‘A Unique Opportunity’: 21 Years Since the Controversial Mission of STS-58 (Part 1)

Glorious view of the Home Planet from STS-58, with the SLS-2 Spacelab module clearly visible in Columbia's payload bay. Photo Credit: NASA
Glorious view of the Home Planet from STS-58, with the SLS-2 Spacelab module clearly visible in Columbia’s payload bay. 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. The disappointment of another scrubbed launch attempt was evident in his voice. “Just hang in there.”

“Nice try,” came the call from astronaut John Blaha on Columbia’s flight deck, as he and his six crewmates prepared to disembark from the orbiter after 2.5 hours on their backs in bulky, uncomfortable pressure suits, harnesses, and parachutes. It was the second time that they had been through this routine in trying to get into space for what was to be NASA’s longest shuttle flight to date, lasting a little over two weeks. For mission STS-58—which finally launched on this day (18 October), 21 years ago—would earn its own reputation, not only for its duration, but for the fact that it controversially featured the first euthanasia and dissection of animals in the microgravity environment.

Originally planned to fly on 14 October, bad weather and the failure of an Air Force range safety command message encoder-verifier scuppered Columbia’s chances, with a problematic S-band transponder putting paid to an attempt the following day. A replacement transponder was rushed to the pad, but the Mission Management Team (MMT) was unhappy about exchanging it in the shuttle’s crew cabin in the final minutes before launch and asking the crew to replace it in orbit. “Having been there myself,” said former astronaut Loren Shriver, then serving as chair of the MMT, “there is no substitute for having a little help from the ground.” Shriver’s concern centered on the prognosis for a safe to Earth in the event of a contingency; if the transponder failed, it might leave the STS-58 crew out of contact with Mission Control for up to 15 minutes. It ultimately became a moot issue, as the weather closed in and the launch was scrubbed.

In the aftermath, the new transponder was fitted and launch was rescheduled for 18 October. For Rhea Seddon, payload commander of the second Spacelab Life Sciences mission (SLS-2), one of the worst aspects of a shuttle flight were the partial-pressure suits that the astronauts wore 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.”

John Blaha leads the STS-58 out to the launch pad. Photo Credit: NASA
John Blaha leads the STS-58 out to the launch pad. Photo Credit: NASA

During training in the high heat of Florida, Texas, 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 realized in early May 1993, when she broke four metatarsal bones in her left foot, whilst practising 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.

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.”

STS-58 endured two launch scrubs, prior to a successful third attempt on 18 October 1993. Photo Credit: NASA
STS-58 endured two launch scrubs, prior to a successful third attempt on 18 October 1993. Photo Credit: NASA

Despite being a “rookie” crewman, Dave Wolf brought his own experience to the flight. In March 1992, he was jointly honored as NASA Inventor of the Year, together with Ray Schwarz and Tina Trinh, for the development of a rotating-wall bioreactor. This device provided a ground-based analog for simulating microgravity conditions on cells 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 MIT, 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 Sciences 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.”

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, one of whose claims 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.

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—as payload commander—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 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.

Columbia roars into orbit at 10:53 a.m. EST on 18 October 1993, 21 years ago today. Photo Credit: NASA
Columbia roars into orbit at 10:53 a.m. EST on 18 October 1993, 21 years ago today. Photo Credit: NASA

Unsurprisingly, 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 rationalized 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 re-adaptation 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 President Bill Clinton’s 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 was exonerated from blame and had not—as some journalists erroneously claimed—accepted bribes, the incident harmed his career for several years.

None of this had surface when Wolf accompanied his crewmates out to the launch pad on 18 October 1993 and roared aloft at 10:53 a.m. EST. Paying tribute to the hundreds of thousands of individuals responsible for bringing a shuttle flight together, Blaha remarked at the post-mission press conference: “I really think nothing but the highest of all the people who make this happen.”

The longest flight ever undertaken in shuttle history was underway.


The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.



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One Comment

  1. This was a great mission – I worked both SLS-1 and SLS-2 and it was a pleasure to work with (most of) the crew. Rhea Seddon and Dave Wolf and Marty Fettman and Shannon Lucid were wonderful. Bill MacArthur was a jerk but fortunately we did not work much with him.

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