Next week marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of America’s first woman into space. On 18 June 1983, physicist Dr. Sally Ride rocketed into orbit aboard Challenger and followed in the footsteps of Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya as history’s third female spacefarer. Like Tereshkova and Savitskaya, she blazed a trail which is today being continued aboard the International Space Station by NASA’s Karen Nyberg and aboard the Shenzhou-10/Tiangong-1 complex by China’s Wang Yaping. This year, 2013, is truly historic, for it also marks the half-century anniversary of the first woman in space … and there can be no greater tribute to female accomplishments on the final frontier than by a long-term female presence there. Thirty years ago, on STS-7, Sally Ride took the United States’ first tentative steps toward making that presence a reality.
It is bitterly disappointing and intensely tragic that Ride never lived to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her flight, alongside STS-7 crewmates Bob Crippen, Rick Hauck, John Fabian, and Norm Thagard. Her untimely passing in July 2012 from pancreatic cancer removed yet another space pioneer in a desperately sad year which saw four of humanity’s finest taken from us. First there was Janice Voss in February, then Alan Poindexter in July, and, most recently, Neil Armstrong in August.
On the morning of 18 June 1983, Ride and her STS-7 crewmates entered orbit, with two commercial satellite deployments ahead of them and the release and retrieval of a unique Shuttle Pallet Satellite (SPAS). The main objective of their first day in space was the deployment of Canada’s Anik-C2 comsat, which would be performed by Fabian and Ride. Three hours into the mission, updated computations of Challenger’s orbital path—including her altitude, velocity, and inclination—were radioed up to them. Then, about 40 minutes before deployment, Crippen and Hauck maneuvered the shuttle into the correct attitude with its long axis “horizontal,” one wing down, and the open payload bay doors facing into the direction of travel. At length, the restraint arms pulled away from the $160 million Anik-C2 and the astronauts flipped a switch on Challenger’s aft flight deck to open the Pacman-like jaws of its sunshield and impart a spin rate of 50 revolutions per minute on the payload. This steady rotation helped to stabilise the satellite during deployment.
Next, at 9:01:42 p.m. EST, nine and a half hours since leaving Florida and flying high over the Pacific, Fabian and Ride fired and released a clamp that held the satellite and its booster in place. Seeming to move in slow motion, the payload left the bay at just 2.3 feet per second. Fifteen minutes later, Crippen and Hauck backed the shuttle away to a distance of around 25 miles, aiming the shuttle’s belly toward the satellite to protect their delicate topside from the exhaust of the PAM-D booster. At 9:46 p.m., as the combination hurtled over Africa, an on-board timer automatically fired the motor for approximately one hundred seconds to push Anik-C2 into a highly elliptical geostationary transfer orbit. The performance of the booster and its motor were described as “satisfactory” on STS-7, with the only minor concern being a slight hesitation of Anik-C2’s sunshield during closure. Post-flight inspections revealed that a small Teflon rub strip, laced into one of its insulating panels, had inadvertently pulled itself loose.
Launching Indonesia’s Palapa-B1 satellite on 19 June followed the same routine. Once more under the watchful eyes of Fabian and Ride, it was sent spinning out of the payload bay at 1:36 p.m. EST. Forty-five minutes later, its PAM-D ignited to insert it perfectly into an accurate transfer orbit. Commanded from an Indonesian ground station at Cibinong, near Jakarta, the satellite was manoeuvred, in a similar manner to Anik-C2, into its operational slot at 108 degrees East longitude.
With two satellite deployments behind them, and two days off the planet, Ride and her crewmates were gradually acquiring their “space legs.” “I didn’t really know what to expect, because there isn’t a way to train for being weightless,” said Ride of her first experience of life in space. “It’s so far removed from a person’s everyday experience that even hearing other astronauts describe it didn’t give me a clue how to prepare for it. What I discovered was that, although it took an hour or so to get used to moving around, I adapted to it pretty quickly. I loved it! I really enjoyed being weightless.”
