Next week, on 3 October, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) plans to celebrate 30 years since the maiden launch of perhaps its most prized exhibit—Atlantis, the second most-flown member of the space shuttle fleet, after Discovery—with a day of “meet and greets” and signing opportunities featuring many of her former astronauts, including Jerry Ross, the only human to have flown her on as many as five occasions. Throughout her 26-year operational career, Atlantis visited space 33 times, visited the International Space Station (ISS) 12 times, visited Russia’s Mir orbital outpost seven times, and visited the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) once. Almost 200 men and women from nine sovereign nations voyaged aboard her, with the majority inhabiting her from launch through touchdown, but a handful journeyed uphill to orbit, downhill from orbit or met Atlantis midway as she joined them for a few days of docked space station operations. (In fact, one Russian cosmonaut, Valeri Korzun, met Atlantis as many as three times in orbit, yet never rode to or from orbit aboard her.) It might be supposed that such an illustrious career might have gotten off to an illustrious start, but Atlantis’ first flight, Mission 51J in October 1985, was one of the quietest and most “vanilla” shuttle flights ever undertaken. Last week, veteran astronaut Dave Hilmers, one of Atlantis’ first fliers, shared several memories of Mission 51J with AmericaSpace.
As noted in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, the crew for Mission 51J changed significantly, following the initial NASA announcement of Commander Karol “Bo” Bobko, Pilot Ron Grabe, and Mission Specialists Bob Stewart, Mike Mullane, and Dave Hilmers as a “DoD Standby Crew” in November 1983. It had long been recognized that the shuttle would be utilized for a series of classified Department of Defense assignments, but in his 2013 memoir, Man on a Mission, Hilmers reflected that “even those of us on the crew didn’t know what it meant.” The Standby Crew had been appointed alongside several others, with the exception that the others had specific flight designations and payloads. For several months into 1984, Hilmers wrote, “the five of us trained for tasks that might or might not actually take place.” At length, on 15 February 1985, Bobko, Grabe, Hilmers, and Stewart were formally assigned to 51J—tracking a No Earlier Than (NET) launch date of 26 September—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. An Air Force Manned Spaceflight Engineer (MSE), named Bill Pailes, joined them as the fifth and final member of the crew.
Their primary mission objective was to deliver a pair of classified Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS)-III military spacecraft, atop a single, Boeing-built Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster, toward a 22,300-mile-high (35,600-km) geostationary orbit. Ironically, despite the usual levels of secrecy imposed on Department of Defense flights 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 the scheduled touchdown—the nature of the DSCS-III payload was well known in the open media, long before the shuttle departed Pad 39A at 11:15 a.m. EST on 3 October 1985. Details appeared in the pages of Aviation Week before Atlantis touched down, and, today, deployment images have long since been declassified and are firmly in the public domain, but only because the DSCS-IIIs were military communications satellites and not “deep black” reconnaissance or intelligence-gathering satellites. For that reason, more than two decades since the shuttle’s last classified flight, most of the Department of Defense missions remain classified and rumor continues to abound over their nature.
Mission 51J began with an upset wife. Management consultant Diane Bobko was particularly irritated as her husband prepared for his third voyage into space. Unlike his previous missions—STS-6, the maiden flight of Challenger, in April 1983 and Mission 51D, which supported the first contingency EVA of the shuttle era in April 1985—this one was classified and she knew that he could tell her very little about it.
“Bo,” she said, one morning in September 1985, “you’re not telling me exactly what day, you’re going to land, but I think it’s going to be pretty close to a day I have a program in Baltimore.”
“Diane, it’s the first flight of a new vehicle,” her husband replied. “Probably the safest thing you can do is go ahead and schedule that right now.” From his perspective, Bobko had been intimately familiar with the delays which struck Challenger, during the months preceding her maiden voyage, and anticipated that the inaugural voyage of Atlantis would also meet with significant delay. Ironically, it did not.
Command of this new flight posed something of a problem in the spring of 1985, particularly when Bobko’s previous mission was canceled and he ended up leading his crew into orbit in April, under a different designation. The inevitable consequence was that Grabe, Hilmers, and Stewart were forced to train without him for a time. What really made 51J a pain was its classified nature, in which the astronauts had to conduct virtually their entire training in secret, filing misleading flight plans to training destinations … and then finding out through the pages of Aviation Week and Flight International that details of their supposedly “secret” payload had leaked and been exposed.
In fact, the twin DSCS-III satellites became something of an “open” secret and details were published as early as 7 October 1985, the very day that Atlantis touched down at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. A single IUS booster carried the $160 million satellites, stacked one atop the other, images of which were finally declassified in the summer of 1998. They lend credence to Bobko’s claim that, for all its “secrecy,” 51J was little more than a “vanilla” shuttle deployment flight.
