On three occasions in NASA’s history, the dawn of February has brought with it a sense of gloom entirely unconnected to the darkness, plunging temperatures, and poor weather of midwinter. As described in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, the opening weeks of 1967 brought the catastrophic fire which swept through the Apollo 1 command module during a launch pad test, killing astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, and destroying any hope of staging as many as three Apollo missions that year to advance America’s goal of planting bootprints on the Moon. Yet tragedy befell NASA and the nation on two other occasions—on 28 January 1986, with the loss of Challenger during ascent, and more recently on 1 February 2003, during the failed re-entry of Columbia—and today’s and tomorrow’s history articles will focus upon what might have been accomplished by the shuttle program during those respective years.
The flight of Challenger on Mission 51L was actually the second of a planned 15 shuttle flights in 1986, coming on the heels of Mission 61C in the first half of January. Following their 28 January launch, the seven-strong crew—Commander Dick Scobee, Pilot Mike Smith, Mission Specialists Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, and Ron McNair, Payload Specialists Greg Jarvis, and schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe—would have spent six days in orbit, on what was described as a “moderately complex” flight, in terms of its objectives. The primary payload was NASA’s second Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-B), which would have been deployed atop a Boeing-built Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) on the first day of the flight, followed by the SPARTAN-203 free-flying platform to conduct two days of observations of Halley’s Comet. From a public perspective, however, the mission was highlighted by the presence of McAuliffe, who would have taught two lessons from orbit. A fuller description of the planned tasks for Mission 51L can be found in this earlier AmericaSpace history article. Challenger was scheduled to land at the Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC) Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) on 3 February 1986.
Next up would have been Columbia on Mission 61E, whose weather conditions on the eve of its planned launch on 5/6 March were far colder even than those which contributed to the doom of Challenger. Yet such a target might have been difficult to meet, for Columbia had only recently returned from Mission 61C on 18 January, thus providing KSC processing teams just 46 days to ready her for the flight. Primary payload was the ASTRO-1 observatory, consisting of a trio of ultraviolet telescopes, one of whose targets was Halley’s Comet, which was making its 75-yearly visitation to the inner Solar System in the early spring of 1986. Aboard Columbia for the nine-day flight were Commander Jon McBride, Pilot Dick Richards, Mission Specialists Jeff Hoffman, Dave Leestma, and Bob Parker, Payload Specialist Sam Durrance, and Ron Parise.
As described in a previous AmericaSpace article, the observations of the fabled comet meant that the launch date for Mission 61E was seemingly set in stone. This criticality had been picked upon by the media and in December 1985 Flight International reported that the mission “must be launched by 10 March to achieve maximum science return” and warned that “a slip to 20 March would result in the flight’s cancellation.” Under these circumstances, Columbia would have launched at 5:45 a.m. EST on 6 March, kicking off more than a week of around-the-clock operations by a “red shift” of Richards, Parker, and Durrance and a “blue shift” of Leestma, Hoffman, and Parise, with Commander McBride anchoring his own schedule across both shifts. With landing planned for 3:47 a.m. EST on 15 March, just shy of nine full days since liftoff, Mission 61E would have established itself as the second-longest shuttle flight at that time.
The achievements were set to continue, with two missions planned to occur within a period of just five days in May 1986. Both would be delivering spacecraft to Jupiter—the first, Ulysses, to gain a gravity assist and slingshot out of the ecliptic plane to explore the Sun’s polar regions, and the second, Galileo, to enter orbit and explore the giant planet itself—and both would utilize a very short “launch window.” The Ulysses flight (Mission 61F, aboard Challenger) was scheduled to fly on 15 May, and the Galileo flight (Mission 61G, aboard Atlantis) would follow on 20 May. Both would fly for four days, meaning that the second mission would launch about 23 hours after the first had landed, but more significantly both would highlight an appalling game of Russian roulette that NASA played with its astronauts and a pair of multi-billion-dollar national assets.