It was a pity that physician Norm Thagard, with his battery of space sickness tests to operate, could not have applied some of his expertise to the third deployable payload aboard Challenger. For, had the Shuttle Pallet Satellite been a human crew member, its maneuvers in space during the second half of the STS-7 mission would undoubtedly have rendered it somewhat queasy. The aim of flying the research platform was to demonstrate the shuttle’s ability to conduct close range “proximity” operations, including rendezvous, station-keeping, and retrieval. It would be deployed and recovered using the shuttle’s 50-foot-long Remote Manipulator System (RMS) arm, built in Canada. Such operations on STS-7 would provide critical, real-world data in support of one of Challenger’s most important assignments planned for the spring of 1984: the recovery and repair of NASA’s crippled Solar Max science satellite.
Indeed, the SPAS operations were, admitted Rick Hauck, one of the most challenging aspects of STS-7. “It was going to be the first time that the shuttle had flown in close proximity to another object,” he explained. “We knew that the shuttle had a lot of capabilities that had been designed into it and one of our major objectives was to flight test the ability to do the last stages of rendezvous and fly very close to another object when you’re both going at 17,500 mph. The objective was, using the RMS, Sally was to lift it out of the bay and release it. Crip would fly the shuttle with it just sitting there, because we could always drift relative to each other. We needed to make sure we could fly close to it comfortably, then back away, fire the jets to go back to it, eventually up to 200 feet, fly around it and see if we could fly it without having the reaction jets upset the satellite.”
Designed and built by the West German aerospace firm Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm (MBB), under a June 1981 agreement with NASA, it was designed to accommodate scientific and technical experiments provided by fee-paying customers. Roughly triangular in shape, it weighed 3,300 pounds when fully laden. During missions, it could operate in the payload bay or be deployed for up to 40 hours in autonomous free flight. For STS-7, the $13 million platform was laden with several scientific and technical experiments, funded by the then-West Germany, the European Space Agency (ESA), and NASA. Although crammed with experiments—ranging from studies of metallic alloys to a state-of-the-art remote sensing scanner—it became most famous for its NASA-provided cameras, which yielded the first picture of the full shuttle in space.
Getting such a historic photograph was planned, said Bob Crippen, thanks to the inputs of Bill Green from NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., but what was not intended was positioning the RMS in such a way that the mechanical arm’s joints created the number “7” to honor their own mission number. As a crew, they had practiced the maneuver on the ground—in fact, the design of their mission patch included a similar image—and it was Ride who placed the arm into this configuration in orbit. Some flight controllers were decidedly unhappy about the astronauts’ antics. They had not seen the RMS in such a position before and were concerned that to do so, for nothing more than a photo opportunity, might risk stretching the arm to its structural limits.
Still, the imagery acquired by SPAS of the shuttle in orbit, with the glittering blue and white marble of Earth beneath, proved truly stunning. Years later, Ride would admit that she still used the famous photograph as a slide during her lectures. “We worked hard on that,” Fabian remembered of the planning for the SPAS Photo. “We worked out the position [with] the arm in the shape of a ‘seven’ for the seventh flight and we didn’t tell anybody about this, of course. We had this on a back-of-our-hand-type of procedure—what angles each joint had to be in order for it to look like that—and then we had worked on the timing, so that we could catch the space shuttle against the black sky, with the horizon down below. That was the picture we most wanted. Now, we got a lot of good pictures, against the cloud background and against the total black sky … It had just a whole battery of cameras: a still camera, a TV camera, a motion-picture camera, and so we’re running these various cameras by remote as we fly the shuttle around it so that we can get the shuttle in various types of positions.”
