‘Winging It’: 30 Years Since the Dramatic Rescue of Mission 51I (Part 1)

In a triumphant ending to a triumphant space salvage, James “Ox” van Hoften strikes a Charles Atlas pose on the end of the shuttle’s RMS mechanical arm, seemingly hoisting the world on his shoulders. Photo Credit: NASA
In a triumphant ending to a triumphant space salvage, James “Ox” van Hoften strikes a Charles Atlas pose on the end of the shuttle’s RMS mechanical arm, seemingly hoisting the world on his shoulders. Photo Credit: NASA

When Discovery touched down at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida on 19 April 1985—suffering seized brakes and a burst tire in the process—she left a spot of unfinished business in low-Earth orbit. A few days earlier, her 51D crew had deployed an important U.S. Navy communications satellite, called Leasat-3, whose antenna had stubbornly refused to unfurl and whose Perigee Kick Motor (PKM) had failed to ignite. Despite sterling efforts on the part of the crew and Mission Control to fashion a makeshift “flyswatter” and sending astronauts Jeff Hoffman and Dave Griggs on a contingency EVA, the crippled satellite lingered in an orbit far lower than its intended 22,600 miles (35,700 km). Within days of the incident, NASA’s bulletproof, pre-Challenger attitude prompted mutterings of a shuttle mission to recover, repair, and reboost Leasat-3 to its operational geostationary location. Thirty years ago, this week, Mission 51I succeeded spectacularly and amply demonstrated the shuttle’s myriad capabilities.

For Mission Specialist James “Ox” van Hoften, however, it did not begin with much excitement. When the crew—Commander Joe Engle, Pilot Dick Covey, and Mission Specialists Jim Buchli, Mike Lounge, and Bill Fisher—were named to Mission 51C in December 1983, they were slated to deploy a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) in the late fall of the following year. Later, as the shuttle manifest writhed and contorted over the following year, they ended up training to retrieve a NASA payload known as the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF). In the meantime, Buchli was named to another mission and van Hoften took his place on 51I. “Stale, pale, and male,” was Lounge’s summary of the crew and its cargo, “but we had a great time.”

Lounge and van Hoften shared similar backgrounds. They had both served as reservists in the Air National Guard after periods of active military duty, and one night in April 1985, whilst training for 51I, they were on alert status at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas. Midway through their duty, the two men heard about the Leasat-3 malfunction and started exchanging ideas about how to resolve it. They even roped in Engle for his opinion. “Back then,” van Hoften said in his NASA oral history, “there was a much more can-do spirit at NASA and everyone felt like, hey, you can do anything.” Armed with the relevant data on Leasat-3—its size, mass properties, and angular momentum—the men sat down with Engle and Covey, accompanied by a few pieces of paper and some push-button calculator watches, to hash out a plan.

For Joe Engle (front left), James 'Ox' van Hoften (back left) and Bill Fisher (back right), 51I would be their final space mission. For the other two crew members, Mike Lounge (centre) and Dick Covey (front right), their next voyage together would be aboard Discovery's very next flight...but after the destruction of Challenger the Shuttle as a vehicle would have changed beyond recognition. Photo Credit: NASA
For Joe Engle (front left), James “Ox” van Hoften (back left), and Bill Fisher (back right), 51I would be their final space mission. For the other two crew members, Mike Lounge (centre) and Dick Covey (front right), their next voyage together would be aboard Discovery’s very next flight … but after the destruction of Challenger the shuttle as a vehicle would have changed beyond recognition. Photo Credit: NASA

Their first idea, to bring the satellite back to Earth, quickly became unrealistic, since it was filled with volatile hydrazine station-keeping fuel. At length, the plan crystallized into a complex affair, whereby Leasat-3 would be recovered and redeployed into space using the shuttle’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm. A method was devised to bypass the satellite’s faulty deploy switch and provide power to the electrical buses from the batteries using external test ports and NASA management was sufficiently enthused to send the astronauts to Hughes Aerospace—Leasat-3’s prime contractor—in Los Angeles, Calif. In the auditorium, despite a bout of laryngitis which had left him almost hoarse, van Hoften outlined the plan to around a thousand engineers and managers.

After van Hoften’s speech came the questions:

“Can we stop the rotation of the spacecraft?”

“Oh, yeah,” replied the astronaut. “It’s only going to take … ”, and he demonstrated, “this much force to stop the rotation. That’s not an issue.”

“Did anybody think that we could have a person stop the rotation?”

“Well,” van Hoften replied, with a twinkle in his eye, “here’s me!”

He sketched himself next to Leasat-3 and reminded the gathered engineers that a few months earlier, in November 1984, “Little Joe” Allen had managed to grab the errant Palapa-B2 communications satellite. It should therefore be equally possible for the much larger van Hoften to grab the much larger Leasat-3. In all seriousness, though, van Hoften had already performed two EVAs in April 1984 to retrieve and repair NASA’s Solar Max observatory, and he knew his own capabilities and those of the RMS.

Hughes’ president was so impressed that he took van Hoften to one side and immediately called NASA Administrator James Beggs to invest $5 million in the Leasat-3 salvage effort. When the go-ahead finally came from NASA management, Engle, Covey, and Space Shuttle Program Manager Glynn Lunney were at the home of 51I Lead Flight Director Jay Greene. The four men promptly drained a bottle of Old Overholt, Greene’s favourite whisky. “We drank that bottle,” Covey related in NASA oral history, “celebrating the fact that we had hoodwinked the whole system into letting us think that we could go do this. It would not happen today!”