The DSCS—nicknamed “the discus”—has long been an anchor for the Pentagon’s global communications network, operating in geostationary orbit with half a dozen super-high-frequency transponders for secure voice and data transmissions and high-priority command and control links between officials and battlefield commanders. The Air Force later admitted that it had launched two DSCS-IIIs in 1985 and, according to space analyst Dwayne Day, “the only launch that year that fit was the Atlantis mission.” Subsequent documents highlighted that the DSCS-III satellites had been deployed during a shuttle flight, but refused to reveal the name of that flight … even though it could be quite easily inferred. “Military secrecy can be bizarre at times,” wrote Day, “like acknowledging that there is a sky, and that the sky can be blue, but never saying that the sky is blue!”
Physically, the satellites were roughly cube-shaped, with a pair of articulated solar panels which produced 1,240 watts of electrical power. They measured 6.6 feet (2 meters) in height, spanned 37.7 feet (11.5 meters) across their expansive solar array “wings” and weighed 5,730 pounds (2,600 kg). Day considered it significant that 51J’s payload was so readily revealed, but the natures of the other classified satellites launched between December 1988 and December 1992 have been kept under wraps to this very day. “If the suspected identities of the other classified shuttle flights are correct,” he speculated in an article for the Space Review in January 2010, “then they are intelligence satellites. Considering the secrecy that remains about American intelligence satellites, it seems likely that these other flights will continue to remain secret for a long time to come.”
Originally scheduled for No Earlier Than (NET) 26 September 1985, Atlantis’ maiden launch met with relatively little delay, passing through a smooth processing flow in the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) and Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and—as detailed in last weekend’s AmericaSpace history articles—concluding a picture-perfect Flight Readiness Firing (FRF) of her three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) on Pad 39A. With the launch date eventually settling on 3 October, it was revealed that Atlantis would fly during a four-hour period, extending from 10:20 a.m. through 2:20 p.m. EST, although the threat of rain showers offshore prompted Air Force meteorologists to predict a 60 percent likelihood of acceptable conditions at T-0.
As well as the vague launch time, which would only be known when the countdown clock passed out of its final hold at T-9 minutes, the length of 51J itself was unclear, with one media outlet suggesting a duration of five or six days. It subsequently became clear that the launch attempt endured a 22-minute delay to deal with a power controller in one of the SSMEs’ liquid hydrogen prevalves, which had thrown up a faulty indication. At length, the assembled spectators at KSC became aware that launch was imminent when the blank face of the famous countdown clock suddenly came to life and started ticking at T-9 minutes.
It had been an exciting morning for the 51J crew, which included only two veterans (Bobko and Stewart) and three first-timers (Grabe, Hilmers, and Pailes). “It was one of the last flights before the Challenger accident and we launched wearing only some basic survival gear,” Hilmers told AmericaSpace. “It was such a contrast to the remainder of my flights, in which we wore the elaborate and much more cumbersome orange suits.”
Following the passage of T-9 minutes, the standard pre-flight procedures kicked in at this stage, accompanied by NASA coverage. At T-5 minutes, Ron Grabe activated the shuttle’s Auxiliary Power Units (APUs). Shortly thereafter, the Solid Rocket Booster (SRB0 firing sequence and Range Safety Officer (RSO) circuit were armed and the five-man crew closed their helmet visors. Final helium purging of the SSMEs began and the Ground Launch Sequencer (GLS) determined that APU pressures were normal for launch. By T-3 minutes and 30 seconds, Atlantis was on internal power, as her elevons, speed brake, and rudder were maneuvered through a pre-programmed pattern and SSME gimbaling was completed. This was followed by the closure of the liquid oxygen valve to the External Tank (ET), retraction of the gaseous oxygen (“beanie”) cap and the movement of the SSMEs to their start positions. From the pilot’s seat on the right side of the cockpit, Grabe confirmed that Atlantis’ Caution & Warning (C&W) memory was cleared, with no unexpected errors.
At T-2 minutes, the ET’s liquid hydrogen valve was closed and all tanks had reached flight pressure within the following 45 seconds. With a minute to go, the sound suppression system of four giant “rainbirds,” positioned at the base of Pad 39A, were armed, as were the hydrogen burn igniters, which would dissipate residual gases underneath the SSMEs, ahead of Main Engine Start.
