‘Silent, Except for the Wind’: 30 Years Since the Maiden Countdown of Discovery (Part 1)

Thirty years ago, this week, Discovery prepared for her maiden voyage and the third shuttle flight of 1984. On 26 June, it brought NASA face to face with the harsh nature of launching humans into space. Photo Credit: NASA
Thirty years ago, this week, Discovery prepared for her maiden voyage and the third shuttle flight of 1984. On 26 June, it brought NASA face to face with the harsh nature of launching humans into space. Photo Credit: NASA

“T-31 seconds … We have a Go for autosequence start … Discovery’s computers now taking over primary control of vehicle critical functions until liftoff … ”

The calm, measured tones of NASA commentator Mark Hess provided an assurance that shuttle launches had become the stuff of routine. It was 26 June 1984—30 years ago, this week—and after a false start the previous day, all seemed to be proceeding normally as the final seconds ticked away to the maiden voyage of the new orbiter, Discovery. Strapped into the flight deck were astronauts Hank Hartsfield, Mike Coats, Mike Mullane, and Steve Hawley, whilst downstairs on the middeck were Judy Resnik and McDonnell Douglas engineer Charlie Walker, flying as part of a commercial contract with NASA. Walker had been training with the crew since the previous summer, but the others had been assigned in February 1983. It had been a long 16 months.

When they were first assigned, they expected to be launched in March 1984 on a mission designated “STS-12” to deploy the third of NASA’s network of Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS-C). However, the real icing on the cake, in Mullane’s mind, at least, was that they would be flying the maiden voyage of Discovery, the third shuttle orbiter, whose construction had begun under a $1.9 billion contract with Rockwell International in February 1979. Named in honor, primarily, of Captain James Cook’s HMS Discovery, but also offering a nod to vessels commanded by Henry Hudson to search out the Northwest Passage, by George Nares to reach the North Pole and by Robert Falcon Scott to conquer Antarctica, the spacegoing Discovery’s fabrication had begun in August 1979 and the vehicle was structurally complete by February 1983. Several months of testing followed and Discovery was finally rolled out of Rockwell’s Palmdale plant in California in October, commencing an overland trek to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and delivery to Florida atop the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) on 9 November. Thanks to manufacturing changes to the internal structure of the airframe and the inclusion of newer thermal protection materials, including Advanced Flexible Reusable Surface Insulation (AFRSI) in place of tiles at various points on the upper wings, fuselage, payload bay doors, and vertical stabilizer fin, Discovery’s dry weight of 147,930 pounds (67,100 kg) was some 660 pounds (300 kg) less than her sister ship, Challenger, and more than 4,400 pounds (2,000 kg) less than the queen of the fleet, Columbia. She was undoubtedly the most advanced orbiter yet built. “Aviators live for the day they might be the first to take a new jet into the air,” Mullane wrote in his 2006 memoir, Riding Rockets, “and we were being offered the first flight of a space shuttle.”

If it all seemed too good to be true, it was. It did not take long for the gremlins of misfortune to hit the mission. Within six weeks of the crew announcement, the first TDRS had been left stranded in a useless orbit, thanks to the failure of its Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster; and by the end of May 1983, a second TDRS had been deleted from STS-8 and a third from STS-12. According to Boeing, the prime contractor for the IUS, repairs and modifications would require at least a year. This led directly to the cancellation of both STS-10 and STS-12 … but not to the dissolution of their crews. “After many tense weeks of worry,” wrote Mullane, “we acquired a new payload of two smaller communications satellites with different booster rockets. Best of all, we still retained the first flight of Discovery.” Instead of a TDRS, they were given Anik-C1—also listed as “Telesat-I” in NASA’s November 1983 manifest—and a military communications satellite for the U.S. Navy, known as Syncom 4-1. The two payloads could not have been more different. Anik-C1 was virtually identical to its siblings placed into orbit on STS-5 in November 1982 and on STS-7 in June 1983a solar-cell-coated drum, mounted atop a Payload Assist Module (PAM)-D booster. Syncom was also drum-shaped, but would be carried aloft horizontally in a “cradle” and spring-ejected from the payload bay, departing “sideways,” like a frisbee. In addition to Anik and Syncom, according to NASA’s November 1983 and January 1984 manifests, Discovery was also to carry the OAST-1 experimental solar array, sponsored by NASA’s Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology, and a Large Format Camera in the payload bay for topographical research. Under the requirements of the new and complex shuttle mission numbering system, the flight was redesignated “STS-41D.”

STS-41D, in its original mission incarnation as "STS-12", was tasked with the deployment of a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS). However, problems with the Boeing-built Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster in 1983 caused this payload to be dropped from the manifest. Photo Credit: NASA
STS-41D, in its original mission incarnation as “STS-12,” was tasked with the deployment of a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS). However, problems with the Boeing-built Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster in 1983 caused this payload to be dropped from the manifest. Photo Credit: NASA

“ … T-15 seconds and counting … ”

Losing their TDRS payload was disappointing to the astronauts, particularly Mullane and Resnik, who would have taken the lead role in its deployment. They had spent a great deal of time at Boeing’s plant in Seattle, learning the intricacies of the IUS. “At the contractors’ factories, we also did some ‘widows and orphans’ appearances,” wrote Mullane, referring to NASA’s deliberate attempt to present a human face on manned space exploration and hence raise awareness of the deadly consequences of mistakes, “passing out Maiden Voyage of Discovery safety posters to the workers.”

