‘Americans Return to Space’: The Voyage of STS-26 (Part 1)

Twenty-five years have now passed since STS-26, the mission which laid the ghosts of Challenger to rest and opened the gates for a second Golden Age of shuttle operations. Photo Credit: NASA
Twenty-five years have now passed since STS-26, the mission which laid the ghosts of Challenger to rest and opened the gates for a second Golden Age of shuttle operations. Photo Credit: NASA

Twenty-five years have now passed since the voice of launch commentator Hugh Harris exulted “Americans return to space” on the morning of 29 September 1988, as Space Shuttle Discovery broke the shackles of Earth and took flight. Her seventh voyage into orbit would last for four days, carry few secondary experiments, and deploy a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) … but its overall significance was profound: for STS-26 was the first shuttle flight to take place in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster. Harris’ words echo with a particularly saddening resonance today, more than two years since the final shuttle flight; for although Americans are in space at this precise moment in time, the date upon which they will return to space, from American soil and aboard an American spacecraft, remains unclear.

A quarter of a century ago, NASA endured one of the darkest and most difficult periods of its history. On 28 January 1986, the agency was rudely awakened to the reality that the shuttle—which it had touted as the spacegoing equivalent of a airliner, capable of delivering commercial and other payloads into orbit and even ferrying ordinary civilians aloft—was actually very experimental, both in terms of its complexity and unforgiving fragility. Challenger exploded nine miles above the Kennedy Space Center, torn apart by a known problem with her Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), which enabled hot gases to bypass two sets of O-ring seals. In the two years that followed, an extensive redesign and recertification of the boosters was undertaken by contractor Morton Thiokol.

Thiokol created a pair of full-scale, short-duration “simulators” to evaluate the changes. The first was the joint environment simulator, which was test-fired on seven occasions between August 1986 and July 1988 and evaluated the field joint hardware, insulation, and the performance of the O-ring seals. The second was the nozzle joint environment simulator, tested between February 1987 and August 1988, whose purpose was to test the integrity of the joints between the nozzle and the SRB casing. An engineering test motor was fired in May 1987 to evaluate the performance of heaters, an additional (third) O-ring, and the ability of external graphite composite stiffener rings to prevent joint rotation. Two demonstration SRBs were fired in August and December to qualify the redesign features, and in April 1988 the process of recertification for flight got underway with Qualification Motor Six.

During the post-Challenger down time, Morton Thiokol's Solid Rocket Boosters were subjected to a rigorous redesign process and underwent several test firings to recertify them for the Shuttle. Photo Credit: NASA
During the post-Challenger down time, Morton Thiokol’s Solid Rocket Boosters were subjected to a rigorous redesign process and underwent several test firings to recertify them for the shuttle. Photo Credit: NASA

In addition to the booster modifications, the enforced down time was spent attending to other critical areas on the orbiter itself: main engines, brakes and tyres, the need for partial-pressure suits for hypobaric protection, and the implementation of an escape system. It was obvious that the shuttle was too mature in design for any kind of “escape pod” or ejection seats for the whole crew, but two concepts which were explored were a tractor rocket and a curved, telescoping pole to extract astronauts from the cabin in an emergency. Both methods were useful only below speeds of about 200 mph and below altitudes of some four miles, whilst the vehicle was in controlled, gliding flight. Ultimately, the pole won.

In an emergency, an astronaut would remove the pole from the middeck ceiling, pyrotechnically jettison the side hatch, extend the pole, affix a lanyard hook on his or her suit, and essentially slide out, parachuting to safety. The pole was meant to “guide” the astronauts for 10-12 feet, propelling them “underneath” the shuttle’s port-side wing. Tested extensively in February and March 1988 by U.S. Navy jumpers from a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter, it was predicted that around 90 seconds would be required for a crew to evacuate the vehicle. The development of the pole was closely watched by veteran astronaut Steve Nagel. “The charter from the Rogers Commission,” said Nagel in his NASA oral history, “was to provide a controlled, gliding flight escape system, and this does it. I think you’re better off having a pressure suit and a parachute and some survival gear. Even if it’s out of control, somebody might have a chance of climbing out the hatch. There’s plenty of evidence in World War II of crew members getting out of bombers with wings off, if they happen to be close to an opening or a hatch.”

The pole modifications were completed on Discovery by April 1988. A return to pressure suits aided the astronauts’ chances of survival … and Dick Covey, the pilot of STS-26, would claim some credit for having contributed to the choice of colour. “As they developed this idea of bailout,” he told the NASA oral historian, “the first suits they got were dark blue and the life rafts were black of dark blue.” The astronauts reasoned that, after bailing out of a crippled orbiter and floating in the ocean hundreds of miles offshore, they would never be seen, so it was decided to use orange rafts instead. “Well, if we’re going to do that,” was Covey’s line of thought, “why are we going to have blue suits? Why don’t we have orange suits?” Many of the blue suits had already been developed for training, and there are several images of early post-Challenger crews wearing them.

