Only days remain before the scheduled Sept. 17 launch of the first Cygnus cargo mission to the International Space Station by Orbital Sciences Corp. Liftoff of the second Antares booster, which follows hard on the heels of April’s triumphant test flight, will occur from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., and is expected to deliver Cygnus on a month-long journey to the multi-national orbiting outpost. Last week, Orbital tweeted that it was naming the first Cygnus craft in honor of former senior executive and three-time shuttle astronaut G. David Low. As part of AmericaSpace’s coverage of this important mission for Orbital, this weekend’s history articles will focus on the larger-than-life character, legacy, and space missions of Low, who died in 2008.
George David Low spent his early childhood literally growing up as the early pages of the space exploration story were being written, for his father was NASA Deputy Administrator George Low, one of the key movers and shakers in America’s bid to land a man on the Moon. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the elder Low was intimately involved in the planning of Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, and he later headed the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office in Houston, Texas, forming part of the team which committed Apollo 8 to the audacious goal of orbiting the Moon. He later served as Deputy Administrator and Acting Administrator of NASA in the 1969-76 timeframe and saw his son, David, admitted into the agency’s astronaut corps in May 1984, only to die two months later in July 1984. Sadly, both father and son would ultimately succumb to cancer in their 50s.
David Low was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on 19 February 1956. As a child, he was fascinated by the promise of science and announced his intention to someday become an astronaut when he was only 9 years old. He entered Washington & Lee University to study physics and engineering and graduated in 1978, then took a master’s degree in physics and engineering at Cornell University in 1980 and a second master’s—this time in aeronautics and astronautics—from Stanford in 1983. During this period, Low worked in the Spacecraft Systems Engineering Section of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., working on the systems engineering design of the Galileo spacecraft the Mars Geoscience/Climatology Orbiter (later renamed “Mars Observer”).
Selected as a shuttle mission specialist candidate in May 1984, as part of the 10th class of NASA astronauts, Low was one of the youngest ever selected, aged just 28. One of his contemporaries from this class was Frank Culbertson—who is today Orbital’s executive vice president and general manager of the Advanced Programs Group, which includes Cygnus—and he once described Low as “more academic than the rest of us,” but admitted that the young man was a good operator and a skilled mechanic who worked on cars, but understood the physics behind them and communicated this understanding well. Described by United Press International as “an intense young astronaut” and “a man not given to frivolity,” Low would admit that the influence of his father had represented a yardstick by which he measured his own life and how he treated others.
A year after entering the hallowed ranks of NASA, Low became an astronaut in June 1985 and worked on the shuttle’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm, its EVA hardware, and the testing and checkout of the orbiters themselves at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Fla. In the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, he served as one of the Capcoms in Mission Control during the STS-26 Return to Flight mission. In November 1988, Low was assigned as a Mission Specialist for his first shuttle flight, STS-32. One of his key roles on the 10-day mission was to deploy the U.S. Navy’s Syncom 4-5 communications satellite from Columbia’s payload bay, and he would also play an important role in the retrieval of NASA’s Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) after almost six years in orbit.
Launch of STS-32 was originally scheduled for 18 December 1989, which would have carried the mission over the Christmas period for the first time in the shuttle era. This fact evidently played so much on the minds of the crew that they privately organised an impromptu crew portrait to be taken, in which they posed in Santa suits, hats, and dark glasses. Fortunately, their NASA name tags at least made them identifiable. (Unfortunately, problems with getting Pad 39A ready for its first launch in almost four years resulted in a delay until 8 January 1990, so the Santa joke fell flat.)
Since the return to flight of STS-26, most missions had lasted around five days, but STS-32 was to break this cycle by approaching the 10-day and seven-hour duration record set by the STS-9 crew in December 1983. (The press kit reported that the flight was to last nine days and 21 hours.) Although the deployment of Syncom and the retrieval of LDEF would consume only the first three days and did not specifically require a lengthy mission, NASA wanted to exercise the opportunity to demonstrate the shuttle’s capabilities, because it planned to modify Columbia for flights lasting up to a month.
Processing of the orbiter involved modifications to support the longer mission. A fifth set of cryogenic oxygen and hydrogen tanks were installed underneath the orbiter’s payload bay floor, and by the end of November 1989 the shuttle had been rolled out to Pad 39A, marking the first use of this launch complex since Mission 61C, two weeks before the loss of Challenger. After a delay until 8 January to finish work on the pad, the weather became the next issue. At length, the STS-32 crew roared into orbit at 7:35 a.m. EST on 9 January.
Early the next morning, about 25 hours after launch, Syncom was released as Columbia flew high above Africa. Low radioed to Mission Control that the deployment looked good. A few minutes later, Commander Dan Brandenstein and Pilot Jim Wetherbee performed a separation manoeuvre to create a safe distance before the first engine burn. Syncom’s manufacturer, Hughes, was exceptionally pleased with the performance of their product. “It was as good as you can get,” said spokesman Tom Bracken. “Everything looks great.” A series of maneuvers by the satellite’s own propulsion system were required to achieve its “slot” in 22,300-mile geostationary orbit.
With the successful deployment behind them, the crew turned their attention to the LDEF retrieval. At the time of their launch, they trailed the satellite by about 1,600 miles and, being lower, were closing at about 40 miles per orbit. Three flawless maneuvers were performed by the pilots on the 9th and 10th to reduce this distance, and on the morning of the 12th the crew was awakened by Mission Control to the music of Bring it Home, set to the melody of Let it Snow. Under the deft control of Mission Specialist Bonnie Dunbar, LDEF was successfully captured and berthed in Columbia’s payload bay, whilst Mission Specialist Marsha Ivins photo-documented the condition of the giant satellite.
Scientific experiments consumed the remainder of the mission, with Low focusing on a series of protein crystal growth studies on the orbiter’s middeck. As landing loomed on 19 January, it became clear that STS-32 would secure a new endurance record for the shuttle program. Ironically, at one stage, it appeared that the flight might end early, for overcast skies and the risk of snow flurries at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., had left the dry lakebed Runway 17 potentially too soft to support Columbia’s mammoth 227,000-pound return weight with LDEF aboard. The danger of controllability problems on the runway obliged NASA to switch to concrete Runway 22, but the presence of LDEF shifted the orbiter’s center of gravity “forward,” meaning that without deft handling of the vehicle, the nose gear might slap down too hard onto the ground.
Snow at Edwards on the 19th put paid to the first attempt to land and produced a 24-hour delay. Columbia had sufficient consumables to remain in orbit until the 22nd—producing a record 13-day flight—if necessary. STS-32 could have landed at KSC, but NASA preferred the wide expanse of Edwards’ runways and the margins of safety they offered for the heavyweight mission. As circumstances transpired, Columbia soared through the pre-dawn darkness and alighted on Edwards’ Runway 22 at 1:35 a.m. PST (4:35 a.m. EST) on 20 January, after a mission of 10 days and 21 hours. David Low had contributed to breaking the shuttle endurance record … on his very first flight.
Tomorrow’s article will focus on Low’s other shuttle flights—STS-43 and STS-57—and his later career with NASA and Orbital Sciences Corp.
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