Early in February 1984, astronaut Joe Allen was at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, watching his former crewmate Vance Brand rocket into orbit aboard Challenger on Mission 41B. The pair had flown together on STS-5, and Allen later wrote in his book Entering Space that he remembered thinking “as I wistfully watched the spaceship Challenger climb into the clear morning sky, that Vance had left without me.” Allen had been assigned to another shuttle mission, but his own launch date and cargo remained in question. In September 1983, he had been named to Mission 41G, along with Commander Rick Hauck, Pilot Dave Walker, and fellow Mission Specialists Anna Fisher and Dale Gardner, but little could they have guessed that the mission they ended up flying would turn into one of NASA’s greatest EVA successes of the 1980s, by triumphantly salvaging two stranded communications satellites from low-Earth orbit.
Westar-6 and Palapa-B2 were owned, respectively, by Western Union and the Indonesian government. When fully deployed in their operational 22,300-mile (35,900-km) geostationary orbits, they each measured 22 feet (6.7 meters) tall by seven feet (2.1 meters) wide and took the form of enormous cylinders, coated with hundreds of solar cells. Both satellites departed Challenger’s payload bay without incident, but their attached Payload Assist Module (PAM)-D boosters failed to propel them out of low-Earth orbit, effectively stranding them in lopsided paths, with an apogee of about 650 miles (1,050 km) and a perigee of 160 miles (260 km). Using the satellites’ own attitude-control thrusters to raise their orbits to geostationary altitude was “unworkable,” but the success of the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) jet-propelled backpack in two EVAs to repair the Solar Max spacecraft in April 1984 planted the seed of an idea to fly a shuttle rescue mission.
As time went on, it seemed that the very crew to which Allen was assigned might receive the plum task. Rick Hauck had earlier described his mission as “a plain vanilla flight,” but by March 1984 George Abbey—then-head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate (FCOD)—was looking specifically at them to attempt the salvage. “I think there were a number of things that worked in our favour,” said Hauck in his NASA oral history. “One was just the timing of our mission. I had flown proximity operations on STS-7. Clearly, prox ops would be necessary to do this mission.” The successful retrieval of Solar Max was another. Finally, the MMU, equipped with a Trunnion Pin Attachment Device (TPAD), offered yet more stimulus. However, there remained a problem. A mechanism was needed to actually snare Westar and Palapa and anchor them into the shuttle’s payload bay for the return to Earth. One morning, Dale Gardner arrived at work in a state of excitement. Years later, Hauck could not be sure if it was Gardner alone or in conjunction with the EVA equipment team which came with the idea, but the consensus was to build a probe-like “stinger.” Measuring six feet (1.8 meters) long, it was called the Apogee Kick Motor Capture Device (ACD) and would be attached to the arms of the MMU.
“The astronaut could then fly the stinger into the satellite’s rocket nozzle,” wrote Allen. “Once inside, he could release a lever that would allow toggle fingers to expand, much like opening an umbrella inside a chimney. A hand-driven crank would shorten the length of the stinger and pull the satellite against a padded ring at the stinger’s base. The satellite would be held securely and the astronaut could then use the MMU’s thrusters to stop its tumbling and hold it while the [shuttle’s Remote Manipulator System arm] grabbed a grapple fixture on the stinger.” It seemed fairly straightforward, but for one thing: Only the nozzle “end” of the satellites could be clamped into the payload bay for the return to Earth; therefore, some other technique would be needed to temporarily “hold” them in place whilst the stringer was detached and a cradle adaptor fitted.
NASA’s solution was for an aluminum A-frame (properly termed the “Antenna Bridge Structure”) to be placed over the delicate antenna at the “top” of each satellite. “Next, the arm would take hold of a grappling pin on the A-frame,” concluded Allen, “keeping the satellite motionless while two astronauts manually fitted the adaptor at the nozzle end.” With the adaptor in place, the RMS would lower the satellite into position in the bay and the spacewalkers would finally remove the A-frame. It was a brilliant plan and, if successful, promised to cement the shuttle’s credentials and vindicate its capabilities.
Having already trained for EVAs on their respective first flights, it made sense for Allen and Gardner to be assigned to perform a pair of six-hour spacewalks to retrieve Palapa and Westar. Meanwhile, the other crew members of the flight (now redesignated “Mission 51A”) set to work in the simulators, refining rendezvous procedures. “Rick, Anna and Dave immediately began to log long hours in the shuttle simulators in Houston,” wrote Allen, “practicing rendezvous procedures that would allow our ship, Discovery, to come within a few feet of each satellite without ‘pluming’ it out of reach with bursts … from the orbiter’s [thrusters] or, even worse, causing it to tumble like a wildly gyrating top.” There were other contingencies for which to prepare themselves. If Allen or Gardner experienced an MMU malfunction—a stuck-on nitrogen thruster, perhaps—it might be necessary to maneuver the shuttle in order to perform a rescue.
