crisply over to Palapa. With the stinger mounted on the front of the MMU’s arms, he looked not dissimilar to a medieval knight, about to enter a joust. Back on Earth, in the water tank and at Martin Marietta’s Denver facility, it had been quite ungainly, but now, in space, it flew magically. At first, as he headed around the ‘base’ of the satellite, he was struck full in the face by blazing sunlight, but as he drifted closer and closer and finally entered Palapa’s shadow, he could instantly see clearly and was able to guide the tip of the stinger directly into the throat of the nozzle. Allen waited a few seconds as the stinger moved further and further inward, then pulled the lever to open the toggles.
It worked. “Stop the clock,” he yelled, triumphantly. “I’ve got it tied!”
After stabilising both himself and the satellite with the MMU’s thrusters, Allen watched as crewmate Anna Fisher guided the grapple fixture of the Shuttle’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm over a pin on the stinger. Returning to the payload bay, he doffed the MMU and positioned himself in a portable foot restraint on the end of the mechanical arm, then watched as Dale Gardner proceeded to attach the A-frame over Palapa’s fragile antenna. Suddenly, they hit a glitch. A rigid structure, part of the satellite’s wave guide equipment, was protruding further outboard than had been expected…and the A-frame would not fit. It was Dave Walker who suggested that their only option was for Allen to physically grab the antenna ‘end’ of Palapa and hold it steady, whilst Gardner single-handedly attached the adaptor. “Dave Walker…was the keeper of all the Plan Bs that we had devised,” Allen told the oral historian, “and we’d written them down. It was, sad to say, written on Dave’s piece of paper just as Improvise!”
For 90 minutes – a full circuit of the globe – Gardner worked, finally declaring success by manually tightening nine bolts around the edge of the adaptor. Shortly thereafter, the two men moved Palapa into a vertical position and lowered it into the bay, securing it in place with payload retention latches. Years later, Allen paid tribute to Gardner’s diligence and persistence in getting the job done, working alone. The astronauts returned inside Discovery, repressurising the airlock at 2:25 pm, after an EVA which had lasted precisely six hours. Their next step was to rendezvous with Westar and Mission Control brought the troubling news that it, too, had wave guide equipment in the same place. Consequently, it was decided that Gardner would fly the MMU out to the satellite and Allen would act as a ‘human’ A-frame, holding the antenna end of Westar, whilst the adaptor was fitted. The second EVA duly got underway at 6:09 am on 14 November and Gardner quickly captured Westar and returned it to the payload bay. The second retrieval would proceed more smoothly than the first and, in total, the astronauts would spend five hours and 42 minutes outside.
On this occasion, Allen spent a considerable amount of time with his feet secured on the end of the RMS, which gave him a quite different perspective…and made him feel peculiarly precarious. “Flying the MMU,” he wrote, “much like piloting an airplane, had not imparted an ominous sense of height to me; I was in control and at ease with the responsive machine. But riding the end of the arm, high above the cargo bay, was like standing on the tip of the world’s highest diving board – and a movable board at that.” His limited visibility of his helmet meant that he could not see his feet, nor the rail by his side. “Only my knock-kneed stance kept me in the foot restraint,” he continued, “and my ride was as nerve-wracking as anything I had ever done before.”
Intellectually, Allen knew that he would not fall, but the sensation persisted that if he slipped his restraint, he might either plunge into the payload bay or else directly to Earth. “It was a relief to take hold of the satellite when Dale brought it within my reach,” Allen concluded. “I felt like a man on a high wire, being handed a balance bar, and the round end of the cylindrical satellite provided some comfort and security.” Gardner finished labouring to attach the adaptor and the two men proceeded to secure Westar into the bay. It was a triumphant moment. They were out of radio communication with Houston at the time and, from the flight deck, Rick Hauck told the spacewalkers that he wanted them to announce success at Acquisition of Signal.
Allen and Gardner declined. After all, it was the captain of a salvage vessel who traditionally must assume such responsibilities. “Rick, that’s the commander’s job,” they told him. “When we come AOS, you report that we have two satellites safely aboard…and you can also use the words F**king Miracle.”
