‘A Hundred Flights … ‘: The Independence Day Mission of STS-4 (Part 1)

Columbia touches down at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on 4 July 1982, concluding the shuttle's fourth and final Orbital Flight Test. Photo Credit: NASA
Columbia touches down at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on 4 July 1982, concluding the shuttle’s fourth and final Orbital Flight Test. Photo Credit: NASA

More than three decades ago, on Independence Day (4 July) in 1982, Columbia triumphantly touched down at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., concluding the fourth shuttle mission. Aboard the reusable spacecraft were Commander Ken Mattingly and Pilot Hank Hartsfield. Theirs was the final Orbital Test Flight (OFT), after which the shuttle was supposed to be declared fully “operational” and ready to conduct commercial missions for national and international customers, military missions for the Department of Defense, and scientific research missions with the European-built Spacelab. It was expected that by the end of the 1980s, the four members of the shuttle fleet—Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis—would be launching every two weeks, flying more than 20 times each year. Yet despite this rhetoric, many within NASA doubted that such a feat was ever possible.

To be fair, the processing time required to prepare Columbia for her first three missions had been significantly reduced from a 610-day “flow” in the Kennedy Space Center’s Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) for STS-1 to 104 days for STS-2 to 68 days for STS-3 … to just 42 days for STS-4. However, the technical challenges facing engineers to prepare payloads for flight, much less to deal with the refurbishment of the shuttle and its intricate Thermal Protection System (TPS), were enormous. By the end of 1985, just prior to the calamitous loss of Challenger, the fleet had managed to fly nine missions in a single 12-month periodan achievement never again matched in the shuttle’s 30-year history. By 2002, the year before Columbia was lost, that figure had fallen to six flights, and in 2011, at the very end of the shuttle era, only three missions took place.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was—and still is—naïve to suppose that a vehicle of such complexity could ever come close to becoming the spacefaring equivalent of a commercial airliner. Yet that was precisely the intention, and it was a dream which would persist to 1986 and beyond. In fact, NASA’s final shuttle manifest, published a few weeks before the loss of Challenger, quoted plans for no fewer than 14 missions in 1986 and almost twice that number in 1987. Even without the loss of Challenger, insiders doubted that such flight rates were realistic. The plan to remove ejection seats from Columbia after her four test flights was also controversial. Bryan O’Connor, who would STS-40 in June 1991, remembered a conversation with Ken Mattingly. “I told him I just didn’t feel comfortable with how we could possibly get to a confidence level after such a short test program,” O’Connor recalled in a NASA oral history. Mattingly told him not to worry about the rhetoric from NASA Headquarters: “You and I both know that it will take a hundred flights before this thing will be operational!” In fact, it would take far more.

Pictured during their training for STS-4 are Commander Ken Mattingly (left) and Pilot Hank Hartsfield. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de
Pictured during their training for STS-4 are Commander Ken Mattingly (left) and Pilot Hank Hartsfield. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

In the spring of 1982, it was a quite different story. On the outside, the shuttle seemed to be prospering, and it was with great anticipation that NASA set to work preparing Columbia for her fourth and final OFT mission. Thirty-six tiles and fragments of 14 others were found to have fallen from her nose and the aft body flap beneath her main engines during STS-3, but none of those areas were subjected to exceptionally high temperatures during re-entry. The tiles had been closely inspected after each flight, and a process of “densification” had been ongoing since even before STS-1. This process involved the application of a silica solution to the tiles and was intended to improve their adhesion to a Nomex felt pad bonded onto Columbia’s aluminum skin. Since the airframe expanded when heated, the tiles were affixed to a “dynamic” base. Most of the tiles in areas subjected to particularly high levels of heating, such as the belly, had been densified long before STS-1, and the remainder were completed between flights and during a year-long maintenance period which started after Columbia returned from her fifth mission.

Meanwhile, the payloads assigned to STS-4 were being brought up to speed, and, by May 1982, most of them were aboard the shuttle. An Interim Environmental Contamination Monitor (IECM) was returned to its manufacturer, inspected, and then reinstalled in the payload bay. An important new commercial facility, called the Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System (CFES), was loaded into the middeck, and the first “real” Getaway Special (GAS) canister was mounted on Columbia’s payload bay wall. It had been purchased by Gilbert Moore, a Morton Thiokol manager, who donated the canister to Utah State University for student experiments.

