Thirty years ago, today (30 August 1984), the Shuttle Discovery—which would become, in time, the most-flown member of NASA’s fleet of orbiters—embarked on her maiden space voyage, launching from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Aboard Discovery were Commander Hank Hartsfield, Pilot Mike Coats, Mission Specialists Mike Mullane, Steve Hawley, and Judy Resnik, and Payload Specialist Charlie Walker. During their six days in space, they became the first shuttle crew to deploy as many as three commercial satellites, they extended an experimental solar array “wing,” and they became forever known to history as “The Icebusters.” However, as described in a previous AmericaSpace history article, the 41D mission had already experienced more than its fair share of excitement, before Discovery even departed the launch pad.
Two months earlier, on 26 June, the six astronauts had been strapped into their seats aboard the orbiter and had counted down to T-4 seconds. The shuttle’s three main engines ignited, but were rapidly shut down in the shuttle program’s first Redundant Set Launch Sequencer (RSLS) abort. It had been a harrowing experience, which Mullane later described eloquently to the NASA oral historian. “After a launch abort,” he said, “you could take a gun and point it right at somebody’s forehead and they’re not even going to blink, because they don’t have any adrenaline left in them; it’s all been used up.” Discovery’s launch was postponed to accommodate engine repairs and the 41D payload manifest shifted to feature the Telstar-3C, Syncom 4-2, and SBS-4 communications satellites—all mounted atop Payload Assist Module (PAM)-D upper stages—and the OAST-1 solar sail from NASA’s Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology. Tipping the scales at 41,180 pounds (18,680 kg), the 41D payload was the heaviest ever carried by the shuttle at that time.
The crew returned to the pad on 29 August 1984 for their next launch attempt. For Charlie Walker—a McDonnell Douglas engineer, flying under a commercial contract to operate an experimental electrophoresis machine—it was his 36th birthday, but it was not to be a lucky omen. The launch was scrubbed when a timing discrepancy was noted between the flight software and Discovery’s Master Events Controller (MEC). This was particularly unnerving. Tests had shown that, under worst-case timing conditions, MEC might be unable to process certain critical events commands, such as separation of the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) or the External Tank. “There was something like a one-in-thirty chance that the primary software wouldn’t separate the [SRBs],” Steve Hawley recalled in his NASA oral history, “if it didn’t get around to issuing the command to the master events controller to send the command to separate the solids.” If the solids failed to separate properly, the crew would be dead. If the External Tank failed to separate properly, the crew would be dead. It was that straightforward.
The crew assembled for a debriefing later that afternoon. The problem was already known—in his memoir, Riding Rockets, Mullane mentioned that it had been a topic of discussion among the astronauts as long ago as April 1984—and it was decided to effect a software “patch.” This was put in place by engineers overnight, and the countdown was recycled for another launch attempt at 8:35 a.m. EDT on the 30th. Despite a problem with the Ground Launch Sequencer (GLS), which forced an extended hold at T-9 minutes, events ran smoothly … until a pair of private pilots accidentally strayed into the closed airspace of KSC. A hold was called whilst the pilots were shooed away, but for the crew of 41D, who had already sat through two uncomfortable countdowns, plus a harrowing pad abort, there was a black mood. (Shoot the f****r down was the general opinion, according to Mullane, whilst Walker recalled some decidedly “colorful” language, aimed specifically at the pilot’s parentage!) “After nearly a seven-minute delay,” wrote Mullane, “its pilot pulled his head out of his ass and flew off. We all wished him engine failure.”
Five minutes to go. Mike Coats flipped the APU switches, and the three Auxiliary Power Units hummed to life.
Two minutes. The astronauts were instructed to close their visors.
One minute. “Eyes on the instruments,” Hartsfield told his crew.
Thirty-one seconds: Go for Autosequence Start. Discovery’s on-board General Purpose Computers (GPCs) assumed primary control of the countdown.
Ten seconds: Go for main engine start …
Six seconds: For the second time in two months, the orbiter’s engines roared to life. This time, all three did so crisply and to perfection. The manifold pressures shot up on the data tapes in front of Coats’ eyes. They had three good engines, all running at full power.