“T-31 seconds,” came the call, as control of the 51J countdown was transferred from GLS to the Autosequencer and the shuttle’s on-board suite of General Purpose Computer (GPCs). “And we have the sequencer on the orbiter now controlling the final seconds to launch … 20 seconds and counting … the body flap and speed brake in launch position … T-12, 11, 10 … we have Go for Main Engine Start … ”
All at once the flurry of hydrogen burn igniters sparked beneath the dark SSME bells, which suddenly erupted into life with a sheer of translucent orange flame, which quickly gave way to a trio of dancing Mach diamonds. In the final seconds, Atlantis’ computers commanded the engines up to full power.
“ … we have Main Engine Start … four, three, two, one … ignition … and liftoff … Liftoff of Atlantis. A new orbiter joins the shuttle fleet and it has cleared the tower!”
Liftoff came at 11:15:30 a.m. EST. Unlike most other missions, where the Commander could be heard confirming the “Roll Program” maneuver, it was the Public Affairs Officer (PAO) who announced “Roll Program initiated; crew confirms roll maneuver,” as Atlantis departed Pad 39A and embarked onto the proper heading for its 8.5-minute climb uphill. This was followed by several other clipped acknowledgements during first-stage first: “26 seconds, beginning throttle-back to 65 percent, pass through the area of maximum aerodynamic pressure on the vehicle,” then subsequent confirmation that the SSMEs had returned to 104-percent rated performance, followed by “Crew given a Go at throttle-up” and “Commander Bobko acknowledging that Go at throttle-up.” By this stage, Atlantis was already 13.8 miles (22.2 km) in altitude and 10.4 miles (16.7 km) downrange of the launch site, traveling in excess of 2,380 mph (3,830 km/h).
Nearing the two-minute mark into the flight, it was reported that “Crew confirms P/C less than 50,” as the chamber pressures in the twin SRBs tailed off, ahead of their separation. “And we have solid rocket separation,” came the call from PAO. “Guidance converging as programmed.” Now far higher into the rarefied atmosphere, Atlantis and her five astronauts—of whom Grabe, Hilmers, and Pailes were making their first spaceflights—had attained an altitude of 32.2 miles (51.8 km) and a downrange distance of 39.1 miles (62.9 km) and were accelerating through 3,750 mph (6,000 km/h). A further six minutes under the impulse of her SSMEs and Atlantis reached orbit for the first time.
For Hilmers, seated behind Grabe in the Mission Specialist 1 seat on Atlantis’ flight deck, it was a moment he would never forget. “That first view of Earth from space was amazing,” he told AmericaSpace. “I remember how brilliant the first sunrise seemed. A more humorous incident occurred when I forgot to add water to the dehydrated sausage when it was my turn to cook breakfast. I was permanently taken off duty as the chef!”
Yet there was still a degree of uncertainty about 51J. Flight International suggested (correctly) that if the rumors about the presence of DSCS-III satellites were accurate, then an IUS was the most likely booster, but suggested the possibility that other instruments might also be aboard, such as the Cryogenic Infrared Radiance Instrument for Shuttle (CIRRIS) and a laser retroreflector for Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or “Star Wars”) research. The Air Force cleverly refused to confirm or deny any such rumors. After 97 hours and 44 minutes—making it the seventh-shortest shuttle flight of all time and the second-shortest flight of Atlantis’ entire career, after STS-30—Mission 51J concluded with a perfect landing at Edwards at 10:00:08 a.m. PST (1:00:08 p.m. EST) on 7 October 1985.
As the fast-descending black-and-white speck of the orbiter appeared on the desolate Mojave horizon, then alighted on Runway 23, the NASA PAO picked up the commentary: “Touchdown Main Gear … Touchdown Nose Wheel … and the fourth orbiter in NASA’s fleet, Atlantis, rolls out on landing, concluding Space Shuttle Mission 51J.”
As it turned out, Diane Bobko was in California to meet her husband on the runway. Astonishingly, Atlantis had met with no significant delays, launched on time and landed on time. “So she was there to meet me in California,” Bobko remembered, “gave me a hug and then she had to leave right away to … drive down to Los Angeles to catch the airplane to go to Baltimore.” Later that evening, Bobko was startled out of his sleep by a telephone call. It was his wife. Surely, he thought, if a vehicle as complex as the shuttle could launch and land on time, on its maiden voyage, then her domestic flight would have been trouble-free.
“You’re in Baltimore?” he asked.
“No,” she replied, glumly. “I’m still in Dallas, trying to get to Baltimore!”
The author would like to thank Professor David Hilmers for his time and assistance in responding to questions for this article.
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Atlantis’ maiden voyage, AmericaSpace will run a series of articles through 3-7 October to spotlight the orbiter’s development and glittering 33-mission career.