As detailed in an earlier AmericaSpace article, both Ulysses and Galileo were powered by plutonium-fed Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) and would be propelled from Earth orbit by General Dynamics’ Centaur-G Prime booster. Liquid-fueled with oxygen and hydrogen, the Centaur provided the necessary impetus to deliver the two spacecraft onto their trajectories to Jupiter, but was an inherently dangerous machine. Much of its pressure regulation hardware was non-redundant and it carried more than 36,370 pounds (16,500 kg) of propellant, which might “slosh” in the tanks and impair the shuttle’s controllability in the event of a Return to Launch Site (RTLS) abort. Admittedly, fully redundant parallel dump valves and helium control systems were fitted to the aft fuselage of both Challenger and Atlantis to remove the propellants within 250 seconds in the event of such a hairy scenario, but their close proximity to the shuttle’s main engines and Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods raised concerns about leaks or explosions.
In mid-February 1986, Atlantis would have been rolled out to Pad 39B, carrying its “real” Centaur and a Galileo mockup for several weeks of fueling tests. She would then have been returned to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for the installation of the “real” Galileo and transferred to Pad 39A in early April. By the middle of that month, Challenger—laden with her Ulysses/Centaur combo—would have joined her on adjacent Pad 39B. As NASA’s newest orbiter, Atlantis had received Centaur upgrades during her construction and, ironically, Challenger would have undergone her own modifications in the aftermath of her return from Mission 51L. Since Galileo was several times heavier than Ulysses, in January 1986 NASA accepted a recommendation to fly with Atlantis’ Phase 2 main engines running at an untried 109-percent capability.
Aboard Mission 61F were Commander Rick Hauck, Pilot Roy Bridges, and Mission Specialists Mike Lounge and Dave Hilmers, whilst the crew of Mission 61G consisted of Commander Dave Walker, Pilot Ron Grabe, and Mission Specialists James “Ox” van Hoften and Norm Thagard. Interestingly, Thagard replaced another astronaut, John Fabian, who had resigned his place on the flight in September 1985, partly due to his conviction that NASA prized the commercial respectability of the shuttle over its operational flight safety. Fabian had once seen a technician clambering onto the thin-skinned Centaur with an untethered wrench in his back pocket and another smoothing a weld, then accidentally scarring the booster’s tank with a tool. In his mind, it was bad enough that the booster had such limited redundancy, without adding new worries about poor quality control oversights.
According to the 61F Crew Activity Plan, released by NASA on 14 January 1986, Hauck and his men would launch at 4:10 p.m. EDT on 15 May, with everything aboard Challenger kept to the barebones minimum: one of the smallest shuttle crews ever flown, a limited number of provisions, no secondary experiments, galley, or sleep stations … and a low orbital altitude. Both missions would enter an orbit of 105 miles (170 km), simply because they needed the shuttle main engine performance to get the heavy Centaur into space. The presence of the booster—whose boiled-off cryogens would be exhausted after several hours—meant that the first deployment opportunity for both Ulysses and Galileo was timed just seven hours after liftoff.
Assuming an on-time launch, Challenger would have landed on the afternoon of 19 May, with Atlantis rocketing into orbit a mere 23 hours later, at 4:21 p.m. EDT on the 20th. It would have marked the most rapid turnaround between launches ever seen in the 30-year shuttle program. Whether it could have been accomplished is a purely academic and largely moot point, but Mike Lounge rationalized the general thinking at the time. In the pre-Challenger era, NASA was still riding the coattails of past glories—of Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo and the triumphant repair of Skylab—and many managers considered the shuttle to be bulletproof. “We assumed we could solve all these problems,” said Lounge. “Until Challenger, we just thought the things would always work.”
More than a month would have passed before the next shuttle launch, with Columbia scheduled to fly Mission 61H on 24 June, carrying a crew of seven: Commander Mike Coats, Pilot John Blaha, Mission Specialists Bob Springer, Anna Fisher, and Jim Buchli, and Payload Specialists Nigel Wood of the British Royal Air Force and Sudarmono Pratiwi of Indonesia. The latter would have made history, by becoming the first spacefarers from their respective nations to enter orbit, with Sudarmono expected to carry a giant Sumatran frog into orbit as one of her experiments, part of the Indonesian Space Experiments (INSPEX) payload. As described in a previous AmericaSpace article, the primary payloads were a trio of communications satellites—Skynet 4A for the UK Ministry of Defense, Palapa-B3 for the Indonesian government, and Westar-6S for Western Union—each of which would have been deployed atop a Payload Assist Module (PAM)-D2 booster.
