Thirty years ago, next week, Atlantis—which would go on to become the second most-flown orbiter in NASA’s shuttle fleet, after Discovery—rocketed into orbit on her maiden voyage, Mission 51J. During that four-day mission, which began 3 October 1985, Atlantis and her five-man crew deployed a pair of classified Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS)-III military spacecraft, atop a single Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster. Although the payload was widely known, the usual levels of secrecy imposed on Department of Defense shuttle missions remained in place, with Atlantis’ exact launch time withheld until T-9 minutes and her exact landing date kept under wraps until 24 hours prior to touchdown. It was a strangely quiet start to a career which would see her conduct 33 missions in almost 26 years, totaling over 306 days in orbit, during which Atlantis deployed more than a dozen major satellite payloads, visited the International Space Station (ISS) 12 times and Russia’s Mir seven times, supported more dedicated Department of Defense missions than any other orbiter and performed both the final servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and the swansong flight of the shuttle program. Last week, veteran astronaut Dave Hilmers, one of Atlantis’ first fliers, shared several memories of Mission 51J with AmericaSpace.
During those 33 missions, Atlantis ferried 148 discrete spacefarers from the United States, France, Russia, Canada and Germany safely into orbit, and back to Earth, as well as transporting the first-ever national astronauts from Mexico, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy. That figure includes such luminaries as Jerry Ross, the sole human to have flown Atlantis as many as five times, as well as three-time “Atlanteans” Shannon Lucid, Marsha Ivins and Rex Walheim and 35 others who journeyed to and from orbit aboard the vehicle on two separate occasions during their careers. Of the Atlantis “two-timers”, the list includes Frenchman Jean-Francois Clervoy, Costa Rica-born Franklin Chang-Diaz and the commander of the first shuttle-Mir docking mission, Robert “Hoot” Gibson.
Yet these figures only serve to describe those men and women who actually launched and landed on Atlantis. Several others rode into orbit aboard her, yet returned to terra firma within the confines of another craft; either a different member of the shuttle fleet or a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Their number includes cosmonauts Anatoli Solovyov and Nikolai Budarin, together with Frenchman Leopold Eyharts and U.S. astronaut Clay Anderson. Conversely, Russia’s Vladimir Dezhurov and Gennadi Strekalov and U.S. astronauts Suni Williams, Dan Tani and Nicole Stott only ever landed aboard Atlantis, having received their ticket into space aboard other vehicles. Carrying this peculiarity a step further, astronaut Dave Wolf is unique in that he launched twice, but only ever landed once, aboard Atlantis during his career—having returned from a long-duration Mir occupancy aboard a different shuttle—whilst Norm Thagard offers an opposing perspective of polarity: as the first American ever to launch aboard a Soyuz, he landed twice, but only ever launched once, on Atlantis.
Confused yet? You should be, for during Atlantis’ glittering 33 missions, she rendezvoused and docked with the Mir orbital outpost on seven occasions between June 1995 and October 1997 and with the ISS on 12 occasions between May 2000 and the final flight of the shuttle program, STS-135 in July 2011. The consequence was that 29 other spacefarers— including the first ISS Commander, Bill Shepherd, the first European ISS Commander, Frank de Winne, and the first female ISS Commander, Peggy Whitson, together with numerous Mir residents—were on hand to welcome her after docking in orbit. Interestingly, ten individuals happened upon Atlantis on more than one mission during their careers, including Germany’s Thomas Reiter, who witnessed her arrival at both Mir on STS-74 in November 1995 and at the ISS on STS-115 in September 2006, and Russian cosmonaut Valeri Korzun, the only human to have boarded Atlantis three times in space, but never to have actually launched or landed aboard her. (Korzun was aboard Mir in September 1996 and January 1997, during Atlantis’ STS-79 and STS-81 dockings, and aboard the ISS in October 2002, to welcome STS-112.) All told, 187 people from the United States, Mexico, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, France, Russia, Canada, Germany and Japan have boarded Atlantis for launch, landing or whilst in orbit at some point between October 1985 and July 2011.
Next week, on 3 October, as NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) marks the 30th anniversary of Atlantis’ maiden voyage, the center of attention will of course be upon the ship herself, together with the men and women who flew her, but specifically the five astronauts—all of whom, thankfully, are still with us—who participated in Mission 51J. And all five carved their own niches into the annals of human space exploration. Commander Karol “Bo” Bobko remains the only human to have flown aboard the maiden voyages of two orbiters, whereas Ron Grabe was the first shuttle pilot to fly twice aboard Atlantis. Of their crewmates, Dave Hilmers went on to participate in the first post-Challenger mission, STS-26, whilst Bob Stewart had earned himself a place in history by trialing the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) “jet backpack”, earlier in his astronaut career. The final member of the 51J crew was Bill Pailes, the second (and last) Air Force Manned Spaceflight Engineer (MSE) to participate in a shuttle flight.
