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 period—an 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.
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.
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.