The “geek” has long been recognized as an eccentric, non-mainstream individual, usually imbued with a peculiar or obsessive enthusiasm for mathematics or another complex, intellectual pursuit. In time, these “square pegs” would go on to become a mainstream staple of 21st-century technological society, but 20 years ago the geek was an intensely derogatory, pejorative term, “mocked by jocks and ignored at parties.” And on 20 October 1995, as the seven astronauts of STS-73 departed the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, bound for the launch pad and Space Shuttle Columbia, they did so with their U.S.-flag-emblazoned baseball caps turned back to front. In the words of Payload Specialist Al Sacco—restaurateur, certified scuba diver, chemical engineer, and spaceflier—the crew did so purely to demonstrate that science and technology were decidedly not for geeks.
Watching the footage of the STS-73 crew, commanded by Ken “Sox” Bowersox, the youngest human being ever to lead a shuttle mission, departing the O&C Building that morning, it is also notable that they strode along the hall with their cap-peaks positioned face-forward, then elected to reverse them as they emerged into a throng of well-wishers and photographers’ flashbulbs. “We were so desperate that last day that we decided to turn our hats around backwards,” Bowersox explained at the post-flight press conference, and went on to describe them as “our rally caps,” offering a nod toward the baseballing tradition of wearing them as a lucky charm or to achieve a “come-from-behind” victory. “And it must’ve worked,” he added, “because we managed to launch.”
However, the STS-73 launch was a long time coming. In fact, getting Columbia—the oldest of NASA’s operational shuttle fleet—ready for her 18th voyage into space had seemed to be an exercise in frustration and, even to this day, STS-73 is tied with the unlucky pre-Challenger Mission 61C for having suffered the longest number (six) of unsuccessful launch attempts, before eventually reaching orbit. In the late summer of 1995, Columbia had been out of service for several months, following a series of modifications and structural enhancements at prime contractor Rockwell International’s facility in Palmdale, Calif. By this stage, NASA had decided that future Orbiter Maintenance Down Period (OMDP) work would be performed exclusively at Palmdale, thereby employing 300 Rockwell staff for shuttle upgrades and preserving KSC’s 7,000-strong workforce to focus on readying the other vehicles in order to save the time and money needed to ship the orbiters from the East to the West Coasts, atop the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA).
Originally, Columbia was to have undergone a six-month modification period at KSC—as had earlier been done with her sister, Discovery—in order to allow her to launch the STS-67 mission with the ASTRO-2 payload in December 1994 and be ready in time for a return to flight on STS-73 with the second U.S. Microgravity Laboratory (USML-2) in September of the following year. However, following the March 1994 decision to once again utilize Palmdale staff for OMDP activities, it was realized that insufficient time existed to remove the ASTRO-2 hardware from Columbia, fly her out to the West Coast for six months of enhancements, fly her back to the Cape, and process her for STS-73, in time for a launch in the fall of 1995. As a consequence, STS-67 was shifted onto Shuttle Endeavour and flew successfully in March 1995. This provided the Rockwell workforce with a broader window to work on Columbia, which was flown to Palmdale in October 1994, returning to her Florida home in April 1995.
During her OMDP, she received 66 modifications, including new wiring for laptop computers and new filters for her hydrogen flow control valves to minimize contamination. Moderate problems with corrosion had been noticed, particularly on the leading edge of her wings, with suspicion falling upon the amount of time Columbia had sat on the launch pad and been subjected to copious quantities of salty Atlantic spray, prior to the installation of a weather-protection system. Nevertheless, 460 X-ray and 19 visual inspections revealed that she was in excellent condition after 17 missions, 2,300 orbits of Earth, 62 million miles (100 million km) traveled, and 146 days in space between April 1981 and July 1994.
Two other key differences would characterize Columbia and her crew on STS-73. One of these was a full set of the new “Block I” Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs), one of which had been test-flown alongside two old-style engines aboard STS-70 in July 1995. The second difference became apparent when the STS-73 crew—with Commander Bowersox joined by Pilot Kent Rominger, Payload Commander Kathy Thornton, Mission Specialists Catherine “Cady” Coleman and Mike Lopez-Alegria, and Payload Specialists Fred Leslie and Al Sacco—departed the O&C Building on launch morning: they all wore new suits. Since the resumption of shuttle operations in the wake of the Challenger accident, on STS-26 in September 1988, all astronauts had worn pumpkin-orange-colored David Clark Co. partial-pressure suits, but with STS-73 a new, lightweight, and low-bulk Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES) was worn by the entire crew.
