‘Dallas? You Mean the City?’ 30 Years Since Challenger’s Last Successful Mission (Part 1)

Thirty years ago, next week, shuttle Challenger launched on her final successful mission. Photo Credit: NASA
Thirty years ago, next week, Shuttle Challenger launched on her final successful mission. Photo Credit: NASA

It is a dismaying fact of history that the name “Challenger”—when spoken in relation to the second spaceworthy vehicle of NASA’s shuttle fleet—is so often associated only with the dreadful catastrophe which snuffed out seven lives on the cold morning of 28 January 1986. However, Challenger had flown nine successful missions before tragic 51L, during which she delivered several major satellite payloads into orbit, transported 46 individual astronauts beyond Earth’s “sensible” atmosphere, supported six EVAs, and might have gone on to deliver the shuttle’s first planetary-bound emissary toward Jupiter. Thirty years ago, in October 1985, Challenger embarked on what would turn out to be her last fully successful mission—a mission which would stand until the end of the shuttle era as the only human spaceflight to both launch and land with as many as eight crew members.

Sadly, only four of those crew members are still with us, following the tragic death of German Payload Specialist Reinhard Furrer in an aircraft accident in September 1995 and last year’s trio of untimely passings of Dutch Payload Specialist Wubbo Ockels in May, Commander Hank Hartsfield in July, and Pilot Steve Nagel in August. The others—Mission Specialists Bonnie Dunbar, Jim Buchli, and Guy Bluford and German Payload Specialist Ernst Messerschmid—are therefore the only surviving members of the largest crew ever to launch from Earth into space, aboard a single vehicle. Their flight, Mission 61A, carrying the Spacelab D-1 (for “Deutschland”) facility, had been principally financed by then-West Germany, although the European Space Agency (ESA) had contributed a 40-percent share, in return for having one of “its” astronauts aboard Challenger as a unique third Payload Specialist. It was the only occasion in the 30-year shuttle program that as many as three Payload Specialists flew aboard the same mission, although plans existed in the pre-Challenger era for a similar number of non-career astronauts to fly aboard the Sunlab-1 mission in mid-1987.

As with the later flight of STS-73, described in last weekend’s AmericaSpace history articles, Spacelab D-1 was intended as an around-the-clock operation, with the entire crew divided into two shifts—the “Red Team” and the “Blue Team”—to run a wide range of scientific and technical experiments throughout the mission. The Red Team was led by Buchli, who oversaw Challenger’s flight deck during his 12 hours on-shift, whilst Bluford and Messerschmid focused on the research inside the pressurized Spacelab module. Meanwhile, the Blue Team was led by Nagel, with Dunbar and Furrer working on the science. Meanwhile, Hartsfield and Ockels maintained flexible timelines, anchoring their schedules across both shifts, but usually in line with the Blue Team.

Led by white-haired Commander Hank Hartsfield, the crew of Mission 61A departs the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building on 30 October 1985, bound for Pad 39A and their ship, Challenger. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de
Led by white-haired Commander Hank Hartsfield, the crew of Mission 61A departs the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building on 30 October 1985, bound for Pad 39A and their ship, Challenger. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Due to the 24-hour activities, the respective halves of the 61A were required to “sleep-shift” in the days preceding their launch on 30 October 1985. “Jim, Ernst and I had to do a circadian rhythm shift,” remembered Bluford in his NASA oral history, “so, for us, the launch was coming near the end of our work day. While in quarantine, one team was up, while the other was in bed. A new lighting system had been installed in the crew quarters to facilitate the shift in circadian rhythm. Once we got on-orbit, the Blue Team activated Spacelab, while the Red Team went to bed. We had four soundproof bunks to sleep in, while the Blue Team was at work. The two-shift operations worked very well on-orbit, with both teams up at the same time during breakfast and dinner, when we transferred Spacelab operations. The simultaneous transfer of responsibility—both on-orbit, as well as on the ground—went smoothly, as we exchanged information and updated our Flight Data Files. Each of the crew shared a sleep bunk with a member from the opposite team.”

With a 54.1-percent financial stake in Spacelab, it is unsurprising that West Germany had committed itself to at least one “dedicated,” national mission of the reusable research facility. Even Mission 61A’s launch time of 12:00 noon EDT—“banker’s hours,” Bonnie Dunbar later joked—had been carefully timed, to allow for maximum television coverage in West Germany. Dunbar, Bluford, and Nagel had been training since February 1984, with NASA having noted at the time that it intended “to have three-member crews share flight deck responsibilities on future Spacelab-type missions.” Six months later, in August, the names of Hartsfield and Buchli were attached to Spacelab D-1, which had by then also gained its trio of Payload Specialists. Originally listed as “Mission 51K,” it was initially assigned to Atlantis, then Columbia, and eventually Challenger, although unlike many other flights its projected launch date remained fixed in the September-October 1985 timeframe.