One passenger aboard STS-4 which was not publicized as highly was the first classified Department of Defense payload. The U.S. military had long harbored a keen and active interest in the development and use of the shuttle, and an independent Air Force launch site had already been built at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. In fact, as Columbia was being prepared for her fourth orbital voyage, the Air Force was midway through negotiations to buy nine missions from NASA to fly its top-secret reconnaissance and intelligence satellites and perform other experiments … for the bargain price of just $268 million. This remarkable deal of less than $30 million per flight had been struck partly in recognition of the Air Force’s support to NASA in gaining Congressional approval for the shuttle, but also in anticipation of the plans to start flying military missions out of Vandenberg from 1986 onward. One of the shuttle fleet would be detailed to Vandenberg for either military payloads or polar-orbiting missions. It would represent the first time a manned spacecraft had flown from the West Coast.

STS-4 rolls out to Pad 39A, ahead of Columbia's fourth launch into orbit. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de
STS-4 rolls out to Pad 39A, ahead of Columbia’s fourth launch into orbit. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Little of this could have been foreseen in the summer of 1982, and it was in anticipation of a flurry of classified missions that the first such payload was installed aboard Columbia for launching into orbit on STS-4. It was designated “DoD-82-1,” meaning that it was the first Department of Defense payload to be flown on the shuttle in Fiscal Year 1982. Some details of this payload have slipped out over the years and the centerpiece was a sensitive detector, known as the Cryogenic Infrared Radiance Instrument for Shuttle (CIRRIS). Its objective was to test infrared sensors for an advanced “staring-mosaic” surveillance satellite, called “Teal Ruby,” which, at the time of the Challenger loss, was scheduled to be aboard the first Vandenberg shuttle mission in July 1986. In the wake of Challenger, and a three-year period on the ground, Teal Ruby was first shifted onto STS-39 and finally cancelled. By the time STS-39 lifted off in April 1991, it carried not Teal Ruby … but an updated version of CIRRIS. Apparently, by the time it would have been ready to launch, the Teal Ruby technology—considered “advanced” in the late 1970s—would be virtually obsolete, because sensor technology was advancing rapidly.

It was under an unusual shroud of secrecy that Ken Mattingly and Hank Hartsfield, the last two-man shuttle crew, rode the bus out to Pad 39A on 27 June 1982 for their flight into space. Mattingly had previously flown on Apollo 16 to lunar orbit, whilst Hartsfield would be embarking on his first mission. Originally, when NASA intended to fly six Orbital Flight Tests (OFT), before declaring the shuttle fully operational, Mattingly and Hartsfield were named to fly the fifth (called the “E”) mission, and when the agency reduced the number to four, they confidently expected to be reassigned to one of the operational flights instead. According to the initial plans, fellow astronauts Vance Brand and Bob Overmyer (the “D” crew) were in line for STS-4, but their roles were switched with Mattingly and Hartsfield, and Brand and Overmyer wound up as the flight crew for the first operational voyage, STS-5. Many have considered the presence of a classified Department of Defense payload aboard STS-4, and the fact that Mattingly was the astronaut office’s lead on DoD affairs, as the primary reason for the switch. “The idea of trying to get on an early test flight,” Mattingly recalled many years later, “was what every pilot wants to do. Of course, none of us thought that it was going to take so many years before that first flight took place.”

By the time the first crew announcements for the OFT missions were made in March 1978, the men for STS-1 (the “A” mission) were identified as John Young and Bob Crippen, with Joe Engle and Dick Truly following them aboard STS-2 (the “B” mission). By the end of 1979, Jack Lousma and Gordon Fullerton were training for the third (“C”) mission, when, all at once, Mattingly and Hartsfield were called up to join them for the same training program. “It was kinda funny,” Hartsfield recalled in his NASA oral history, “because it scared them. Lousma made a panic call to Houston; [he] thought we were going to replace them.” In fact, Mattingly and Hartsfield would back up Lousma and Fullerton. “It was a little bit confusing as to the way the crews were announced, because no one really knew; it was a standard joke … around the office, trying to figure out this crew structure and how it was going to work.”

Mattingly and Hartsfield need not have worried. On 1 March 1982, NASA formally announced their names to fly STS-4.



The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.



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  1. Would be great to have the Shuttle Program again. The shuttle program was a very successful program with many fantastic individuals working each flight with great help.