“Anna Fisher … would have operated the control panels to prepare Skynet for deployment and then deploy it,” Wood told this author in an email correspondence in June 2014. “However, I was responsible for the Skynet/Shuttle Interface Unit and for the development of the normal and emergency procedures for Skynet while in the shuttle bay. Anna’s view was that although she would deploy Skynet, she wanted me looking over her shoulder, just in case!” Unlike Palapa and Westar, Skynet required the unfurling of its S-band antenna, ahead of deployment. “The antenna then violated the payload bay profile,” Wood continued, “so we had an emergency plan to cut the antenna off if the deployment failed. Bob Springer would have done the emergency EVA.”
Wood had also trained to perform a series of (originally) six national experiments in Columbia’s middeck. These were formally approved by NASA in June 1985 for carriage aboard the shuttle and focused upon the effects of cosmic radiation, changes in head-eye co-ordination, and adaptation to the microgravity environment, studies of liquid-solid adhesive bonding, the ability to estimate mass in weightlessness, motor skills—including postural control—and an ergonomics experiment. The first three of these investigations were military in nature, provided by the Royal Aircraft Establishment, the RAF’s Institute of Aviation Medicine, and the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment, whilst two others originated from the University of Stirling in Scotland. Lastly, the liquid-solid adhesive bonding experiment was provided by Kodak and was designed to explore the effect of “inertial wetting” in microgravity on the stability of liquid zones in the study of adhesion between solid and liquid surfaces.
No fewer than two mission were baselined for July 1986, including Mission 62A, the long-awaited first shuttle launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in which Discovery and a seven-member crew would have placed the classified Teal Ruby payload—also known as Air Force Program (AFP)-888—into a high-inclined 72-degree orbit of 400-520 miles (640-830 km). Launching no sooner than 15 July, the shuttle’s twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) would have featured lightweight, filament-wound cases. “That would give us more weight capability to orbit,” explained Mission Specialist Jerry Ross, “since launching at a higher inclination, you use less of the Earth’s rotational velocity to help you get into orbit.” All told, the filament-wound cases would have enabled an additional 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg) of payload-to-orbit capability on Vandenberg missions. However, with the hindsight provided by the loss of Challenger, it would never be known how the lightweight SRBs would have responded on a “real” launch.
The purpose of Teal Ruby was to evaluate infrared sensors for future early-warning satellites. “It was a staring mosaic infrared sensor,” explained 62A Mission Specialist Jerry Ross, “that was trying to be able to detect low-flying, air-breathing vehicles, like cruise missiles, and a way to detect these approaching U.S. territories.” After deployment by Discovery’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm, the satellite’s operational lifetime was constrained to just one year by its dwindling supply of cryogenic coolant. On the day that Challenger exploded, the core NASA members of the 62A crew—Commander Bob Crippen, Pilot Guy Gardner, and Mission Specialists Mike Mullane, Jerry Ross, and Dale Gardner—were training in Los Alamos, N.M., and witnessed the disaster unfold on network television. Had Mission 62A flown, it would have included a pair of Payload Specialists: Edward “Pete” Aldridge, then serving as Under-Secretary of the Air Force and head of the National Reconnaissance Office, and Air Force Manned Spaceflight Engineer (MSE) Brett Watterson.
It has been speculated that a high-ranking official of Aldridge’s standing was needed to reinforce the partnership between NASA and the Air Force. The 68-year-old Secretary of the Air Force, Vernon Orr, was not interested in flying a shuttle mission, so the offer trickled down to his deputy, Aldridge. Consequently, in December 1985, Aldridge arrived in Houston for Mission 62A training. “We were going to fly at a 72-degree inclination, which man has never flown before,” he remembered in a NASA oral history. “For military missions, you want to cover the entire Earth. Well, you don’t do that by flying east and west, so you fly north and south. We were actually going to fly over the poles on every orbit, which was unique. It was exciting to have a completely new mission.”