In her NASA oral history, Dunbar remembered that her early training brought her face-to-face with some of the same prejudices which she had seen as a young woman, trying to enter an engineering career. Many of the West German medical experiments for the $180 million Spacelab D-1 were not intended to include female blood and there existed concerns that it might ruin their data. She remembered being told, to her face, and wryly wondered if NASA had deliberately assigned her to the mission, in order to offend the Germans. Equally, the Vestibular Sled, which would run along the center aisle of the Spacelab module, did not fit her, and it was eventually George W.S. Abbey, then-head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate, who came to her aid and insisted that the Germans redesign their equipment to the percentile spread which included Dunbar.

As training progressed, she learned German and developed a good working relationship with her crewmates, including Reinhard Furrer. There was occasional time for banter, too, particularly when Furrer expressed astonishment that Dunbar had never heard of the television show, Dallas. When he first asked her about it, she was convinced he meant the Texan city, but to be fair her engineering career had consumed her and watching television had been the last thing on Dunbar’s mind. The crew trained at Porz Wahnheide, south of Cologne, as well as at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Ala., in order to prepare for a total of 76 experiments in life and materials sciences. With names like Werkstofflabor, Prozesskamer, Biowissenschaften, and Biorack, they sounded like fearsome medieval tools of torture, but in fact ran the gamut in studying materials processing, fluid physics, and the behavior of biological organisms in space.

Spacelab D-1’s mission designation eventually shifted from “51K” to “61A” and would become the first shuttle flight to be run from outside the United States. Although the Mission Control Center (MCC) in Houston, Texas, retained overall control, the German Space Operations Centre (GSOC) at Oberpfaffenhofen, just outside Munich, managed daily research activities. Over the course of the mission, this worked well, with the exception that Oberpfaffenhofen’s limited data-transmission facilities meant that a number of functions had to be overseen by JSC. Moreover, with only one Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) operational at the time, Spacelab D-1 would receive minimal communications coverage over about 30 percent of each orbit and it was left to the Intelsat V geostationary satellite to relay data to an Earth station at Raisting in Bavaria and from thence to Oberpfaffenhoften, via microwave link. “Not having a U.S. mission manager made it more complex,” Steve Nagel remembered, years later, “but I see [Spacelab D-1 as] an early lead-in to the space station. It was hard for Hank to pull together and complicated when you’re dealing overseas. We got along fine with the Germans, but we butted heads about things and the long-distance part made it more complex.”

Beautiful view of Challenger, rolling out to Pad 39A for the last time. Her next mission, tragic 51L, would fly from Pad 39B. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de
Beautiful view of Challenger, rolling out to Pad 39A for the last time. Her next mission, tragic 51L, would fly from Pad 39B. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Despite the focus of the mission and the common language currency always being English, on a few occasions German was spoken over the space-to-ground communications link, including one opportunity for Messerschmid and Bluford to speak to the head of Bavaria. “The conversation was conducted in German with Ernst doing all the talking,” Bluford remembered years later. “Although the mission’s dialogue was conducted primarily in English, infrequently, the Payload Specialists would revert to German during on-orbit discussions.” Hartsfield remembered that the decision was a controversial one, with the Germans insisting that their language be spoken to controllers at a German site in Bavaria. “I opposed that, for safety reasons,” he explained. “We can’t have things going on in which my part of the payload crew can’t understand what they’re getting ready to do. It was clearly up front: the operational language will be English. We finally cut a deal … that in special cases, where there was real urgency, that we could have another language used, but before any action is taken, it has to be translated into English so that the commander or my other shift operator lead and the payload crew can understand it.”

For Steve Nagel, Spacelab D-1 offered him the chance to fly a second shuttle mission within just four months in 1985, creating a personal landing-to-launch record which would endure for more than a decade. Originally named as a member of Mission 51A, planned for October 1984, Nagel’s first flight was repeatedly postponed and eventually flew as Mission 51G in June 1985. However, his second flight didn’t move. He spoke to 51G Commander Dan Brandenstein, who talked to George Abbey and negotiated for Nagel to remain on both missions. “I don’t think they’d ever do that today,” Nagel reflected, years later, “so I owe Dan for the fact that I was able to hang onto both of those.”

As a result, when Challenger rose from Pad 39A at the stroke of midday on 30 October 1985, a mere 128 days separated Nagel’s first shuttle landing and his second shuttle launch. This record would not be broken until the summer of 1997, when the entire STS-83 crew flew a shortened mission in April and were rapidly recycled to fly again in July. But Nagel can have had little time to ponder his good fortune, for he also occupied a different role on his second flight, moving from a Mission Specialist to the Pilot’s seat. In the seconds after liftoff, as Hartsfield and Nagel monitored their instruments, a 102-degree “Roll Program” maneuver positioned Challenger onto the proper flight azimuth for a 200-mile (320-km) orbit, inclined 57 degrees to the equator.

The next seven days would be the last time that Challenger would ever fly in space.



The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.



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