Twenty years ago, this week, seven astronauts, including four professional astronomers, were midway through what turned out to be the longest flight in shuttle program history at the time. By the time Endeavour and her STS-67 crew—Commander Steve Oswald, Pilot Bill “Borneo” Gregory, Mission Specialists Tammy Jernigan, Wendy Lawrence, and John Grunsfeld, and Payload Specialists Sam Durrance and Ron Parise—returned to Earth on 18 March 1995, a record-setting 16 days, 15 hours, and 8 minutes had elapsed since their liftoff, a record-breaking 262 Earth orbits had been completed, and an astonishing 6.9 million miles (11.1 million km) had been traveled. Although this achievement would be broken by two other shuttle crews within the next two years, STS-67 marked the beginning of a 16-month period when a shuttle other than the queen of the fleet, Columbia, held the single-mission endurance record. In fact, STS-67 still retains a place as the third longest mission in shuttle program history and the third-longest U.S. non-space station mission of all time.
Since the maiden voyage of the shuttle in April 1981, Columbia had maintained a crown for herself in terms of the longevity of her missions. Kicking off the shuttle era for two days on STS-1, she steadily increased her endurance to eight days on STS-3 in March 1982, 10 days on STS-9 in the late fall of 1983, almost 11 days on STS-32 in January 1990, 14 days on STS-50 in mid-1992, and—on STS-65 in July 1994—just a few hours shy of 15 full days in orbit. These expanded durations were enabled by her greater provision for cryogenic consumables and, from 1992 onwards, by the presence of the Extended Duration Orbiter (EDO) infrastructure, which provided for missions of 16 days and beyond. Although her sister ship, Endeavour, had also been rendered EDO-capable during her construction phase, most of the long-duration missions in the 1990s were manifested for Columbia. In fact, for a considerable time, STS-67 itself might have been flown by Columbia.
The payload for this ambitious mission was ASTRO-2, the second flight of a package of ultraviolet telescopes—the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope (HUT), the Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (UIT), and the Wisconsin Ultraviolet Photopolarimeter Experiment (WUPPE, which was rather questionably nicknamed “Whoopie”)—for observations of celestial sources within our Solar System and further into the cosmos. It followed in the footsteps of ASTRO-1, which, but for the tragic loss of Challenger, might have flown in March 1986 and conducted observations of Halley’s Comet. The loss of Challenger enforced a down-time for the shuttle, lasting almost three years, and ASTRO-1 did not ultimately fly until December 1990, where it met with an overall 80 percent scientific success rate, and 135 of 250 planned targets observed, despite a multitude of technical problems with its pointing system.
Notwithstanding the problems, ASTRO-1 whetted scientific appetites sufficiently for a follow-on mission to be announced by NASA in May 1991. The payload was glowingly described as “a proven scientific performer” by Lennard Fisk, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications, whilst David Huenemoerder, the ASTRO-1 Program Scientist, added that the first flight “was just a taste of the scientific insights [we] expect to emerge from ASTRO-2.” It was noted that the second flight would occur “as soon as the NASA flight schedule can accommodate it,” and the agency’s August 1991 shuttle manifest highlighted that ASTRO-2 would fly on STS-67 in September 1994.
Originally, the payload was manifested aboard Shuttle Discovery, and slated for a seven-day mission, but by mid-1993 it had been moved to Columbia, whose EDO capability could support a two-week voyage. At around this time, the first crew assignments were made. In August 1993, veteran astronaut Tammy Jernigan was named as Payload Commander, followed in October by John Grunsfeld as a Mission Specialist and lastly, in January 1994, by the “orbiter crew” of Oswald, Gregory, and Lawrence and Payload Specialists Durrance and Parise, the latter pair of whom had also served aboard ASTRO-1. Grunsfeld’s assignment is an interesting one, for he had studied physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., and it was whilst there that he happened to meet a post-doctoral student in astrophysics, named Jeff Hoffman, who not only also went on to become an astronaut, but wound up flying ASTRO-1. In fact, it was Hoffman’s path into NASA which convinced Grunsfeld that it was equally accessible to him.