  2. Bob,
    …Did you read the article….The Shuttle was a White Elephant whose sole purpose was to be the most expensive operating spacecraft in the history of mankind, past present or future…And It was designed this way…Another name for such an event is corruption on a massive scale. This one spacecraft has resulted in setting back the NASA space program 50 years at least…We should have had bases on the moon 30 years ago…Been to Mars 15 years ago and should be building manned ships to explore the outer planets…On a 5 year mission to boldly go where no man has gone before…But that is not to be…. Maybe SpaceX will get us there?

  3. Tracy,

    Whilst I agree that the Shuttle was phenomenally expensive, to refer to it as a white elephant is unfair. It’s contributions were immense and its payload-to-orbit and other capabilities were unrivalled at their time and remain unrivalled today. The ISS would have been a very different vehicle, had it not been for the Shuttle. Repairing and upgrading Hubble would have been extremely difficult without a vehicle of the Shuttle’s size and capabilities. I share your hopes that SpaceX will make progress towards Mars, but I think Elon Musk needs to focus his attention upon meeting launch schedules reliably and frequently to low-Earth orbit and geostationary orbit, and spend less time pursuing lawsuits, before he begins to pursue loftier goals.


  4. Ben,
    Clearly there were other options that should have been pursued…Yet the options chosen were the most complex and thus the most expensive…We should have been doing 40 years ago what SpaceX is doing now with rocket reuseablility….I have no doubt that the brains were there at NASA or Ford or Chryseler…. And quite frankly how does one look at the ISS only to realize that the future private stations by Bigelow was NASA technology that was not pursued …Because either Boeing or LM had the politicians on their payroll pushing the Tin Can approach because it was expensive…When you contract at cost plus profit you will always spend 100 times more than is needed…Won’t you? I do agree SpaceX needs to get completely out of government space launch and services as soon as possible…Otherwise we will never get off this rock!

    • “We should have been doing 40 years ago what SpaceX is doing now with rocket reuseablility”

      A couple of points:

      (1) Ben’s statements above are entirely correct, except perhaps the point about the Shuttle being “phenomenally” expensive. The Shuttle could deliver cargo to the ISS for about $71,000/kg, as well as transporting 7 crew and supplying EVA services (for ISS maintenance) all in the same flight. SpaceX CRS contract (on which they are currently under performing) calls for them to deliver cargo (no crew or EVA services) for $80,000/kg. While the Shuttle Program failed in its goal to greatly reduce launch cost to LEO and was expensive, it was (sadly) not “phenomenally” expensive as to LEO transport – then or now.

      (2) The main initial purpose of the Shuttle Program was to greatly reduce launch cost to LEO by means of being reusable. Contrary to Tracy’s (no doubt sincere) beliefs it did not fail due to intentional corruption, but due to the fact that the basic technological capabilities to produce a low cost reusable launch vehicle did not exist. Nothing SpaceX has done to date would indicate that the situation has changed. Musk can talk about reusing the Falcon 9 first stage 1,000 times with only a 1 day turn around between flights, but as of now he cannot even get a non- reusable Falcon 9 to fly within a month of its original scheduled launch date.

      (3) Ben’s statement above “Musk needs to focus his attention upon meeting launch schedules reliably and frequently to low-Earth orbit and geostationary orbit, and spend less time pursuing lawsuits, before he begins to pursue loftier goals” is the most important point made in this discussion.

  5. Tracy,

    I’m a huge supporter of SpaceX and I admire their efforts to develop fully reusable vehicles. However, rocket reusability is not the only issue here: they need to demonstrate that their systems not only work, but work reliably and can meet schedules effectively. Two launches in 2014 to date, one commercial and one government, both of which suffered from weeks of delays before they finally launched, is not indicative of a company which can meet and keep to schedules. It is easy to suggest that SpaceX needs to get completely OUT of government launch services…but it has hardly gotten INTO government launch services. It has contracted to fly 12 “dedicated” CRS missions by 2016 and has flown 3 of them between 2012-2014, thereby creating an average of one launch per annum so far. It launched its first commercial geostationary payload in December 2013 and has managed barely two launches in 2014, one to geostationary Earth orbit and the other to low-Earth orbit. Looking ahead, maybe its figures will improve, but that’s impossible to judge at present. Don’t get me wrong, its systems are highly impressive, but the capability needs to be tested, perfected and assured, before SpaceX earns the level of respect and trust to aspire to loftier goals.