Two weeks after Discovery returned from Mission 41D, in early September 1984, NASA announced its plans for the salvage flight: Allen and Gardner had been certified as proficient with the MMU, recovery contracts had been signed with Palapa and Westar’s insurance underwriters, equipment had passed vacuum-chamber tests and the crew and flight control team were comfortable with the intricacies of the rendezvous. By now, the lopsided orbits of the satellites had been lowered in apogee from 650 miles (1,050 km) to about 220 miles (350 km), thereby enabling the shuttle to reach them, with Palapa trailing Westar by about 600 miles (960 km).
The mission got underway on 8 November 1984—Gardner’s 36th birthday—and successfully deployed its own payload of two communications satellites in the first two days, before pressing ahead with the rendezvous. Hauck and Fisher were first to spot it as a steadily-brightening star, from a distance of more than 90 miles (145 km), on the morning of the 12th. The rendezvous was officially completed at 8:00 a.m. EST. By this time, Allen and Gardner were already clad in their water-cooled underwear and Dave Walker was getting their space suits ready in the airlock. Years later, Allen would recall Walker’s intense focus on ensuring that every aspect of the checklist was followed; the pilot came away with a fearsome headache and was forced to dig into the medical supplies for a pill. At length, with the two spacewalkers in the airlock, Walker was almost ready to pass Allen his helmet, when he stopped.
“Dave, I’m hungry,” said Allen. “I really need a cookie or something to eat.”
“Oh, Joe, how could you? We’re slightly … ”
Allen was indignant. “Dave, I need a butter cookie.”
It was not idle gossip, nor a minor grumble on Allen’s part. According to the timeline, he and Gardner would be outside for at least six hours and simply operating in their bulky suits demanded enormous reserves of energy and stamina. “So he goes off into the food pantry,” Allen recalled, “and comes back with a butter cookie. I open my mouth. Keep in mind, I can’t use my hands now. He puts the butter cookie into [my mouth] … then he hits my jaw shut!” Walker clicked Allen’s helmet into place and then sealed the two men into the airlock. “We could feel the hatch being sealed,” Allen wrote, “and we waited quietly for 25 more minutes, whilst the airlock was depressurised.” The plan was for the EVA to begin during a period of orbital daylight to allow them to set up their tools and prepare the MMUs.
Every person who has performed a spacewalk has come back with their own stories about it, with many regarding it as incomparably surpassing any other experience on a mission. For Allen, when he pushed open the outer hatch and poked his helmeted head into the payload bay at 8:25 a.m. EST, his first view quite literally took his breath away: for there was Palapa, slowly spinning, directly beyond the forward bulkhead. “I fastened myself into the MMU as darkness fell,” he wrote, “tested its two propulsion systems, released the lever that held it to the bulkhead and I glided across the bay. Dale helped me to attach the stinger and, once it was secure, I made another short test flight to see how the MMU flew.”
As the Sun rose on another 45-minute period of orbital daylight, Walker gave the call—“Let’s go get it”—and Allen flew crisply over to Palapa. With the stinger mounted on the front of the MMU’s arms, he looked not dissimilar to a medieval knight, about to enter a joust. Back on Earth, in the water tank and at prime contractor Martin Marietta’s facility in Denver, Colo., it had been quite ungainly, but now, in space, it flew magically. At first, as he headed around the “base” of the satellite, he was struck full in the face by blazing sunlight, but as he drifted closer and closer and finally entered Palapa’s shadow, he could instantly see clearly and was able to guide the tip of the stinger directly into the throat of the nozzle. Allen waited a few seconds as the stinger moved further and further inward, then pulled the lever to open the toggles.
It worked. “Stop the clock,” he yelled, triumphantly. “I’ve got it tied!”
After stabilizing both himself and the satellite with the MMU’s thrusters, Allen watched as Anna Fisher guided the grapple fixture of the shuttle’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm over a pin on the stinger. Returning to the payload bay, he doffed the MMU and positioned himself in a portable foot restraint on the end of the mechanical arm, then watched as Dale Gardner proceeded to attach the A-frame over Palapa’s fragile antenna. Suddenly, they hit a glitch. A rigid structure, part of the satellite’s wave guide equipment, was protruding farther outboard than had been expected … and the A-frame would not fit. It was Dave Walker who suggested that their only option was for Allen to physically grab the antenna “end” of Palapa and hold it steady, whilst Gardner single-handedly attached the adaptor. “Dave Walker … was the keeper of all the Plan Bs that we had devised,” Allen told the oral historian, “and we’d written them down. It was, sad to say, written on Dave’s piece of paper just as Improvise!”
