Three decades ago, the shuttle program appeared bulletproof. In 1984, astronauts embarked on untethered EVAs, deployed satellites and performed scientific research, retrieved and repaired the crippled Solar Max observatory, and salvaged a pair of errant communications satellites and brought them back to Earth. The United States also saw its first female spacewalker, its first mission with as many as seven crew members, its first industrial shuttle payload specialist, and launched the world’s first Canadian astronaut and the first Australian-born spacefarer. Balanced against these successes, the shuttle suffered a harrowing launch pad abort, just seconds ahead of liftoff, which pushed its entire manifest into disarray and uncovered a chink of the reusable spacecraft’s fallibility. As described in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, in few other places was this manifest disarray better illustrated than Mission 51E, a flight which arose from the ashes of a canceled mission and later became a canceled mission itself, before its crew eventually reached orbit for a voyage which proved unexpectedly spectacular.
It was true that Mission 51E was originally something of a “vanilla” shuttle flight. Scheduled for launch at 8:18 a.m. EST on 20 February, Challenger would fly for just four days, deploying Canada’s Anik-C1 communications satellite and NASA’s second Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-B), before touching down at 9:21 a.m. EST on 24 February. The TDRS-B payload, mounted atop a Boeing-built Inertial Upper Stage (IUS), would be deployed about 10 hours after liftoff, followed by Anik-C1 and its Payload Assist Module (PAM)-D booster on the second day of the mission.
The remainder of the flight would include operations with the French Echocardiograph Experiment and the French Posture Experiment, together with a selection of toys to demonstrate microgravity on mechanical behavior. Each crew member had their own toy—a spinning top and set of gyroscopes for Bobko, a spring-wound flipping mouse and paddle ball for Williams, a ball and Slinky for Seddon, a yo-yo for Griggs, and magnetic marbles for Hoffman—and it was hoped that they would even try juggling tricks for their terrestrial audience. The results, NASA announced on 11 February, would then be videotaped as part of a curriculum package for elementary and junior high schools.
After a slight delay, on 15 February Challenger rolled out to Pad 39A. Her two satellites were installed into her payload bay and all seemed to be progressing normally toward an opening launch attempt which had by now slipped, first to 3 March and later 7 March. By this point, the seven astronauts had entered their pre-launch quarantine. It would not last for long. Within days, another hammer-blow fell on this unlucky crew. A problem was uncovered with TDRS-B’s battery and “a timing issue” also required attention. On 26 February, the satellite’s prime contractor, TRW Defense and Space Systems Group in Redondo Beach, Calif., advised NASA that the problem was of sufficient severity to warrant a launch delay. Three days later, at 7:42 p.m. EST on 1 March, NASA Headquarters announced that Mission 51E had been canceled. “Problems associated with the TDRS-B satellite have resulted in a decision to cancel the flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger,” it was reported. “In addition to repairing the previously announced problem with one cell of TDRS’ 24-cell flight battery, NASA officials determined today that it will also be necessary to remove the TDRS from the shuttle cargo bay to repair a timing problem. This problem came to light during recent testing of the TDRS-1, a similar satellite now in orbit.”
Both TDRS-B and Anik-C1 were removed from Challenger and returned to their processing facility. In the meantime, the shuttle herself was rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and demated from her External Tank (ET) and twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) on 7 March, but the purgatory into which Bobko’s crew had fallen would not last for long. Another flight, Mission 51D, was scheduled to fly on 19 March, and Discovery was almost ready to roll to Pad 39A. Its crew—Commander Dan Brandenstein, Pilot John “J.O.” Creighton, Mission Specialists Steve Nagel, John Fabian, and Shannon Lucid, and Payload Specialists Charlie Walker of McDonnell Douglas and Greg Jarvis of Hughes Aircraft Company—were tasked with the deployment of Syncom 4-3 for the Navy and the retrieval of NASA’s Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) from orbit. Since the latter required the crew to be rendezvous-trained, it was dropped and Anik-C1 was shifted over from the cancelled Mission 51E.
This change prompted journalists to speculate whether Bobko’s crew might be retained for the “new” Mission 51D, which was now baselined as a five-day flight in April 1985, since they were already fully trained for the Syncom and Anik deployment procedures. Another factor was that Bobko had also been assigned to command Mission 51J, a classified Department of Defense flight and the maiden voyage of Atlantis, in the fall of 1985, and NASA was reluctant to break up his second crew.
“It was a stressful time,” Rhea Seddon remembered. “For most of us, it was our first flight and we didn’t care what they did to us, as long as they launched us!” The identities of the flight’s two payload specialists were also subject to change. Charlie Walker was supposed to fly on Brandenstein’s mission; his company’s experiment, a large electrophoresis machine, had already been installed in Discovery’s middeck in mid-February and it made sense to keep him on the new crew. With only one other payload specialist seat left, it was no surprise when Baudry was bumped to a later mission, making way for Garn. NASA’s rationale was that the Frenchman would benefit from a longer flight in June 1985, whilst the senator’s “busy Congressional schedule” required him to be aboard Mission 51D in order to participate in “a priority medical experiment program.”
The sheer number of changes—from Mission 41F to 51E to 51D, from Challenger to Discovery and with a complement of payload specialists which changed from Baudry, alone, to Baudry and Garn, and, finally, to Walker and Garn—proved somewhat comical for Bobko, since his crew created no fewer than four different patches for themselves! “Mary Lee used to be the lady that arranged the patches,” he told the NASA historian, “and along the top of her office she had different plaques with all the different patches … and then you got to a corner, and there were four of them, which were all for our mission, or its derivatives.”
The mayhem caused by these changes is highlighted by the patches. Originally, Mission 41F in August 1984 was supposed to have been the 13th shuttle flight, and Bobko incorporated a 13-star Betsy Ross flag as his patch’s centerpiece. When 41F was canceled and renamed 51E (the 16th flight), the flag made little sense, but was retained, nevertheless. Next, when Baudry was added as the mission’s sole payload specialist, a small tab had to be attached to the base of the patch to accommodate his surname. This changed again with the inclusion of Garn in January 1985, and, finally, when Mission 51E was scrapped and became the new 51D in early March, yet another patch substituted “Challenger” for “Discovery” and again modified the payload specialists’ names to their final configuration of Walker and Garn. Additional humor came from Garn’s position on the official crew photographs. Whenever he was asked where he wanted to stand, the senator’s response was simple: “I don’t care … as long as it’s furthest to the right!”
Bobko’s crew finally reached orbit, aboard Discovery on Mission 51D, on 12 April 1985. The mission proved unexpectedly spectacular: the failure of Syncom 4-3’s deployment switch led to the fabrication of an impromptu flyswatter and the first unscheduled EVA of the shuttle era. The problems, however, remained. It was clear that the shuttle could not achieve reliable or routine access to space for its customers, and NASA’s incessant focus on meeting punishing schedules and flying unqualified passengers, with little awareness of the safety implications, eventually conspired against the reusable fleet. Nine months later, Challenger launched on her final mission … and the fireball which swallowed her 73 seconds later also swallowed the last, mistaken belief that flying the shuttle could ever be routine.
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the 25th anniversary of STS-36, a classified mission in February 1990 which entered the highest inclination orbit ever achieved during the shuttle era.