‘Vide Mater, Sine Manibus’: 30 Years Since Shuttle Mission 51D (Part 2)

Spacewalkers Jeff Hoffman and Dave Griggs work to outfit a makeshift fly swatter onto the Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm, in a fruitless attempt to activate Syncom 4-3's deploy switch. Photo Credit: NASA
Spacewalkers Jeff Hoffman and Dave Griggs work to outfit a makeshift fly swatter onto the Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm, in a fruitless attempt to activate Syncom 4-3’s deploy switch. Photo Credit: NASA

Thirty years ago, next week, the crew of Mission 51D watched open-mouthed as a powerful communications satellite which they had just deployed seemed to fail, right before their eyes. The U.S. Navy’s Syncom 4-3 had rolled, in a frisbee-like fashion, out of Shuttle Discovery’s payload bay, without incident. Then, as described in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, things started to go wrong. Its omni-directional antenna failed to unfurl. Then its “spin-up” maneuver to 33 rpm failed to occur. Finally, 45 minutes after deployment, its solid-fueled Perigee Kick Motor (PKM) failed to ignite. NASA elected to re-rendezvous with the satellite and attempt to activate its deploy switch, and rendezvous procedures were transmitted to the shuttle’s teleprinter. The next step was a hazardous EVA—the first “contingency” EVA of the shuttle era—which required the crew to use a makeshift fly swatter to activate the switch.

“Rendezvous in space is a fairly complicated process,” explained 51D Pilot Don Williams. “It’s not like formation flight, where you just join up with another airplane, because you have to take orbital mechanics into effect and there are several maneuvers and burns … that have to be done at very precise times in order to keep from either overshooting it or crashing into or missing the thing entirely.” As Williams and 51D Commander Karol “Bo” Bobko handled the intricate rendezvous, the other NASA members of the crew—Mission Specialists Rhea Seddon, Dave Griggs, and Jeff Hoffman—worked to assemble a makeshift “flyswatter,” which would be attached to the end of the shuttle’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm to hopefully trip the deploy switch.

Mission Control uplinked typed directions to the shuttle’s teleprinter, and the astronauts used the plastic covers of procedures books, sections of aluminum swizzle sticks, metal pieces from the interdeck access panel, and a roll of gray duct tape to put together the impromptu device. Seddon cut the sticks with a bonesaw—a procedure which she later described as “arts and crafts time”—whilst Payload Specialist Charlie Walker vacuumed up the chippings. On 16 April 1985, four days into the mission, Hoffman and Griggs were suited up and departed Discovery’s airlock. “I was the first one out,” said Hoffman. “It was just when the Sun was setting, so the whole shuttle was lit up red and it was just so spectacular.” The experience felt quite similar to the underwater simulations … and that brought back another memory. Before launch, he and Griggs had told the neutral buoyancy staff that if they were called upon to do an EVA, the astronauts would pay for the beer.

Displaying their impromptu flyswatters, "Bo's Swat Team" gathers for an in-flight portrait. From left to right are Jake Garn, Jeff Hoffman, Don Williams, Rhea Seddon, Karol "Bo" Bobko, Dave Griggs and Charlie Walker. Photo Credit: NASA
Displaying their impromptu flyswatters, “Bo’s Swat Team” gathers for an in-flight portrait. From left to right are Jake Garn, Jeff Hoffman, Don Williams, Rhea Seddon, Karol “Bo” Bobko, Dave Griggs, and Charlie Walker. Photo Credit: NASA

It was a joke, of course, but Hoffman knew that they would have to pay up. After all, it would be worth it.

The two men were outside for a total of three hours and six minutes, fitting the flyswatter onto the end of the RMS, which Seddon then extended toward Syncom 4-3’s deploy switch. Charlie Walker watched the proceedings with amazement. He had been forced to temporarily shut down his electrophoresis experiment on the middeck when the cabin pressure was reduced in preparation for the EVA. “Remembering that none of this had been practiced on the ground,” he later told the NASA oral historian, “that this was all done just with the skills that the crew had been trained with generically … and yet the crew pulled it off expertly.” The deploy switch was successfully tripped—in fact, Seddon managed to acquire three good contacts with the flyswatter as the satellite slowly rotated—but, alas, it did nothing to bring the satellite to life.

The fix had not worked; obviously, the fault lay not just with the switch, but possibly also with an electronics failure in the satellite itself. The crew had little option but to leave Syncom 4-3 in a “dormant” state in low-Earth orbit, although very soon the possibility of executing a repair on a later mission came to the fore. For Hoffman, who would go on to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in December 1993, his first EVA was “an extraordinary opportunity.” At one point, he had little to do except gaze out at the Universe and the Home Planet and watch as the Sun peeked above the horizon to yield a new orbital morning. It was also a different experience for Dave Griggs. “He was a pilot,” said Hoffman, “but he had been assigned to fly as a Mission Specialist, so I think he was a little bit bummed-out.” Returning to the cabin, Griggs was forced to admit that, life as a Mission Specialist, on this occasion, was not all that bad.

By the time Mission 51D ended, its crew had earned for themselves the nickname “Swat Team.” Although the flyswatter had not succeeded in reviving Syncom 4-3, it had been an outstanding example of the NASA can-do spirit. “The flyswatter became the symbol of our flight,” said Rhea Seddon, “and when we got off the flight, we were handed flyswatters!” To this day, for his part, Walker still has in his possession a baseball cap, emblazoned with the legend: Bo’s Swat Team.

