A Controversial Mission: 20 Years Since STS-58 (Part 1)

Columbia begins her 14-day mission on 18 October 1993. Photo Credit: NASA
Columbia begins her 14-day mission on 18 October 1993. Photo Credit: NASA

“John, we’re going to fly you one of these days,” Launch Director Bob Sieck called over the communications loop on 15 October 1993. “Just hang in there.”

“Nice try,” replied STS-58 Commander John Blaha, as he and his six crewmates prepared to disembark from Columbia after 2.5 uncomfortable hours on their backs in bulky pressure suits, harnesses, and parachutes. It was the second time that they had been through this routine, trying to reach space for NASA’s longest scheduled shuttle mission to date, lasting for two whole weeks. For now, however, Columbia—NASA’s longest-serving orbiter—was living up to her unenviable reputation: a virtually immovable bear to get off the ground, but once in space, a beautiful and gracious swan. Twenty years ago this week, STS-58 staged one of the most controversial flights in the shuttle’s 135-mission history. Spacelab Life Sciences (SLS)-2 looked innocuous enough, focused on medical and biological research … but as the first ever space flight to involve the killing and dissection of live animals, it aroused intense debate from the outset.

Delays in getting Columbia’s previous mission, STS-55, off the ground had already pushed Blaha’s flight from August into September 1993 and, following STS-51’s problems, into mid-October. Inclement weather on the 14th forced a two-hour delay, but the launch attempt was eventually scrubbed due to the failure of an Air Force range safety command message encoder verifier. An S-band transponder glitch called off the next attempt on 15 October and, after its replacement, NASA felt able to attempt a launch of STS-58 on the 18th.

For Rhea Seddon, payload commander of STS-58, one of the worst aspects of a shuttle mission was the new partial-pressure suits that they were obliged to wear for ascent and re-entry. “It was crazy,” she told the NASA oral historian. “They had technicians that got you into them prior to launch, but then you had to get yourself into them for landing … and imagine the middeck, weightlessness, and seven suits floating around down there and 14 gloves and 14 boots and cooling garments.” During training in the high heat of Florida, Houston, and California, Seddon referred to the process as “suit-wrestling,” and the difficulty increased for small astronauts because they had the same weight of equipment, regardless of size or body weight. Yet it was about more than just bulk. “Those suits were built to be worn by high-altitude pilots,” she said, “regular-size guys. If they had problems, they ejected. They didn’t have to crawl out and run away. They didn’t have to rappel down the side of their vehicle.”

Her concerns were realised in early May 1993, when she broke four metatarsal bones in her left foot whilst practicing a fully-suited escape from the orbiter. “The STS-58 crew was practicing emergency egress,” noted the NASA news release, dated 3 May. “As Dr. Seddon was sliding down the slide, her left foot became pinned under her, causing four minor bones to break.” It was fortunate that the injury was minor and that the training was of the refresher nature and therefore could be quickly caught up on after her recuperation.

The crew of STS-58 poses for the traditional pre-launch portrait. Seated from left are Dave Wolf, Shannon Lucid, Rhea Seddon and Rick Searfoss, with John Blaha, Bill McArthur and Marty Fettman standing. Photo Credit: NASA
The crew of STS-58 poses for their traditional pre-launch portrait. Seated from left are Dave Wolf, Shannon Lucid, Rhea Seddon, and Rick Searfoss, with John Blaha, Bill McArthur, and Marty Fettman standing. Photo Credit: NASA

Seddon was named as payload commander of SLS-2 in October 1991, with a projected launch two years later in July 1993. Her expertise from the SLS-1 mission in June 1991 was a crucial factor in the assignment … and it was an assignment that Seddon had actively sought. “There was some controversy about my being on the next flight,” she told the NASA oral historian, “because I was … on the SLS-1 flight and they wanted four other subjects … They wanted to get eight subjects altogether and if I flew, they were only going to get seven subjects, because I was a repeat. They already had data on me. They weighed the pros and cons of that, but I had been following SLS-2 as long as I’d been following SLS-1 and continued to follow it after the first flight.” Coupled to that, Seddon had established good working relationships with the SLS investigators and had the benefit of having flown recently. “There were just so many things that came out of SLS-1,” she said, “that they wanted to capture and I think they knew that if I wasn’t on SLS-2, I would probably be busy with another flight and not be able to help them as much as they liked.”

Two months later, in December 1991, veteran astronaut Shannon Lucid (a biochemist) and rookie Dave Wolf (a physician) were named as mission specialists. Seddon was relieved that a decision had been taken by NASA to assign a payload commander for SLS-2. Her previous mission, SLS-1, had worked well, because of the good working relationship she developed with crewmate Jim Bagian. However, having no one in overall authority to make the payload decisions proved “a little awkward.” For Seddon, it meant that she could attend meetings, represent her mission’s payload, and make “reasonable decisions on our behalf.”

Shortly after his assignment, in March 1992, Dave Wolf was jointly awarded the accolade of NASA Inventor of the Year. Together with Ray Schwarz and Tina Trinh, he had worked on the biotechnology team at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, and had developed and designed a new class of horizontally rotating tissue culture systems—known as a “rotating-wall bioreactor”—to offer a ground-based means of simulating microgravity conditions for cell and tissue cultures. For Wolf, it represented the culmination of six years’ work as the chief engineer and program manager for the project.

