Thirty years ago this week, the first African-American astronaut, Guy Bluford, rode into orbit aboard Challenger on the space shuttle’s first-ever night launch as a member of the STS-8 crew. He was joined by crewmates Dick Truly, Dan Brandenstein, Dale Gardner, and the then-oldest man in space, 54-year-old Bill Thornton. After a bone-rattling ride to orbit, which turned night into day across a sleeping Kennedy Space Center, Fla., the five astronauts safely reached orbit and set to work preparing their ship for its six-day mission.
Bluford’s desire to blend in with the rest of the crew, and thereby avoid allegations of “positive” discrimination, helped to shield NASA from accusations of creating a racially motivated stunt, but no one at the space agency was unaware of the significance of the event. In Mike Mullane’s autobiography, Riding Rockets, he made insightful reference to the issue of race and the fact that it never created a problem in the astronaut office. Having said that, Mullane related a story from January 1983, when he had to sit in for Bluford one day in the Shuttle Mission Simulator at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas. During the course of the day, the Simulation Supervisor (“Sim Sup”) asked the crew to invent a medical emergency for the flight surgeon to deal with. In the cockpit, the ideas flowed—Brandenstein had stomach pains, Truly had flu symptons, Gardner had a toothache—until one of them came up with the perfect idea: Bluford had turned white! Outrageous, indeed. When Dick Truly heard the conversation, he warned them that if they made the call, the closest they would get to space would be the office of JSC Director Chris Kraft … to be fired.
Upon reaching orbit in the early hours of 30 August 1983, Dan Brandenstein discovered that, despite having been sick during the ground tests, he adapted to microgravity exceptionally well. “I’m one of the lucky ones in that I did a back flip out of my seat and never looked back,” he later told the NASA oral historian, “and never had a hiccup in any of my missions. It certainly makes your mission more enjoyable if you don’t have to deal with that, but NASA was trying to decide what made people sick and how to prevent it, and it turned out, after a while, they quit trying and there was no correlation. Some guys could ride the spinning chair until the motor burned up and didn’t get sick and then got into orbit and, within ten minutes, they were as sick as could be. Ultimately, they found Phenegren worked on almost everybody. Doctors use it on people that have had chemotherapy. So as soon as somebody would start getting a symptom of space sickness, you’d give them a shot and, in about 15 minutes, they’d be as good as new for the rest of the flight.” Bluford, too, did not recall any problems. “We had little sandwiches tied to our seats,” he said later, “and when we got on orbit, a couple of crew members weren’t feeling well as they adapted to space, so they ‘passed’ on lunch. I felt fine. I not only ate my lunch, but part of theirs, too!”
Despite concerns about space sickness and the fact that Dale Gardner—as lead crew member for both the deployment of India’s Insat-1B communications satellite and operations with the Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm—suffered from the ailment, all five astronauts were able to conduct their prescribed tasks without problems. Releasing the $50 million satellite and its attached Payload Assist Module (PAM-D) booster went according to plan. Insat-1B was the second in a series of multi-purpose geostationary platforms to provide telecommunications, television broadcasting, meteorology, and search and rescue services to most of the Indian subcontinent and Indian Ocean. Its predecessor, Insat-1A, was launched atop a Delta rocket in April 1982. However, despite reaching its 22,600-mile orbit, successfully deploying a jammed C-band antenna and returning valuable meteorological imagery, it failed to deploy its solar sail—which provided a “counterbalance” for its single solar array—and later lost its “lock” on Earth, began to tumble, and inadvertently exhausted its entire supply of attitude control propellant. The satellite was abandoned that September, far short of its advertised seven-year life span, but India’s Department of Space received a $70 million insurance payout from the debacle.
In the wake of the Insat-1A loss, Ford Aerospace introduced an automatic switching mechanism for the antenna to prevent any future loss of “lock” on Earth, made alterations to the attitude control propellant valves, and modified the design to ensure that the solar sail deployed properly. Like its predecessor, Insat-1B was cube-shaped and carried a dozen C-band and three S-band transponders for its communications and television services. Its meteorological payload consisted of a Very High Resolution Radiometer (VHRR), capable of acquiring visible and infrared images of Earth every 30 minutes, and a system for taking environmental data from unattended land-based and ocean-based stations. Between 1982 and 1990, four Insat-1s surveyed India’s natural resources. Their data provided estimates of major crops, conducted drought monitoring, assessed the condition of vegetation, mapped areas at risk of flooding, and identified new underground water supplies.
The deployment of Insat-1B was timed to occur during Challenger’s 18th orbit, a little over a day into the mission, and, precisely on time at 3:48:54 a.m. EDT on 31 August, Gardner and Bluford flipped switches on the aft flight deck instrument panel to send the satellite on its way. Fifteen minutes later, Truly and Brandenstein performed a now-customary separation burn in readiness for the PAM-D ignition. Deployment from the shuttle was so precise (within a tenth of a degree) that it saved Insat some 500 pounds of station-keeping propellant which might otherwise have been needed had it been launched aboard an expendable rocket. At 4:34 a.m., the PAM-D fired to lift Insat to geostationary transfer orbit with a 22,600-mile apogee. Later, ground controllers used the satellite’s own hypergolic motor to circularize the orbit.
However, during its first few days of operations, it came close to suffering the same fate as Insat-1A. Unconfirmed video recordings from the crew suggested that it may have been hit by debris just 19.5 seconds after leaving the payload bay, and, indeed, it was not until mid-September 1983 that ground operators at the Master Control Facility in Hassan, India, succeeded in unfurling its single, five-panel solar array. By this stage, Insat-1B was on station at 74 degrees East longitude—replacing its failed predecessor—and commenced full operations in October. The debris, meanwhile, appeared to have originated from the orbiter’s payload bay and a detailed, six-hour television scan was conducted after STS-8 landed. Nothing on the satellite’s sunshade or deployment mechanism appeared to be either missing or damaged and, upon inspecting still and video camera footage, no evidence of a direct strike on the satellite was confirmed.