The second launch planned for July 1986 was Mission 61M, scheduled for the 22nd, aboard Challenger. This would have featured the deployment of the TDRS-C payload and autonomous operations with McDonnell Douglas’ Electrophoresis Operations in Space (EOS)-1 pharmaceutical facility in the payload bay. Commander Loren Shriver, Pilot Bryan O’Connor, and Mission Specialists Bill Fisher, Sally Ride, and Mark Lee would have overseen the TDRS deployment, whilst McDonnell Douglas Payload Specialist Bob Wood would have monitored EOS-1.
Next up would have been Atlantis’ Mission 61K in August, which would possibly have featured only the second eight-member crew in shuttle history—Commander Vance Brand, Pilot Dave Griggs, Mission Specialists Owen Garriott, Bob Stewart, and Switzerland’s Claude Nicollier, and Payload Specialists Byron Lichtenberg, Mike Lampton, and Bob Stevenson—to operate the Earth Observation Mission (EOM)-1/2. The latter took the form of a pressurized Spacelab “short module,” connected by a long tunnel to the shuttle’s middeck, and a single unpressurized pallet, containing eight instruments: the Atmospheric Emission Photometric Imaging (AEPI), the Space Experiments with Particle Accelerators (SEPAC), the Active Cavity Radiometer (ACR), the Solar Spectrum (SS), the Solar Constant (SC), the Imaging Spectrometric Observatory (ISO), the Grille Spectrometer (GRILLE), the Far Ultraviolet Faust Telescope (FAUST), and the Metric Camera. Originally planned as two missions, EOM-1 and EOM-2 were merged by NASA in the spring of 1985, producing the EOM-1/2 designation, with Mission 61K scheduled to fly in October 1986.
However, just weeks before the loss of Challenger, it became clear that Atlantis’ final flight of the year—Mission 61J with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST)—would be delayed from its original August date until at least October, due to swelling program costs and processing issues, which had pushed the iconic astronomical observatory 30 percent over-budget and three months behind schedule. As a result, Missions 61J and 61K swapped places, just before the 51L disaster, with EOM-1/2 slated for an 18 August launch and Hubble rescheduled for no sooner than 27 October. During Mission 61J, Commander John Young, Pilot Charlie Bolden, and Mission Specialists Bruce McCandless, Steve Hawley, and Kathy Sullivan would have delivered the 25,500-pound (11,570-kg) Hubble, by means of the RMS mechanical arm, into an orbit of 318 miles (512 km), the highest altitude ever attained by the shuttle at that time.
The earlier flight opportunity for EOM-1/2 also benefitted the Metric Camera, which was to be mounted in the 12-inch-diameter (30-cm) Scientific Window Adapter Assembly (SWAA) in the ceiling of the Spacelab short module. According to Flight International, a launch in August would allow the camera to operate from a higher Sun-angle, with an improved probability of better weather over primary land masses in the Northern Hemisphere. Interestingly, Mission 61K would have featured the first use of the “short module,” which was essentially just the core of the standard Spacelab long module. Measuring just 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) in length, it would have housed data-processing equipment, a workbench, and a set of air-conditioned stowage and research racks. In the aftermath of the loss of Challenger, EOM-1/2 was rescoped to become the Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science (ATLAS) and was reconfigured as a pallet-only payload, with electronics and other support hardware instead housed inside a pressurized “igloo.” The short module was never used throughout the shuttle era.
Betwixt 61K and 61J would have flown Mission 61I, planned for a 27 September 1986 launch aboard Challenger, to deploy India’s Insat-1C communications satellite and retrieve NASA’s Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) from orbit. During their five days in space, Commander Don Williams, Pilot Mike Smith, and Mission Specialists Bonnie Dunbar, Jim Bagian, and Manley “Sonny” Carter would have recovered the 12-sided LDEF on 30 September after more than 29 months aloft. Launched back in April 1984, the satellite—laden with biological and technological experiments—was due to be recovered the following year, but was repeatedly delayed as payloads stacked up on the shuttle manifest.