For 90 minutes, Gardner worked, finally declaring success by manually tightening nine bolts around the edge of the adaptor. Shortly thereafter, the two men moved Palapa into a vertical position and lowered it into the bay, securing it in place with payload retention latches. Years later, Allen paid tribute to Gardner’s diligence and persistence in getting the job done, working alone. The astronauts returned inside Discovery, repressurizing the airlock at 2:25 p.m., after an EVA which had lasted precisely six hours.
Their next step was to rendezvous with Westar and Mission Control brought the troubling news that it, too, had wave guide equipment in the same place. Consequently, it was decided that Gardner would fly the MMU out to the satellite and Allen would act as a “human” A-frame, holding the antenna end of Westar, whilst the adaptor was fitted. The second EVA duly got underway at 6:09 a.m. EST on 14 November, and Gardner quickly captured Westar and returned it to the payload bay. The second retrieval would proceed more smoothly than the first and, in total, the astronauts would spend five hours and 42 minutes outside.
On this occasion, Allen spent a considerable amount of time with his feet secured on the end of the RMS, which gave him a quite different perspective … and made him feel peculiarly precarious. “Flying the MMU,” he wrote, “much like piloting an airplane, had not imparted an ominous sense of height to me; I was in control and at ease with the responsive machine. But riding the end of the arm, high above the cargo bay, was like standing on the tip of the world’s highest diving board, and a movable board at that.” His limited visibility of his helmet meant that he could not see his feet, nor the rail by his side. “Only my knock-kneed stance kept me in the foot restraint,” he continued, “and my ride was as nerve-wracking as anything I had ever done before.”
Intellectually, Allen knew that he would not fall, but the sensation persisted that if he slipped his restraint, he might either plunge into the payload bay or else directly to Earth. “It was a relief to take hold of the satellite when Dale brought it within my reach,” Allen concluded. “I felt like a man on a high wire, being handed a balance bar, and the round end of the cylindrical satellite provided some comfort and security.” Gardner finished laboring to attach the adaptor, and the two men proceeded to secure Westar into the bay. It was a triumphant moment. They were out of radio communication with Houston at the time, and, from the flight deck, Rick Hauck told the spacewalkers that he wanted them to announce success at Acquisition of Signal (AOS).
Allen and Gardner declined. After all, it was the captain of a salvage vessel who traditionally must assume such responsibilities. “Rick, that’s the commander’s job,” they told him. “When we come AOS, you report that we have two satellites safely aboard … and you can also use the words F**king Miracle.”
Hauck chuckled at this “inside” joke. It originated in crew quarters, a few days before launch. As the commander, he was already irritated by the media assumption that Mission 51A would be a piece of cake, with two “easy” satellite deployments and two “easy” retrievals. When a high-ranking NASA official from the agency’s Office of Public Affairs called a meeting with them, it was with some trepidation that the crew entered the conference room. Hauck asked for the agenda. The official responded that there was no specific agenda; he had merely come along to wish them good luck.
“We were all surprised,” recalled Joe Allen, “because this really was occupying a good chunk of our morning and time was very important to us right then.” At this point, Hauck recalled the comments from the media that Mission 51A was an “easy” mission. “There is something that you can do,” he told the official, and proceeded to cite the “easy” news reports. “I can assure you that none of us said that, nor do we believe it … and I will personally tell you that my assessment is: if we successfully capture one satellite, it will be remarkable, and if we get both satellites, it will be a f**king miracle! You can quote me on that!”
With scarcely another word, he ended the meeting.
Now, with this achieved, Hauck opted to keep his language somewhat more appropriate. “Houston,” he radioed at AOS, “we’ve got two satellites, locked in the bay!”
All five of them could hear in their headsets the shouts and cheers from Mission Control. They had done it. Hovering above Palapa and Westar, Gardner now untaped and displayed a sign, emblazoned with the statement: For Sale.
“The satellites would be returned and would then be in the ownership and the possession of insurance companies,” wrote Allen, “which had every intention of selling them as brand-new satellites.” From inside the flight deck, Fisher maneuvered them for photographs. The insurers—Lloyds of London and International Technology Underwriters—loved it, although NASA would mildly rebuke the astronauts after the flight. Lloyds actually rang the Lutine Bell in the rostrum of their Lime Street headquarters, marking only the third time since the end of the Second World War that it had been rung to announce good news.
This is part of a series of articles to commemorate 50 years of U.S. Extravehicular Activity. Tomorrow’s article will focus on the first—and, so far, only—EVA to include as many as three spacewalkers, back in May 1992, on the maiden voyage of Shuttle Endeavour.
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