With the entire STS-67 crew announced, plans called for a launch in December 1994 aboard Columbia, with an anticipated flight duration of about 13 days. However, as the year wore on, NASA opted to remove the queen of the fleet from service after her STS-65 mission in July for a lengthy period of maintenance and refurbishment at prime contractor Rockwell’s facility in Palmdale, Calif. Her sister, Endeavour, was reassigned to fly STS-67, although the change necessitated a slippage of the mission into the spring of 1995. By the dawn of that year, with a projected launch date of No Earlier Than (NET) 23 February, it was clear that STS-67 would snare a new shuttle duration record. According to the press kit, it was scheduled to fly for 15 days and 13 hours, easily surpassing the 14 days and 17 hours achieved by Columbia’s crew at the close of STS-65. As circumstances transpired, Endeavour would remain in orbit for far longer and would seize the single-flight duration record from Columbia for the next 16 months.
Delayed slightly until the beginning of March, STS-67 was eventually rescheduled to fly in the small hours of the 2nd. As darkness fell across the marshy landscape of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on the evening of the 1st, the shuttle sat silently under the glow of powerful xenon floodlights at Pad 39A. It seemed unlikely that Endeavour would fly, with U.S. Air Force meteorologists having predicted a 60 percent probability that weather conditions would be unacceptable at T-0. Nonetheless, Steve Oswald led his crew out of the Operations and Checkout Building and into the “Astrovan” at 10:20 p.m. EST. Within 25 minutes, they had reached the base of the pad, and shortly thereafter commenced the laborious process of strapping into their seats.
By midnight, all seven astronauts were aboard the orbiter—with Oswald, Gregory, Grunsfeld, and Lawrence on the flight deck and Jernigan, Durrance, and Parise downstairs on the middeck—and communications checks were concluded. As the clock ticked over into 2 March, the middeck hatch was closed and all remaining personnel evacuated the pad. With liftoff scheduled for 1:37 a.m., at the start of a 2.5-hour “window,” everything ran smoothly until 1:26 a.m., when a glitch arose with the B-supply secondary heater of the Flash Evaporator System (FES), needed to cool Endeavour’s electronics. The data indicated that the heater was approaching a “redline” condition.
The countdown proceeded and was briefly held at T-5 minutes, by which point the FES was verified as healthy, and the delay consumed a mere 73 seconds of the window. At 1:34 a.m., Bill Gregory activated the orbiter’s Auxiliary Power Units (APUs), and at 1:38 a.m. Endeavour rocketed into the black sky. “Liftoff of Endeavour,” exulted KSC Public Affairs Officer (PAO) Lisa Malone, “on a voyage to view the Universe.”
“Roll Program, Houston,” Steve Oswald radioed at T+10 seconds.
“Roger Roll, Endeavour,” came the reply from Capcom Curt Brown.
For the crew on the flight deck, which included three “rookies,” the ascent in itself was spectacular, and the fact that it took place in the hours of darkness made it doubly so. “Steve had flown twice previously,” Gregory recalled at the crew’s post-flight press conference. “This was his first flight as a commander and he took on the ambitious chore of going uphill with an all-rookie flight deck … his first time in the left seat and three brand-new spanking astronaut wannabes filling the rest of the flight deck. He did an admirable job of getting us uphill.” Liftoff, in Gregory’s recollection, was outlined in just two words: Instant Daylight, for Endeavour’s rousing launch lit up the entire Florida coastline like a new sunrise. Using a hand-held mirror, Wendy Lawrence—in the flight engineer’s seat—and John Grunsfeld, to her immediate right side, were able to momentarily glimpse Pad 39A, their vehicle’s vast smoke plume, and the steadily expanding shape of Florida, as it receded from them.
Less than nine minutes later, the crew was in orbit.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.