Despite the seat-of-the-pants approach to the salvage effort, as the crew plunged into training, there were many aspects for which they could not effectively prepare. Instead, they had to hone their skills, rather than specific tasks, because there were no assurances for how well or badly the mission would go. The Solar Max repair had been choreographed down to the finest detail, but Leasat-3 was different: by their own admission, the 51I astronauts were “winging it.”

At one stage, it seemed likely that Joe Engle might launch on his 53rd birthday, as launch slipped into the third week of August 1985. The first attempt on the 24th was scrubbed due to local rain showers; although there were no thunderstorms in the area, the conditions were sufficiently poor to violate Launch Commit Criteria (LCC). Discovery had only a couple of days available in which to achieve her rendezvous “window” with Leasat-3, and launch was quickly recycled for the 25th. That attempt also came to nothing when a failure in the shuttle’s backup flight software was experienced. A two-day delay pushed the next attempt past Engle’s birthday and on to the 27th. (To celebrate, the astronauts unstowed his birthday cake from a middeck locker and presented it to him in crew quarters.)

Dick Covey was not alone in his frustration. “I can’t believe we scrubbed for those two little showers out there,” he remarked. “Anybody with half a lick of sense would have said: Let’s go. This could be a lot worse.” However, Chief Astronaut John Young told them bluntly that they could not make calls on the weather, as their knowledge was limited to the view from inside the orbiter. They should focus on the mission, he said, and leave others to worry about the weather.

The official crew patch for the astronauts of Mission 51I: Commander Joe Engle, Pilot Dick Covey and Mission Specialists Mike Lounge, James 'Ox' van Hoften and Bill Fisher. Image Credit: NASA
The official crew patch for the astronauts of Mission 51I: Commander Joe Engle, Pilot Dick Covey, and Mission Specialists Mike Lounge, James “Ox” van Hoften, and Bill Fisher. Image Credit: NASA

The morning of the third launch attempt, 27 August, was even more dismal, and the astronauts were clad in yellow raincoats over their flight suits as KSC suffered a torrential downpour. After being strapped into their seats, Lounge and van Hoften—certain that the weather was too appalling for NASA to give them the green light to go—released their harnesses and took a nap. From his perch on the right-hand side of the cabin, Covey was amazed as they moved smoothly and crisply through the built-in holds and was even more amazed when he was given the go-ahead to start Discovery’s Auxiliary Power Units (APUs), with five minutes to go in the countdown. As he flipped the switches, he could see sprinkles of rain on the forward flight deck windows. “The reason,” Joe Engle explained, “was that they had one more day delay before they had to de-tank [the External Tank] and that would have been two more days and the weather forecast was not good for the next day, anyway.” Downstairs, on the middeck, the hum of the APUs startled Bill Fisher.

“What’s that noise?”

“We’re crankin’ APUs,” came the response from the pilots. “Let’s go.”

“Yeah, sure. We’re not going anywhere today. Why are you starting APUs?”

“Damn it, Fisher, we’re going! We’re going to launch! Get back in your seat and get strapped in.”

The final seconds progressed, as the NASA commentator reeled off the milestones and Discovery’s internal systems rumbled to life, in harmony, it seemed, with the rumble of the inclement weather.

“And we have a Go for autosequence start,” came the call at T-31 seconds, as Discovery’s flight computers assumed primary command of vehicle critical functions. “T-15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, nine … we have a Go for Main Engine Start … ” as Discovery’s three liquid-fueled engines flared to life, displaying a trio of Mach diamonds in the gloom of a pre-dawn darkness, “ … four, three, two, one … ignition … and LIFTOFF … Liftoff of the 51I and the commercial deploy and repair mission … and it has cleared the tower!” Launch occurred on the very cusp of daybreak, at 6:58 a.m. EDT, with the shuttle’s engines and the twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) blazing brilliantly as the 20th mission of the reusable fleet of orbiters spread its wings and took flight.

It is interesting to view launches from this era, particularly the images from within Mission Control, and understand the “Go” fever associated with each event. “It turned out we launched right through the eye of a hurricane,” van Hoften told the NASA oral historian. “It coalesced into a hurricane and then we spent the whole time looking down at this major hurricane, going around wiping out Florida.” He was referring to what became Hurricane Elena, which originated as a gigantic tropical wave off the coast of East Africa on 23 August and progressed weakly westwards, running parallel to northern Cuba, becoming a tropical storm on the 28th and a hurricane on the 29th. From orbit, the crew took several stunning images, which showed it expanding across the entire Gulf of Mexico and with winds peaking at more than 100 mph (160 km/h) on 1 September. It steadily weakened as it headed north and finally made landfall in Biloxi, Miss. In its few days of mayhem, Elena wreaked $1.2 billion of damage, but, miraculously, caused no direct fatalities.

From the flight engineer’s seat, Mike Lounge had crafted himself a small Mylar “mirror” and fixed it to the back of his checklist, hoping to watch the reflected launch through the overhead window, just over his left shoulder. “If you hold this mirror, right in your lap,” he said, “you get this great view as the orbiter lifts up and rolls. You’re looking through that window, right down at the pad and this huge billow of smoke and flame…and the pad gets smaller and smaller.” There was little time to be a spectator, of course, as Lounge paged through his checklist, mentally ticking off each of the major milestones: Negative return, Single-engine TAL, and the call which had caused his predecessors, the crew of Mission 51F, great anxiety: Abort to Orbit. After what seemed like an age, the moment of Main Engine Cutoff (MECO) occurred and the sensation of weightlessness was felt through a gentle rising against the straps and the quirkiness of the checklist, floating, in front of his eyes. That comical sight was arrested very soon by a sight of unimaginable grandeur: Africa, looming large and spectacular in Discovery’s windows.

They were in orbit.

Ahead of them lay three satellite deployments … and then Leasat.



The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.




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