Upon her return to KSC, Columbia began processing for her next mission. Originally, when Thornton and Coleman were named in March 1994—becoming the first members of the crew to be assigned—it was expected that STS-73’s 16-day projected duration would make it the longest flight ever attempted in the shuttle program. However, with the ASTRO-2 mission having been shifted onto Endeavour, which was also capable of Extended Duration Orbiter (EDO) missions, it became clear that STS-67 would seize this record and that STS-73 would come close to equaling it. Following the assignment of Thornton and Coleman, the two Payload Specialists were announced in June 1994 and the remainder of the crew the following November. Of note, Leslie had secured a joint record in October 1992 as a participant in the then-largest-ever, 200-person skydiving freefall—and would later pose for a skydiving “selfie” in March 2011, as shuttle Discovery launched behind him on her final mission—whereas Bowersox became the youngest person in history ever to command a shuttle mission, aged just 38 at the time of Columbia’s flight.
Unfortunately, the effort involving in flying STS-73 would reinforce the orbiter’s reputation for being a seemingly immovable bear when it came to getting her off the launch pad. On no fewer than six occasions—tying with “Mission Impossible,” 61C—Columbia and her crew were foiled by scrub after scrub. The vehicle was rolled out to Pad 39A in late August 1995, tracking an opening launch attempt on 28 September. However, following a smooth countdown, the clock was halted, shortly after technicians had begun to load the External Tank (ET) with cryogenic propellants, when a sensor detected a hydrogen leak in one of the SSME fuel valves. The troublesome valve was replaced and launch was rescheduled for 5 October, but this second attempt also came to nothing, due to fears of high winds, thunderstorms, and lightning associated with Hurricane Opal, which threatened to jeopardize the ET fueling process. Another try on 6 October also proved fruitless, when it transpired that fluid had been mistakenly drained from part of Columbia’s nose-wheel steering hydraulic system.
Either way, there was only a 30-percent likelihood of acceptable weather that day, due to the prospect of gusting winds, rain, and Opal-related clouds. A fourth attempt on 7 October was scrubbed by Launch Director Jim Harrington at T-20 seconds—by which time the Ground Launch Sequencer (GLS) had already handed over control of the countdown to Columbia’s on-board suite of General Purpose Computers (GPCs)—following an indication of a fault in one of two Master Events Controllers (MECs). The latter carried responsibility for breaking the hold-down bolts of the twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) at T-0, as well as commanding the pyrotechnics to separate the spent boosters and the ET during flight. Replacing the MEC necessitated the draining of the ET propellants and an unavoidable delay until no sooner than 14 October. This quickly became the 15th, due to additional inspections of the SSMEs’ oxidizer ducts, following the detection of cracking in a similar duct which was then undergoing tests at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Miss.
Ultrasound checks were performed on welds on each of the SSMEs’ High-Pressure Oxidizer Turbopump (HPOT) discharge ducts to verify that they were of the proper thickness. Also during this delay, one of Columbia’s five GPCs failed and had been replaced. The 15 October launch date target had, by now, also come under threat from the deteriorating weather and it was scrubbed at T-5 minutes, due to low clouds and rain. Another attempt was impossible before the 19th, since the Eastern Test Range’s tracking assets were already supporting an Atlas rocket from nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Atlas was originally slated to fly on 17 October, but had itself been postponed by a day due to bad weather, and this in turn pushed STS-73 back to the 20th. Even as Bowersox and his crew steeled themselves for a record-tying seventh attempt to get into space, the weather prospects seemed grim.
None of the delays seemed to have dampened the enthusiasm of the crew, five of whom—Rominger, Coleman, Lopez-Alegria, Leslie, and Sacco—had not flown into space before. As the backward-baseball-cap-wearing astronauts strode out of the O&C Building, Kathy Thornton carried beneath her orange ACES suit another talisman of good luck: a pair of red-and-white-striped socks. “In addition to wearing our caps backwards, I wore my lucky socks on the day we finally launched,” she remarked at the post-flight press conference. “After 30 days of quarantine, I knew I was ready to launch, but I wasn’t sure I could remember what the mission was!” Liftoff occurred at 8:53 a.m. EDT and Columbia rose perfectly into a 150-mile (240 km) orbit, inclined 39 degrees to the equator.
Said Mike Lopez-Alegria, seated in the flight engineer’s position, behind Bowersox and Rominger, his first voyage into orbit was, quite literally, “The ride of your life!” Within minutes of achieving orbit, the seven astronauts set about converting Columbia into a home and laboratory for 16 days of around-the-clock in the bus-sized Spacelab module in the payload bay. Coleman and Lopez-Alegria worked to deploy the payload bay doors and radiators and the Ku-band antenna. However, the shuttle’s unusual “gravity gradient” attitude—with her tail facing Earthward and her left wing pointing in the direction of travel, required to provide a stable microgravity environment for the USML-2 experiments—called for the port-side door to be positioned at 62-degrees-open, in order to minimize the risk of Micrometeoroid Orbital Debris (MMOD) strikes on the delicate radiators.
After that, Coleman, Lopez-Alegria and Leslie—who formed the “night shift,” or “Blue Team”—came to the end of their first work day and bedded down for a few hours’ sleep. Coleman later remarked that going to sleep so soon after launching into space was “probably the hardest thing we had to do the whole mission, because I just can’t tell you how exciting ascent was.”
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.