Hauck chuckled at this ‘inside’ joke. It originated in crew quarters, a few days before launch. As the commander, he was already irritated by the media assumption that 51A would be a piece of cake, with two ‘easy’ satellite deployments and two ‘easy’ retrievals. When a high-ranking NASA official from the agency’s Office of Public Affairs called a meeting with them, it was with some trepidation that the crew entered the conference room. Hauck asked for the agenda. The official responded that there was no specific agenda; he had merely come along to wish them good luck. “We were all surprised,” recalled Joe Allen, “because this really was occupying a good chunk of our morning and time was very important to us right then.” At this point, Hauck remembered the incessant comments from the media that 51A was an ‘easy’ mission. “There is something that you can do,” he told the official, and proceeded to cite the ‘easy’ news reports. “I can assure you that none of us said that, nor do we believe it…and I will personally tell you that my assessment is: if we successfully capture one satellite, it will be remarkable, and if we get both satellites, it will be a f**king miracle! You can quote me on that!” With scarcely another word, he ended the meeting.
Now, with this achieved, Hauck opted to keep his language somewhat more appropriate. “Houston,” he radioed at Acquisition of Signal, “we’ve got two satellites, locked in the bay!” All five of them could hear in their headsets the shouts and cheers from Mission Control. They had done it.
Hovering above Palapa and Westar, Gardner now untaped and displayed a sign, emblazoned with the statement: For Sale. “The satellites would be returned and would then be in the ownership and the possession of insurance companies,” wrote Allen, “which had every intention of selling them as brand-new satellites.” From inside the flight deck, Fisher manoeuvred them for photographs. The insurers – Lloyds of London and International Technology Underwriters – loved it, although NASA would mildly rebuke the astronauts after the flight. Lloyds actually rang the Lutine Bell in the rostrum of their Lime Street headquarters, marking only the third time since the end of the Second World War that it had been rung to announce good news. (The bell was traditionally struck once in instances of bad news, such as the loss of a ship, or twice to celebrate good news, such as a safe recovery). In recent years, it has rung for more bad news than good: the deaths of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the 2004 tsunami and the 2005 London bombings.
In the months after 51A, Hauck and his crew were flown, first-class, aboard Concorde, to London to address the Lloyds underwriters in the Captain’s Room…and took tea with Prince Charles at Kensington Palace. Hauck was fascinated, when he used the toilet in the palace and found a page from the prince’s logbook, detailing his first solo flight in a helicopter. The page was framed on the wall. When he saw the prince, he asked about it.
“Oh,” replied Charles with a grin, “you’ve been to the loo, have you?”
The humour and the state dinners and the meetings with presidents and princes and prime ministers did nothing to detract from the truly remarkable accomplishment of recovering two satellites which had never been intended for retrieval, let alone retrieval by spacewalkers. The expectation was that Palapa and Westar would be relaunched in a year or so. In February 1985, however, Flight International told its readers that Lloyds had been unsuccessful in securing a buyer, although NASA kept Mission 51L – then scheduled for November of that year – as an available ‘slot’ for Palapa.
After the Challenger tragedy, Westar was sold to the Asiasat consortium and placed into orbit by a Chinese Long March 3 rocket in April 1990. Meanwhile, Palapa was sold by its insurers to Sattel Technologies and eventually resold back to its original operator, Perumtel, and launched atop another Delta rocket in April 1990, under the new name of Palapa-B2R. Perumtel retained ownership of the satellite until 1993, when it passed to a private Indonesian company. All this was in the future when Hauck and Walker expertly guided Discovery onto the Shuttle runway at the Kennedy Space Center at 6:56 am EST on 16 November 1984, just a few minutes short of eight full days since leaving Pad 39A.
It was exactly two years to the day since Allen landed from his first flight, STS-5, described in last weekend’s History article. “I landed twice on the 16th of November,” he said, “once on the East Coast and once on the West Coast!”
This is part of a series of History articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the Gemini VI and VII mission…which rose from the ashes of despair in October 1965, then evolved into plans for a bold joint venture in November 1965 and culminated in a triumphant rendezvous flight in December 1965 which advanced the United States one step closer to reaching the Moon.