Political eyewash was STS-26 Mission Specialist Mike Lounge’s opinion of the suits. “And I really feel bad,” he said in his NASA oral history, “because it’s an extra … weight in the crew cabin that takes away from the payload-carrying capability of the space shuttle and it is just no value added. It’s value subtracted. What little could you do in the event something went wrong, you could do less of it when you’re burdened by these suits. I was totally against it and still am. They offer no value.” Yet the suits were here to stay. Safety was the new byword for NASA. A new Office of Safety, Reliability, and Quality Assurance was established, reporting directly to NASA Administrator James Fletcher, and Chief Astronaut John Young had proven highly critical of shuttle management’s appalling attitude toward operational safety.

Pictured during a 56-hour simulation in late August 1988, astronauts Pierre Thuot and Mark Lee - both members of the STS-26 Capcom team - monitor their displays and notes. Photo Credit: NASA
Pictured during a 56-hour simulation in late August 1988, astronauts Pierre Thuot and Mark Lee—both members of the STS-26 Capcom team—monitor their displays and notes. Photo Credit: NASA

By the end of 1986, it was clear that the return to flight would take longer than expected and a provisional launch date for “STS-26″—the first post-Challenger mission—in February 1988 was held in serious doubt. NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight Dick Truly had already stated that the mission would be accorded all of the caution which had accompanied the maiden flight. Discovery’s ascent trajectory was to be designed to minimise the risks of a Transoceanic Abort Landing, it would launch in warm weather and in the hours of daylight, it would land on the wide-expanse runways at Edwards Air Force Base in California … and its crew would all be veteran astronauts. For a time, the most likely contender to command STS-26 was Bob Crippen, although in November 1986 he accepted a new position as deputy head of Shuttle Operations at NASA Headquarters. Yet with Truly and George Abbey, the head of Flight Crew Operations, Crippen did play a role in choosing the man who would command the flight and instinctively knew that it would receive much scrutiny.

Rick Hauck seemed an obvious choice, having flown two shuttle missions, including the dramatic retrieval of the stranded Palapa and Westar satellites in November 1984. Much has been written about the level of “fairness” or “unfairness” associated with crew selections at this time, but Hauck’s team actually made perfect sense, since for the most part it comprised the men who would have flown on Mission 61F in May 1986 to deploy the Ulysses solar probe. Pilot Roy Bridges had returned to the Air Force in May 1986 and was replaced by Dick Covey, whilst Mission Specialists Mike Lounge and Dave Hilmers remained. “Rick … hinted that we might fly soon,” said Lounge, “or we might be on the crew that flew the return.” The name of the third Mission Specialist, George “Pinky” Nelson, caused some consternation within the astronaut corps, for he had only recently flown and in the wake of Challenger had returned to academia. “Pinky was well-liked,” fellow astronaut Mike Mullane wrote in his memoir Riding Rockets, but admitted that a sabbatical to the University of Washington highlighted in many minds that he had not paid his dues to the recovery effort. “He had the additional plum,” Mullane continued, “of flying back-to-back missions.”

Nelson, for his part, was simply thrilled to be flying again … although his wife and daughters burst into tears when they first heard the news. As for the politics of crew selections, his belief was that NASA assigned most of the original Ulysses crew to STS-26, and Nelson’s previous EVA experience made him an obvious choice. Yet the negative sentiment in some quarters of the astronaut office continued for a time. It was sour grapes, perhaps, but others were equally vocal that the selection process was neither fair nor rational at this time. Hauck had been permitted to select Covey as his co-pilot—an extremely rare practice. “He figured out that he was going to fly the first flight,” Covey told the NASA oral historian, “and I think at that point started lobbying to get me on.” For his part, Covey was tickled by the irony that he had been the last of his class to fly and was already in line for a second mission, but his selection as Hauck’s pilot was unsurprising. Before Challenger, he worked as the ascent Capcom for Hauck’s 61F mission and participated with the crew on abort scenarios. In July 1986, Covey was already working with Hauck, Lounge, and Hilmers in the Shuttle Mission Simulator. He was part of the team.


Tomorrow’s article will focus on the mission itself.


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  1. Yes, Covey was the last person to speak to Commander Dick Scobee, a point that will be covered in the second part of the article on Sunday. Fred Gregory (the 51L Lead Capcom) was sitting next to him in Mission Control that morning. The image of Gregory with his head in his hands and Covey staring dumbstruck at his monitor always breaks my heart.

    Thank you for your comment.

  2. It was interesting that Mike Lounge was permitted to fly again since he had bumped the solar shield on the two comm satellites on STS-51I (Engle blamed it on a “procedural trap”) and caused damage to the SRMS and caused the early deploy of the comm satellites. It was clearly Mike Lounge deviating from the checklist. Some people might argue with this but those of us who were there know what happened.

  3. As I understand it, Lounge’s bumping of the Aussat sunshield on 51I was due partly to a procedural change in the final weeks before launch and his own personal error. He did note afterwards that it was Day One of his first mission. Considering also that the RMS elbow joint failed on 51I and obliged him to command it in single-joint mode, I think he did a pretty good job…and his deft operation of the arm during the EVAs speaks for itself.

    As for being ‘permitted’ to fly again, Lounge was already assigned to 61F at the time of Challenger.

  4. About the checklist change for the RMS on STS-51I – it appeared that Mike was not using the checklist when he bumped the solar shield. In that long recovery time, crews did change. It is water long under the bridge but people on the ground were blamed for something that was mostly his error. Not me, fortunately!

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