Beginning on 20 June, the first of two phases of SPAS activities got underway with initial testing in the payload bay. During this time, seven of its 11 experiments were switched on and allowed to run continuously for 24 hours. Then, next day, with the satellite held securely by the RMS, Crippen and Hauck pulsed Challenger’s RCS thrusters to evaluate movements within the arm. Again, Sally Ride found her months of practice on the ground had prepared her amply for operating the real thing in orbit. “The simulators did a good job,” she said later. “It was a little easier to use the arm in space than it was in the simulators, because I could look out the window and see a real arm! Although the visuals in the simulator were very good, there’s nothing quite like being able to look out of the window and see the real thing. It felt very comfortable and familiar. The simulators had prepared me very well.” Early on 22 June, the second phase—actually releasing SPAS into space—got underway. Shortly before 9:00 a.m. EST, under John Fabian’s control, it was released from the arm. The crew reported that the satellite’s handling characteristics were exactly as expected and the RMS imparted no appreciable motion. For the next nine and a half hours, the astronauts tested the arm, fired off RCS plumes to deliberately disturb the satellite, and practiced the rendezvous and proximity operations needed during the Solar Max repair.
“It was a big deal,” Bob Crippen reflected on the first deployment and retrieval by the shuttle, “and we wanted to make sure that we could rendezvous with satellites; could come back in and grab them. It turned out that it all went extremely well. It was a little bit different, in that what we called the ‘digital autopilot’, or the ‘DAP’—which is the way the computer fires the various jets—when we got in close to the satellite, I found that when you tried to slow down sometimes, the attitude control thrusters would also start going, and it kept ‘walking’ you in when you didn’t want to go in … We ended up learning a few things about how the autopilot worked that we corrected subsequently and makes it very nice for rendezvous today, which is extremely important on things like working with the [International Space] Station. It all really worked very well.”
Meanwhile, the crew described the retrieval—both in stable and slowly rotating attitudes—as easy to perform, “but the act of going up and capturing it was a little scary,” admitted Ride. “What if we couldn’t capture this satellite? It was easy in the simulators, but was it going to be easy in orbit? The experience was different because it was real! In the simulator, it wasn’t that important and if you missed, it was just a virtual arm going through a virtual payload. In orbit, it really mattered that I captured the satellite.” Fortunately, the retrieval went perfectly.
In general, only minor problems marred Challenger’s second mission. One of the more worrying problems was a small “pit” in one of the shuttle’s forward flight deck windows; caused, it turned out, by the impact of “space debris.” It was first noticed by the astronauts on 20 June, but they did not report it. “Crippen decided not to tell the ground that we’d been hit and it didn’t come up until after the flight,” John Fabian explained later. “His rationale for that, I assume, was that there wasn’t anything that the ground could do to help us. The event had already occurred. We were perfectly safe … and so he elected not to say anything. I think it was the right decision.” The window was subjected to detailed energy-discursive X-ray analysis after landing, and titanium oxide and small quantities of aluminium, carbon, and potassium were found in addition to pit glass. The morphology of the impact was suggestive of an impacting particle (most likely a tiny fleck of paint) … but travelling at four miles per second! “The results,” Fabian continued, “are so much larger than the event itself that it’s staggering.”
Originally, STS-7 was scheduled to perform the first shuttle landing at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Fla., a fact highlighted in the mission’s press kit, which would have helped to reduce turnaround times significantly. “We were looking forward to that,” remembered Sally Ride. “They had a red carpet ready to roll out for us and our families were all waiting for us in Florida.” Unfortunately, the touchdown on 24 June was postponed by two further revolutions in the hope that conditions would improve or facilitate a landing attempt at Edwards Air Force, Calif. It was expected that bringing shuttles back home to the East Coast launch site would save around $1 million and five days’ worth of processing for the next flight. Moreover, KSC landings would remove the necessity to expose the orbiter to the uncertainties and potential dangers of a cross-country ferry flight atop NASA’s modified 747. However, as Crippen’s crew discovered that June day in 1983, the West Coast landing site exhibited far more stable weather conditions than Florida.