“ … 10 … ”

By the early summer of 1984, as Ghostbusters smashed cinema box offices across the world, the shuttle seemed to be prospering. The Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) “jet backpack” had been tested in February and Solar Max had been triumphantly repaired in April. Six more missions were scheduled before the end of the year and, on 4 June, Discovery’s three main engines were test-fired in readiness for her first launch. The juggling of payloads remained a serious issue, though, and at some stage between the January and May 1984 manifests Anik-C1 was removed from 41D and rescheduled for another flight early the following year. Anik was a PAM-D payload and the failure of this booster to deliver two satellites into orbit in February had led to delays until the definitive cause could be identified and corrected. Hank Hartsfield’s crew were left with a relatively spacious seven-day flight to deploy the Syncom 4-1 and run the Large Format Camera, OAST-1, and a series of middeck experiments. (In fact, OAST-1 operations would dominate the mission, with the first deployment of its mast on Day 3 to test its performance and structural dynamics. The camera, too, would be operated on its payload bay truss throughout the flight.)

After 41D, the rest of the 1984 manifest remained largely unchanged, although the numbering system was adjusted slightly. Mission 41E aboard Challenger, previously scheduled for July, would have carried Ken Mattingly’s STS-10 crew on a long-delayed assignment for the Department of Defense, but this had been cancelled earlier in the year, due to the IUS difficulties. Next up after 41D, therefore, would be STS-41F in August, aboard Challenger; Karol “Bo” Bobko’s seven-day flight would deploy a record three satellites—a second Syncom (4-2) and a pair of PAM-D payloads known as SBS-4 and Telstar-3C—as well as a retrievable astronomy platform called “SPARTAN.” Then, in early October, Bob Crippen would fly Columbia on mission 41G to deploy the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS) and operate a payload for NASA’s Office of Science and Terrestrial Applications. Another mission previously on the 1984 manifest (STS-41H, commanded by Rick Hauck) was cancelled, and the first pair of “51-series” flights were scheduled for November (STS-51A) and December (STS-51C).

Clad in their blue flight suits, the STS-41D crew included America's second female astronaut, Judy Resnik. Photo Credit: NASA
Clad in their blue flight suits, the STS-41D crew included America’s second female astronaut, Judy Resnik. Photo Credit: NASA

So it was that the 41D crew arrived at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida in a fleet of four T-38 jets on the afternoon of 22 June 1984, with liftoff anticipated three days later. They circled over the launch complex and alighted on the runway of the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF). Flying, relaxing, spending time with family members, and running through checklists consumed their final hours on the planet. On the morning of the 25th, they suited up—Mullane jokingly offered Resnik an emery board to do her nails during ascent—and headed out of the Operations and Checkout Building for the pad and Discovery. “The pad was eerily deserted,” Mullane wrote. “A vapor of oxygen swirled around the [main engine] nozzles. A flag of more vapor whipped from the top of the [External Tank] beanie cap. Shadows played upon that fog … ”

Hank Hartsfield and Mike Coats were the first to board Discovery, followed by Mullane on the flight deck and Resnik and Walker on the middeck; the last to be strapped in was Steve Hawley, seated behind and between the commander and pilot in his role as the flight engineer. During the wait, Walker recalled being asked to help verify the integrity of a pressure seal. The countdown continued … until a problem was detected with Discovery’s backup General Purpose Computer (GPC), which failed to synchonize with its four primary cousins. The clock was stopped to permit troubleshooting, but when it became clear that the problem could not be solved, the crew were notified that the launch would be scrubbed and rescheduled for the next day, 26 June. After more than two hours lying on their backs, against the hard aluminum frames of their seats, it was not welcome news that they would be forced to endure the same discomfort tomorrow.

Darkness still covered KSC when the crew repeated the time-honored ritual in the small hours of the following morning. “The van starts out slowly,” Charlie Walker told the NASA oral historian of his journey to the pad. “We wind our way through the parking lot and out onto the access road to the pad. There’s this police escort, of course, in front of you, with lights flashing and everything, so you feel like you’re on top of the world already … Then we arrive out at the launch pad and, at the base of the pad, security waves you on. You don’t have to show all your badges and everything this time; they know who you are. At the bottom of the crawlerway, you can get the view … the first time we’d really seen it clearly without the rotating service structure around it and so it’s an awesome experience, knowing that you’re going to ride this thing into space and there’s your spaceship waiting for you out there. Go up the ramp, the police car leading the way, and you just get to the top of the ramp, and the thing that I noticed first was really different … was that there was like only one or two other people there. Now, every other time you’ve been out there, there’s dozens and dozens of people all around and conversation going on; but now it’s silent, except for the wind, maybe some seabirds now and then. As you get up closer to the vehicle, you begin to hear the vehicle. You begin to hear the shuttle and the External Tank.”

Months of training had reached their climax; they were really going to fly today.

Or were they?


The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.



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