  6. Joe
    If you think the shuttle was a succesful spacecraft ….you are the only one…..It was version 1 technology that was never allowed to mature..As much as you want to critize musk or spacex…it doesnt matter…Because nobody cares about current launch manifests….its the reuseability asspect that changes the world…if that fails nobody will sign up for spaceX….The current users are signing up now to get preferrential treatment on reuse systems …and the dramtic price cut coming…

    • Tracy,

      “If you think the shuttle was a succesful spacecraft ….you are the only one…..”

      You seem to be well meaning, so I will be as well. When you make those kind of over the top statements, you do your own cause no good.

      “It was version 1 technology that was never allowed to mature..”

      If I understand what you mean by that (and I am not sure that I do) I agree with you.

      “As much as you want to critize musk or spacex…it doesnt matter…Because nobody cares about current launch manifests….”

      If you really believe that SpaceX current customers do not care about when (or even whether or not) their payloads get launched, you really need to rethink that position.

      “its the reuseability asspect that changes the world…”

      That is exactly the same argument made for the Shuttle that you now so deride. SpaceX, so far, has done nothing to indicate they will be any more successful.

      “if that fails nobody will sign up for spaceX….The current users are signing up now to get preferrential treatment on reuse systems …and the dramtic price cut coming…”

      If you have any sources to support that contention, I would be very interested in links to them.

      • The Shuttle was designed for one thing….Cost lots and lots of Denziens…this is jargon from “Half Way to Anywhere” by Harry Stein…You recommended the book to me…The Shuttle program was a successful program to employ 1000s of people and to make sure that getting off Earth was very very expensive…No way were the Politicians going to allow access off Earth to be easy or cheap as they would lose control of “Market Share and influence” This is how the Mob works or the Kingdom/Serf concept that runs human governance since the beginning of recorded history…The Shuttle was Never Ever Never going to be allowed to develop technologically that would make resueabillity work…It was obsolete before it first launched…It wasn’t the engineers …They could have turned the shuttle into a completely reusabble craft by Version 3 or 4…But then it would NOT cost Denziens or need to employ millions…There is no comparison to SpaceX and the Shuttle…SpaceX is counting on producing 40 to 60 reuseable systems per year and then operate as a fleet like airlines…They are changing every flight with new hardware to that goal…This is all Beta testing…We Will not see consistent launches until all the reuseability implementation is completed…Whenever that is…

        • Tracy,

          “The Shuttle was designed for one thing….Cost lots and lots of Denziens…this is jargon from “Half Way to Anywhere” by Harry Stein…You recommended the book to me…”

          I did indeed recommend the book to you, because it gives a history of the attempted SSTO program of the late 80s, early 90s that was written by a participant in the process. I did not recommend it as a sole source for political analysis. It is possible to admire work done by others in the same industry as yours and at the same time disagree with some of the things they say and do. You can even say complementary things when talking about what they have accomplished and be polite when disagreeing with them.

          This will be my last post with you on this subject, as it is rapidly becoming counterproductive.


          • Joe,
            The whole point of the book …was the “political analysis” of all of the stake holders that determines which projects are pursued…The fact that the shuttle flew at all is a testament to the engineering skill of NASA, their contractors and the military industrial complex that helped…

            The more relevant for today about about the book and the SSTO program specifically the X-33 by Lockheed Martin that I got out was that …2 of the 3 major technologies were perfected (Engines, Heat Shielding) The work that was done on the fuel tanks was done by people with no knowledge of composite structural engineering…Almost as if they did NOT want the X-33 to succeed..I read recently that a process to create the tanks was later perfected by Grumman in 2004…Which leads me to believe that LM has this sitting on the shelf and will pull it off as soon as SpaceX demonstrates reuseability…

  7. Tracy,

    I agree that reusability may indeed change the world of rocketry, but that reusability needs to be “demonstrably” tested in a regular and reliable manner. To date, it has been tested with a measure of success on a number of occasions that can be counted on one hand. If and when SpaceX launches more missions, that reusability may be demonstrated sufficiently to significantly drive down launch costs. I hope so. But SpaceX needs to recognise that for all its capability it will be a long-term process and (with the exception of the reusability aspect) others are considerably further up the ladder, further down the road and with far stronger track records.

    • Ben,
      I don’t see anyone else doing it…But the moment SpaceX lands a first stage back on land at the launch site or close to it…The media will announce that Boeing and LM and others are working on their own systems…Look at what is happening with Driverless care tech that is emerging at brake neck speed …All because Google said they were going to do this…Japan right now has a demand for 1000 to 1500 launches for a satellite power generation system that is ready for deployment if they can get a much lower launch cost…

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