The resultant three-hour delay to STS-7’s homecoming, therefore, gave the crew some much deserved free time and, said Rick Hauck, provided them with an opportunity to hold a makeshift, Earth-circling Olympics. “Each person, in turn, had their hands coming up from middeck to flight deck through that opening on the port side, hands curled over the floor of the flight deck. On the count of three,” Hauck explained, “we went as fast as we could up into the flight deck, down through the starboard entryway, down through the middeck, and back up. We gave out five awards. Sally won the fastest woman! John Fabian won the competitor that caused the most injuries; no-one got hurt, but I think his leg hit Crip coming around at one point. I think Norm Thagard was the fastest man. Crip was the most injured!”
After the hopes of an East Coast touchdown came to nothing, Crippen and Hauck duly fired Challenger’s engines to begin the hour-long hypersonic glide to Earth. Sally Ride was pleased. “I remember being disappointed that we weren’t going to land in Florida,” she said later, “but I grew up in California and we’d spent a lot of time at Edwards Air Force Base. The pilots had done a lot of approach and landing practice at Edwards, so it almost felt like a second home. But there weren’t many people there waiting for us!” Nonetheless, Challenger’s touchdown at 10:56 a.m. PST was near-perfect. Her systems performed well during re-entry and landing … but it had been a difficult mission.
“I’m not a shuttle pilot,” said Fabian, “but I am a pilot and I know a thing or two about kicking rudders and moving ailerons … and this is a very difficult machine to fly. I have had an opportunity to fly the [shuttle] simulator. It’s not nearly as easy to fly as a big air transport, like a Boeing 707 or 757, and certainly a lot more difficult to fly than a little NASA T-38. You’ve got to stay on top of it all the time. You’ve got to be thinking well ahead of the vehicle, so this is not just a flying job for … the guy who really knows how to maneuver the airplane. This is a machine that is flown by people who are of great intellect as well as great skill. But when you come back down and you finally roll out on final and you can see the runway in front of you, even though you’ve seen this in the simulator before, it’s still startling when you look out there and see how rapidly you descend down towards that runway. You’re really coming down fast, about a twenty degree glide slope, and that’s really noticeable.” Twenty degrees represents an angle of attack more than six times steeper than a commercial aircraft—indeed, for the final minutes of each shuttle flight, the vehicle fell to Earth with all the grace of a brick.
When the crew returned to Houston, the media frenzy was more intense than previous missions, although their opportunities to relax were limited. Hauck and Fabian visited Indonesia and the whole crew was invited to a White House state dinner, hosted by President Ronald Reagan in honor of the Emir of Bahrain. As the first American woman in space, Sally Ride naturally drew the spotlight, to the extent that Crippen and NASA management were obliged to shield her on occasion. At one glitzy function, a group of unrecognized males—the rest of the STS-7 crew, together with Ride’s husband, fellow astronaut Steve Hawley—were almost turned away. Everyone knew Ride, but no one recognized them. Norm Thagard was pushed up against a wall by a particularly discourteous photographer, such was the urgency with which the latter needed to get to Ride and present his lens to her face.
Instinctively, each of them knew that it was all part of the post-flight circus (“Your turn in the barrel,” as John Fabian put it) and the price to be paid for having flown into space. Still, Ride only half-jokingly told the NASA oral historian that she was relieved to be assigned to her second mission in November 1983, because training kept her safe from the media. At least there she could be left to get on with her job.
It was a job which carried her again into space in October 1984 and—but for the loss of Challenger—might have led to a third mission in July 1986. However, for Sally Ride, the summer of 1986 would be spent on the panel of the presidential Rogers Commission into the Challenger accident and, thereafter, she would lead an influential report which proposed an ambitious roadmap for America’s future in space. The “Ride Report” was ambitious in its scope and several of its recommendations came into effect in the 1990s, whilst others are only steadily becoming a vision for the future, but the influence of Sally Ride as a proponent for science and exploration—and as a proponent for enthusing younger generations with science and exploration—would continue until the end of her life.
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 STS-57, a shuttle mission which flew 20 years ago this month and carried the world of “commerce” to the high frontier with a facility known as “Spacehab” … and a satellite retrieval which required a tricky spacewalk.
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