“ … three, two, one … we have SRB ignition … and we have liftoff! Liftoff of Mission 41D, the first flight of the orbiter Discovery … and the shuttle has cleared the tower … ”
Many astronauts have described the immense power of Main Engine Start, but if anyone was uncertain as to precisely what was happening, T-zero changed that uncertainty forever, and there was no doubt that Discovery was heading out of town in a hurry. From his perch on the middeck, Walker glanced to the left and could see the steel structure of the launch pad tower move visibly as the engines shook the 41D stack in a phenomenon known as “the twang,” then a cacophony of noise—he estimated 170 decibels in the cabin—from the crackle of the SRBs. Within a fraction of a second, the tower was gone, to be replaced by daylight as Discovery climbed away from Earth and began her GPC-controlled “roll program” to establish herself on the proper flight azimuth for a 28.5-degree orbit.
Walker was instantaneously pushed “down” into his seat, and he had the feeling that he was in some sort of pickup truck, rumbling down a gravel country road at high speed. As Discovery accelerated faster and faster, he could see the sugar-cube-like Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), then the marshy KSC landscape, then the countryside of central Florida, and finally the whole state and the offshore Keys. After the roll program maneuver had been completed, the window seat enjoyed by Walker and Judy Resnik was facing due south, offering them glorious views of the entire southeastern portion of the United States. Every second, it seemed, the world was falling farther and farther away from them. Separation of the SRBs, a little more than two minutes into the climb, was accompanied by a loud bang, a bright flash, and an acknowledgement from the flight deck that residual “gunk” from the boosters had deposited itself on the forward windows.
The view was somewhat different for the four men on the flight deck, who had six wrap-around windows at the front and two overhead windows, just behind Mullane and Hawley, to behold the controlled explosion that was occurring all around them. “After the boosters separated,” Mullane told the NASA oral historian, “I craned my neck back, because the rocket’s still going into orbit upside down.” He was rewarded with his first glimpse of Earth from extreme high altitude—not quite the edge of space, yet, but around 30 miles (50 km)—and could only describe it as “breathtaking.” With the SRBs gone, the remaining six minutes of the ride to orbit was, in the words of both Walker and Mullane, “glass-smooth,” with scarcely any vibration and very little noise, apart from the ventilation fans, the crackling of the intercom, and the astronauts’ own breathing. Mullane described the transition from the harsh rattling of the boosters to flying solely on the liquid-fueled main engines as “just dead quiet.” Eighty percent of the thrusting was gone, and the astronauts suddenly felt lighter in their seats. Outside, the blue sky turned to black and the curvature of the horizon became more obvious. By Main Engine Cutoff (MECO), at eight and a half minutes after launch, Hawley felt like he was sitting through another run in the simulator … with the exception that no anomalies had arisen.
In fact, the majority of their training had been devoted to ascent contingencies. Now, after “all the things you trained for in the sim,” he told the oral historian, “ninety percent of your training is now irrelevant!” With the onset of weightlessness, the astronauts saw and felt things never before experienced: a mosquito, which accidentally found its way into the cabin, struggled to acclimatize to its new environment, whilst screws, nuts, and washers drifted out from various nooks and crannies.
The view from orbit was astounding. “Your eye can pick up a lot more than any camera can,” said Mullane, “and it was just so glorious to see the horizon of Earth, the blackness of space, the blue of the oceans, the white of the clouds.” For Walker, the euphoria of reaching space was arrested by Resnik, who gave him a high-five and then told him to stay in his seat until the rest of the crew had completed their final checks. It reminded Walker that although Resnik, Coats, Mullane, and Hawley were also rookies, they were professional astronauts; they had been around since 1978 and although he had important research to do on 41D, he was effectively a passenger.
Although he did not remember any outright belligerence from other members of the astronaut office, it was made clear to Walker that he was not fully “one of them.” Years later, he would express astonishment at how a combination of luck and good timing had put him in the right place at the right time. He had joined McDonnell Douglas in December 1977 as a test engineer on the shuttle’s Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS), part of a subcontract from Rockwell International. Within a year, he became one of the first members of the company’s space manufacturing team and eventually rose to the post of chief test engineer for the Electrophoresis Operations in Space (EOS) project. “Electrophoresis … is really applied to a pretty basic process, as it’s been used in laboratories around the world for the past hundred years,” Walker told the oral historian, “in which a compound, like a gel or a liquid that has an electrical conductive nature to it … is exposed to an electric field. Within an electric field, they will all move as a group toward the attracting electrical pole and they’ll move at different rates, so if you expose, within a sample, that sample to an electric field for a period of time, when you shut the field off, you’ll have groups of compounds all separated from one another.” In précis, electrophoresis encompassed the purification of individually obtained groups from an original mixture.