The “core” NASA crew of Bobko, Grabe, Hilmers and Stewart had originally been named on 17 November 1983, alongside fellow astronaut Mike Mullane, to a so-called “DoD Standby Crew”, in support of future Department of Defense shuttle requirements. “Even those of us on the crew didn’t know what that meant,” Hilmers later explained in his 2013 memoir, Man on a Mission. “It didn’t have an official flight number and it hadn’t been assigned to any of the three orbiters that were in the fleet at the time.” He added that, for several months, “the five of us trained for tasks that might or might not actually take place”. Finally, on 15 February 1985, Bobko, Grabe, Hilmers and Stewart were assigned to 51J—tracking a No Earlier Than (NET) launch date of 26 September, 30 years ago, today—whilst Mullane moved onto the 62A crew, which was destined in the pre-Challenger era to become the first shuttle flight out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Pailes joined them as the fifth and final member of the 51J crew.
“There were kind of mixed feelings about that crew assignment,” Hilmers told AmericaSpace of the DoD Standby Crew. “It was great to be named to a crew, but we didn’t have a specific flight slot. I believe at one time we thought we were going to be assigned to the first shuttle flight out of Vandenberg, but that was kind of nebulous. So we did some generic training sessions together as a crew, but it was kind of bittersweet since we really didn’t have any flight hardware to work on, or crew procedures to develop. More importantly, we didn’t have a flight date.” The firm assignment to 51J changed the situation markedly and Hilmers lucidly remembered the summons to the office of George W.S. Abbey, director of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate (FCOD). “It was exciting,” he reflected. “We were called to Building 1 to see Mr. Abbey and everyone knew what that meant. It came to be a familiar process.”
Remarkably, 51J suffered from only minimal slippage in its flight schedule, considering that it was the first outing for a new orbiter. Following a lengthy construction period—which began with the initial contract award to Rockwell International in January 1979—Atlantis achieved structural completion in April 1984 and, after an expansive series of tests, was transported overland from Rockwell’s facility in Palmdale, Calif., to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in April 1985, and flown atop the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.
“We certainly monitored the progress of Atlantis closely, but we didn’t have a lot of direct involvement in the processing and testing,” Hilmers told AmericaSpace. “We made one trip to Palmdale, Calif., to see Atlantis before it went to KSC and we went to the Cape for some final testing. However, we were too busy training to get too involved in the day-to-day processing. There were astronauts assigned to the Cape [the “Cape Crusaders”] who took care of that for the office.”
Arriving at the Cape on 13 April 1985, Atlantis spent time in the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) and in “storage” in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) until she was mated to her External Tank (ET) and twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) and rolled to Pad 39A on 30 August. As described in last weekend’s AmericaSpace history articles, she underwent the customary Flight Readiness Firing (FRF) of her three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs), thus clearing a key milestone in NASA’s effort to get her into orbit.
“The five of us were fairly quiet guys, who didn’t make a lot of noise, Bo included,” Hilmers wrote of himself and his crewmates. “We didn’t raise much of a ruckus over anything, and as a result, we all got along really well.” With Bobko, Grabe and Pailes representing the Air Force, Hilmers the Marine Corps and Stewart—the first Purple Heart-holder ever to journey into space—having already secured recognition as America’s inaugural Army astronaut, their military backgrounds gave them a common thread. This produced some mild inter-service rivalry, including one instance when Hilmers ribbed Stewart over the “toughness” of his Army basic training…“down at the Holiday Inn Express”.
Speaking to AmericaSpace, Hilmers described the 51J crew as “kind of mild-mannered men”, noting that Bobko and Stewart served as “team leaders”, as they were the only veterans. He also noted that, although today they rarely have reunions, “we bump into each other now and then”, adding that Ron Grabe’s daughter was later a medical student at Baylor College of Medicine after Hilmers became a professor there. “She did some research with me,” he recalled.
As their military thread kept the 51J crew unified, so too did their faith. “Of the four crews on which I served, 51J was probably the most uniformly religious,” Hilmers wrote. “A group of us in the Astronaut Office routinely held Bible studies throughout my time with the agency, and on this flight in particular, we all seemed to be on the same basic page when it came to our faith.” To Hilmers, it “meant the world” when the five of them shared a prayer on the morning of 3 October 1985, just before heading to the launch pad and Atlantis.
The author would like to thank Professor David Hilmers for his time and assistance in responding to questions for this article.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.