In a similar vein to the Teacher in Space Project (TISP), Mission 61I would have seen a professional journalist taking one of its two Payload Specialist seats. At the time of the Challenger disaster, the number of applicants for this seat had been winnowed down to 40 semi-finalists, which including Pulitzer Prize winners John Noble Wilford and Peter Rinearson, freelancers Jay Barbree, Time’s Roger Rosenblatt, and veteran CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite. (Interestingly, John Noble Wilford later shared a second Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his reporting of the Challenger disaster and its aftermath.) The candidates were expected to undertake screening at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, in April 1986, and the successful prime and backup candidates would have commenced training with the 61I crew in May. Also aboard the flight was an Indian crew member, mechanical engineer Nagapathi Bhat.
A trio of classified Department of Defense missions would have characterized the final quarter of 1986, with Columbia to fly 61N on 4 September, Challenger to fly 71B in December, and Discovery to fly 62B from Vandenberg in late September. Payloads for the three missions, unsurprisingly, remain classified, with the exception of 71B, which would have deployed a $400 million Defense Support Program (DSP) infrared early-warning satellite, atop a Boeing-built IUS booster. Air Force MSEs would have flown on all three missions—with Frank Casserino aboard 61N, Katherine Roberts aboard 62B, and Chuck Jones aboard 71B—to join “core” NASA crews. Six weeks before the Challenger accident, Commander Brewster Shaw, Pilot Mike McCulley, and Mission Specialists Dave Leestma, Jim Adamson, and Mark Brown were named to Mission 61N, but the crews for the other two flights were unannounced.
The flights of 61N, 61I, and perhaps 62B within September 1986 would have marked the first time that the shuttle program had accomplished as many as three launches within a single calendar month. Moreover, with 61I planned for a 27 September liftoff, and 62B targeted to fly just two days later, this might have seen the first occasion on which two shuttles were in orbit, simultaneously, a reality which seems unlikely. Judging from the technical difficulties in bringing Vandenberg into service—coupled with the likelihood that Mission 62A would slip beyond its July target date and a possibility that Discovery would require processing flows as high as eight months between its first and second flights from the California launch site—it seems unlikely that 62B would have taken place in 1986, with an early 1987 date more plausible. Rounding out the year would have been Columbia’s six-day Mission 61L on 6 November, tasked with deploying the GStar-3 communications satellite and the Navy’s Syncom 4-5. No crew members were assigned at the time of Challenger, with the exception of two Payload Specialists: Hughes engineer John Konrad to monitor the Syncom deployment and the possible presence of Air Force meteorologist Fred Lewis, part of the Weather Office in Space Experiment (WOSE) program.
However, the stress upon the shuttle program to accommodate such an immense flight rate make it unlikely that it could ever have unfolded as intended. Processing of the orbiters, production of External Tanks and Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) hardware would have led, in the eyes of some observers, the program to have experienced a precipitous drop in flight rate by the spring of 1986. Moreover, in the words of astronaut Hank Hartsfield to the Rogers Commission, “we were going to be up against a wall,” in terms of having crews properly trained. The crews for Missions 61H and 61K would have averaged no more than 33 hours in the simulator, according to some training predictions. “That is ridiculous,” Hartsfield told the commission. “For the first time, somebody was going to have to stand up and say we have got to slip the launch, because we are not going to have the crew trained.”
Still, had it unfolded as planned, 1986 carried the potential to have been a banner year for the shuttle, with 15 missions representing some 75 percent of all flights accomplished in the previous four years of the program’s operations. Two missions would have launched within five days of each other, three missions might have occurred within the same calendar month, the first shuttle passengers from Britain, Indonesia, and India might have flown, as well as the first teacher and journalist, and no less than 16 satellites would have been deployed (and two retrieved), including spacecraft destined for missions beyond Earth orbit. As many as 90 astronauts would have entered space, at least three of whom—Dave Leestma, Mike Smith, and Charlie Bolden—would have done so on two occasions.
The final part of this article will appear tomorrow and will focus on the year which might have followed the final flight of Columbia in 2003.