It seemed more likely, NASA’s post-flight anomaly report concluded, that a stray particle had been spotted by the astronauts as it drifted between themselves and the satellite. For almost seven years, Insat-1B provided satisfactory services, returning 36,000 images of Earth and providing communications and direct nationwide television services to thousands of remote Indian villages. Insat-1B operated until July 1990, after which it served in a “standby” capacity until it was replaced at 93.5 degrees East by Insat-2B in August 1993.
Despite the astronauts’ intense focus on their mission, memories of simply being in space were aplenty. “The first impression,” said Brandenstein, “is still the biggest. We were crossing Africa when I saw my first sunrise in orbit and, to this day, that is the ‘wow’ of my space flight career. Sunrises and sunsets from orbit are just phenomenal and the first one knocked my socks off! It happens relatively quickly because you’re going so fast and you get this vivid spectrum forming at the horizon. When the Sun finally pops up, it’s so bright; not attenuated by smog or clouds.”
Throughout the flight, they received daily updates from Mission Control on terrestrial events. “They kept me abreast of how Penn State was doing in football,” said Bluford, “and how the Philadelphia Phillies were doing in baseball. Each morning, we were awakened by a school song. We were informed about the shooting down of a Korean airliner, Dick Truly told me he was leaving the astronaut office to become Commander of the Naval Space Command, and my wife sent me a message saying we had termites in our house!”
With the Insat-1B deployment behind them, the crew set to work on their next major objective: testing the muscle of their ship’s mechanical arm with the Payload Flight Test Article (PFTA). Although it would not be released into space, this giant dumbbell was the largest payload yet manipulated by the RMS. Yet even the PFTA was barely a third of the weight of the enormous Long Duration Exposure Facility, destined to be placed into orbit by another shuttle crew in the spring of 1984. Nonetheless, its forward and aft screens closely mimicked the visibility and maneuverability obstacles that future astronauts deploying large, cylindrical structures might face. In particular, PFTA became the first shuttle-borne cargo with a “five point” attachment to the payload bay—a keel and four longeron fittings—all of which were out of the direct view of the crew.
As a result, Gardner and Bluford relied totally upon cameras fitted to the RMS. With Gardner at the controls, the dumbbell was first grappled by one of its two “active” fixtures and subjected to a variety of tests, as Truly pulsed Challenger’s thrusters. These tasks helped to satisfy a number of test objectives to verify ground-based simulations, assess visual cues for payload handling, and demonstrate both hardware and computer software. During each activity, the RMS was employed in both manual and automatic modes. The two grapple fixtures on the payload provided different geometries and mass properties for the arm. Much of the payload’s mass was situated at its aft end, thanks to a quantity of lead ballast, and Gardner’s evaluations helped to verify that the RMS could position a large structure within 1.9 inches and one degree of accuracy in respect to the shuttle’s axes.
Having already launched in darkness, STS-8 was scheduled to land in darkness at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on 5 September 1983. It had been decided to land on Edwards’ concrete Runway 22, rather than the dry lakebed, to avoid the risk of kicking up dust and impairing the Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI) lights. These lights were designed to keep Truly and Brandenstein on their proper outer glide path of 19 degrees with a beam of half-white, half-red light. The PAPI system was located 1.4 miles from the end of the runway and 1.8 miles from Challenger’s point of touchdown. The correct flight path was determined by the shuttle pilots by “centering” the white light onto the band of red lights. With green marker lights signaling the “end” of the runway, and transition and area lighting of 800-million-candlepower xenon floodlights, Runway 22 looked like a Christmas tree.
Early on 5 September, Truly and Brandenstein fired Challenger’s Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines to begin the irreversible de-orbit “burn” and commit their spacecraft to the hour-long glide to Earth. “As we re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere,” remembered Bluford, “we began to feel the effects of gravity and saw the fiery plasma of hot air outside the front windows of the orbiter. Dale took pictures of the hot plasma as it enveloped us and he would occasionally hand me the camera. I could feel the camera getting heavier and heavier as we got closer to home.” For Truly, whose previous shuttle landing aboard Columbia in November 1981 had been in daylight, STS-8 presented a new series of challenges. “No engines. No moon. No correct dashboard info,” he recalled to the NASA oral historian, years later. “The stars were blanked out because the window was frosted over. Then, finally, there were the lights of the California coast and Edwards. On the runway were the lines of red and white lights and that’s what brought us in.”
Touchdown itself came at 12:40 a.m. PDT (3:40 a.m. EDT), completing a six-day journey which, although demonstrating that space sickness could not be effectively predicted, had helped immeasurably to further certify the RMS arm for the planned repair of the Solar Max satellite in April 1984. That arm would continue to prove invaluable throughout the rest of the shuttle era, supporting as it did the construction of the International Space Station and the servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope. Night launches and night landings would occur with greater frequency—by the end of the shuttle era, 34 missions would have launched in the hours of darkness and 26 would have landed likewise—which enhanced the reusable spacecraft’s flexibility in executing its myriad assignments. And although the age record established by Bill Thornton would be surpassed, and other African-American astronauts would follow Guy Bluford, their achievements remain to inspire us all.
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 Gemini XI in September 1966, when a pair of old Navy buddies—astronauts Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon—demonstrated that “M” really does equal “1.”