Also announced to the SLS-2 training complement in October 1991 were three candidates for a single payload specialist position on the flight: physician Jay Buckey, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; electrical engineer Larry Young, the director and professor of the Man-Vehicle Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and veterinarian Marty Fettman of the Department of Pathology at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University. In October 1992, Fettman was announced as the primary payload specialist, making him the first professional veterinarian ever to travel into orbit … and with a very specific purpose. “NASA’s series of SLS missions play a central role in our program of space biomedical research,” explained Lennard Fisk, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Office of Space Science and Applications. “The experiments that Dr. Fettman and his fellow SLS-2 crew members conduct will give us valuable information on how living and working in space affects the human body.”

Columbia awaits her 15th launch into orbit...and the Shuttle program's longest mission to date. Photo Credit: NASA
Columbia awaits her 15th launch into orbit … and the shuttle program’s longest mission to date. Photo Credit: NASA

Several months after the announcement of the SLS-2 science crew, in August 1992, the three-man “orbiter” team was named. John Blaha would command STS-58, having already flown three times and trained briefly for a spot on the SLS-1 mission. Joining him as Columbia’s pilot was Rick Searfoss, whose claim to fame in the 1990 astronaut class was that he designed their official “Hairballs” logo and patch. Seated behind and between Blaha and Searfoss on Columbia’s flight deck was Bill McArthur, the flight engineer. To McArthur, applying for NASA was like buying a lottery ticket and he submitted his application, knowing that “the chances might not be very good that you’ll win, but they’re a whole lot better than if you never buy the ticket!”

The ticket failed him—in a sense—in 1987, when he was unsuccessful in his bid to join NASA’s 12th class of astronauts. Yet the cloud had a silver lining. McArthur completed Naval Test Pilot School that year, was designated as an experimental test pilot … and was accepted by NASA as an engineer on the Shuttle Vehicle Integration Test Team. A little more than two years later, he was selected for the astronaut corps. By the time he boarded Columbia for his first launch into orbit in October 1993, McArthur was 42 years old, one of the oldest members of his class. “Fortunately,” he told an interviewer much later, “I haven’t been forced to grow up just yet!”

Due to the life sciences bias of the SLS-2 flight, the crew timeline was planned as a single-shift operation, and Blaha was clear that although he was responsible for the safety and success of the mission, it would be Seddon who would take the lead for the biomedical research in the Spacelab module. Unlike many other shuttle commanders who viewed their role as little more than a truck driver, Blaha saw the mission differently: their goal was to obtain good science from SLS-2, and he willingly offered himself, Searfoss, and McArthur as subjects for the non-invasive medical experiments. “In other words,” said Seddon, “they wouldn’t do anything that would make them sick or weak, because they might have to fly us home at any point in time.”

The inclusion of veterinarian Marty Fettman on the crew had been on the cards since before the SLS-1 mission, since it would involve extensive physiological examinations with 48 male rats (Rattus norvegicus), caged in a pair of Research Animal Holding Facilities (RAHFs). It would also controversially feature the first-ever in-flight decapitation and dissection of six rats. As the payload commander, and a surgeon by training, Rhea Seddon assigned herself and Fettman to oversee the dissections. Not surprisingly, this had drawn much public criticism, but, according to Fettman and NASA Associate Administrator for Life Sciences Harry Holloway, it was an essential tool in measuring ongoing changes in the rats’ body tissues during flight. “This is really a unique opportunity to collect biological specimens,” said Fettman before launch. “We believe these tissues will provide some answers to questions that potentially will change our interpretation of past observations.” It was rationalised that examinations of rats brought home from SLS-1 had been unable to conclusively differentiate between the effects of microgravity exposure and the effects of their readaptation to terrestrial conditions. The SLS-2 dissections would enable researchers to more precisely trace tissue changes.

Still, Holloway called for an unscheduled pre-launch assessment of the plans, led by Deputy Surgeon-General Robert Whitney of the Department of Health and Human Services. Holloway denied claims that the assessment was forced upon him by the White House or NASA Administrator Dan Goldin. Whitney’s investigation described NASA’s animal-care provisions as “superb” and commended the agency’s use of the fewest number of rats as possible to satisfy the needs of more than a hundred investigators.

Another source of controversy, at least within the astronaut corps, surrounded Dave Wolf, although it would not enter the public consciousness until after the mission. The story was explored by Bryan Burrough in his book Dragonfly, but apparently involved an FBI “sting,” called “Operation Lightning Strike,” in which the unfortunate Wolf had become entangled. Although the astronaut himself was exonerated from blame and had not—as some journalists erroneously claimed—accepted bribes, the incident is said to have harmed his career for several years. None of this had surfaced when Wolf accompanied his crewmates out to the launch pad on 18 October 1993 and roared aloft at 10:53 a.m. EST. Fourteen days of the most extensive medical research yet undertaken in space lay ahead. In fact, the research undertaken by SLS-2 would prove pivotal in preparing for today’s lengthy missions to the International Space Station and our steps beyond Earth orbit in the coming years.


The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.


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