Already, several shuttle flights had carried the Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System (CFES) apparatus in the middeck and demonstrated that these separation processes could be accomplished with far greater precision in the microgravity environment; moreover, with increased emphasis on the purification of hormones and enzymes, useful for the treatment of various diseases, McDonnell Douglas anticipated a vast new opportunity to open in the pharmaceutical industry. When the electrophoresis project was first proposed to NASA, the intent was to fly on the Spacelab-3 mission, but as that flight was pushed further and further back on the shuttle manifest, it was decided to fly a middeck version instead. “The investment of private capital,” explained Walker, “could not stand that kind of uncertainty and neither could our pharmaceutical investment partners.” By 1983, agreement had been reached for six proof-of-concept missions, followed by two flights of a large production plant, to be mounted in the payload bay.
On 29 June 1983, Walker was assigned as the first “industry” payload specialist, flying on Hartsfield’s crew, specifically to operate an upgraded version of the CFES hardware. It was not his first brush with the space program. He had long harbored an interest in aviation and had worked toward gaining his private pilot’s license in the early 1970s, but admitted to being “a poor student and I couldn’t afford to fly.” Still, he applied for NASA’s 1978 astronaut intake and it was this experience which guided him whilst at McDonnell Douglas. He failed to make the cut as a pilot or a mission specialist, but knew that plans were afoot for payload specialists to be hired from universities, research institutions … and from within industry. “I obviously don’t work for a university,” he said. “I’m not a PhD in any one specialty, so maybe the industrial part.”
Years later, Walker would admit that, when all was said and done, he was basically very lucky to be selected. “I found the company and the project that—at the time—was virtually the only thing in this country in the aerospace arena that was being proposed to NASA from the private side that looked like it was really going to produce something of real benefit to the country and to the commercial side of our economy, that could be done in space, and managed to get into an early key position with that project.” It was McDonnell Douglas’ EOS Program Director, Jim Rose, who suggested Walker’s inclusion on a shuttle crew in the summer of 1982, and the request was passed up through the chain of command to NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., as a “special case.”
Although CFES had flown previously on the shuttle, the version on 41D had been upgraded to support continuous operations for around 100 hours, adding further weight to the request for a dedicated payload specialist. Interestingly, the first word of Walker’s selection came not from George Abbey, the head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate (FCOD), or from Jim Rose, or even NASA’s head of the Office of Space Flight … but from an Aviation Week journalist, who had talked to a source in Washington. A few days later, it was confirmed. McDonnell Douglas would pay NASA $40,000 for each of Walker’s flights; a trivial sum, by any standards. “If you could get that today,” he told the oral historian, “you’d be booked up!”
Training was quite different from the pilots and mission specialists, of course, and it was made quite clear to Walker that he was not a NASA employee, nor a civil servant, but remained attached to his parent company. He did not undertake any survival training, but was given a few T-38 flights by Hartsfield to prepare him physiologically and psychologically for high-performance flight, and he participated in integrated simulations with the rest of the crew in Houston. “I knew what systems did,” he explained, “like the electrical systems [and] environmental systems. I knew the computer interfaces.” Walker wanted to integrate himself into the crew more thoroughly, to “feel” part of the team, but found opposition from NASA leadership; indeed, he was even barred from participating in the more mundane activities, such as executing waste water dumps in orbit. He did, however, participate in a number of NASA medical experiments and wore sensors for heart and blood pressure measurements during ascent.
In Walker’s mind, 41D was probably going to be his only mission and he had nothing to lose by volunteering to provide a few points of medical data along the way. Little could anyone have foreseen that Walker—an engineer who had not even reached the interview stage for the 1978 astronaut selection, whose flying experience was less than a hundred hours and whose academic credentials rose no higher than a bachelor’s degree—would actually fly more missions, and more often, than any other astronaut during this period of shuttle operations in the pre-Challenger era.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.