The Syncom 4-3 satellite drifts away from Discovery. The failure of its omni-directional antenna to deploy and of its solid-fueled perigee kick motor to ignite led to an impromptu rendezvous and repair attempt. Photo Credit: NASA
The Syncom 4-3 satellite drifts away from Discovery. The failure of its omni-directional antenna to deploy and of its solid-fueled perigee kick motor to ignite led to an impromptu rendezvous and repair attempt. Photo Credit: NASA

With the EVA behind them, their return home loomed on the horizon. During one of their final nights in orbit, Bobko called the crew onto the flight deck after dinner to simply float and watch the Home Planet drift by. Jeff Hoffman read a poem which had been written by his brother, a composer, whose verses reminisced on human tendencies for lofty thoughts and the possibilities of love, life, and freedom. His brother had given him the poem during his mountain-climbing days, and Hoffman now saw many analogies between flying in space and summiting the world’s highest peaks.

Re-entry on the 19th brought its own surprises for Hoffman, since he had exchanged seats with Seddon and was now sitting on the flight deck. “You’re surrounded by this red, then orange, then yellow, then white-hot plasma around the front windows,” he recalled, as Discovery knifed through the atmosphere, heading for the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. “Behind you, there’s this flickering wave, just like the wake behind a motorboat, but it’s fiery and it’s just awe-inspiring.” After 10 minutes, the spectacle dimmed and Hoffman felt his weight returning. He could let go of a pencil and watch it gradually tumble, with the grace of a snowflake, toward the floor, faster and faster as he repeated the game in the lower atmosphere. As the shuttle headed across Florida, the four men on the flight deck could see the sprawling expanse of KSC. Touchdown on Runway 33 came at 8:54 a.m. EDT, five minutes shy of seven full days since leaving Pad 39A. However, a shock was in store.

Several months earlier, the crew had been assigned to Mission 41F, which was scheduled to perform the first “automated” shuttle landing, part of procedures for use in a contingency situation. They even created a mocking Latin motto for themselves: Vide, mater, sine manibus (“Look, Ma, no hands!”). To Bobko, autoland posed the added difficulty of having to define a “box” of performance during the final approach to the runway, whereby he could recover from the system in the event of a malfunction and still execute a safe manual touchdown. “The problem,” he recalled, “was to try and define how to recognize when the auto system was diverging and not let it get so far that I couldn’t take over and make a safe landing.” As a result, 41F had been scheduled to land on the vast dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. A year later, with the preference loaded in favor of landing in Florida in order to avoid cross-country transport expenses, no one in NASA wanted to demonstrate autoland on the swamp-fringed Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF).

The flyswatter, attached to the end of Discovery's Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm. Photo Credit: NASA
The flyswatter, attached to the end of Discovery’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm. Photo Credit: NASA

As a result, it was decided that Bobko would land manually. Unfortunately, an eight-knot crosswind, gusting to 12 knots, required him to apply the right-hand brake and rudder more than the left to keep the vehicle on the centerline during the long rollout, and this “differential” braking caused the inboard right brake to “lock-up,” followed shortly thereafter by the outboard one. The result was a burst tire. In the words of fellow astronaut Mike Mullane, writing in his 2006 memoir, Riding Rockets, “it was a minor miracle that Discovery didn’t experience directional control problems … and careen off the runway.”

Don Williams remembered the incident vividly. “We’re down to maybe just about walking speed,” he said, “and there’s this big bang, thump, thump, thump, thump. I knew right away what it was; it was a blown tire. We’re almost stopped anyway, so it turned out not to be a big deal and not an issue. Of course, the only thing to worry about is, since this tire is blown, there could be some debris problems, which might cause a puncture or might cause some reason to have to evacuate, a fire or something like that.” On the middeck, Jeff Hoffman’s first thought was that one of the shuttle’s Reaction Control System (RCS) tanks had exploded. Charlie Walker wondered if they had run over an alligator!

The Capcom quickly radioed confirmation that someone from the runway landing crew had verified a tire blowout. “We didn’t think anything more about it,” Walker said, “until we got off the vehicle.” A member of the ground team told them about the blowout, that a trail of debris stretched some distance along the runway and that the astronauts would not be allowed to do their traditional walk-around of the vehicle, lest another of the fully-pressurized tires might blow and cause injury.

Despite the fruitless attempt to revive Syncom 4-3, the 51D crew could be justly proud of their accomplishments. Far from being disappointed, Rhea Seddon said years later, “we were really excited. We did everything we possibly could have done and we had pulled off all that stuff. If the motor had turned on, maybe we would have been five percent happier. But we were still pretty happy.” It did not detract from criticism, leveled at NASA from certain sections of the media, that another satellite had been lost.

None of the losses so far—TDRS-1 in April 1983, followed by Palapa-B2 and Westar-6 in February 1984 and now Syncom 4-3—were directly the fault of the reusable orbiter or her crews, but Flight International noted on 4 May that these incidents “focused attention on the shuttle deployment method.” Satellites carried by Europe’s Ariane expendable boosters, it was explained, were injected directly into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO as part of the launch phase, whereas the shuttle required them to use two separate motors for GTO insertion, one at perigee and the other at apogee. Certainly, within days of the loss, and still riding the crest of a tremendous wave following the triumphant Palapa and Westar recoveries, NASA had already begun to focus its attention on a possible salvage mission, in the late summer of 1985.



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 45th anniversary of Apollo 13, NASA’s “successful failure,” when the space agency experienced perhaps its finest hour.



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  1. I read somewhere the astronaut corps made sure the shuttle could be landed without a pilot. I did not know it had an “autoland” system. Not much about it when I googled it except a discussion where someone says the landing gear switch had to be activated manually and a kit was later carried consisting of a cable hookup that would allow the gear to be lowered without a human. I would be curious to know all the in’s and out’s of this considering one of the main criticisms of the shuttle was that it put humans at risk to launch satellites. If it did not need humans then it could have theoretically performed missions unmanned. But then any mass having to do with humans becomes dead weight and a waste of course.

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