Thirty years ago, next week, something unprecedented in the entire history of the shuttle program unfolded when Atlantis turned night into day across the Space Coast, rising into orbit on her second mission, a mere 50 days after returning from her maiden voyage. Roaring into the night from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 7:29 p.m. EST on 26 November 1985, Mission 61B thus secured a landing-to-launch record for a single orbiter which would never again be broken throughout the shuttle’s 30-year career. During their seven days aloft, the crew—astronauts Bryan O’Connor, Jerry Ross, Mary Cleave, Sherwood “Woody” Spring, Charlie Walker, and Mexico’s first man in space, Rudolfo Neri Vela, commanded by Atlantis’ youngest-ever skipper, Brewster Shaw—released three communications satellites and staged a pair of spectacular EVAs to rehearse assembly techniques for Space Station Freedom, the forerunner of today’s International Space Station (ISS). Little could the 61B crew have known that spacewalker Jerry Ross would go on to lead the EVAs which began building the ISS for real, in December 1998.
Beginning with the impressive turnaround of Atlantis between Missions 51J and 61B—which was, in a sense, reflective of the operational and managerial mindset prevalent within NASA during the pre-Challenger era—a mere seven weeks between launches of the same vehicle remains remarkable. When placed into context across the entire shuttle program, the next-fastest landing-to-launch turnaround for a single orbiter was 55 days, achieved by Challenger during the run-up to Mission 41C in early 1984, whilst in the post-51L era the closest parallel was the exceptional case of STS-94, in which Columbia was rapidly recycled to refly the Microgravity Science Laboratory (MSL) mission in just 84 days in mid-1997. As outlined in a previous AmericaSpace article, after Mission 51J Atlantis was returned from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to the Cape, on 12 October 1985, where she spent a mere 27 days in the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF), then four days in the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for stacking onto her bulbous External Tank (ET) and twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), before rolling out to the pad. And plugging that into the context of the entire shuttle program, the next-fastest pre-51L single-flow OPF turnaround was 30 days, achieved by Discovery ahead of Mission 51I, whilst the fastest post-51L single flow was 55 days, accomplished by Atlantis before STS-45 in the spring of 1992.
In spite of deploying three communications satellites, including the first use of McDonnell Douglas’ uprated Payload Assist Module (PAM)-D2 booster, and seeing the first citizen of Mexico reach space, Mission 61B will always be chiefly remembered for its EVAs—only the 10th and 11th ever performed in the shuttle program. When President Ronald Reagan announced plans to build a permanent, U.S.-led space station in early 1984, it was quickly recognized that the endeavor would require multiple EVA hours. NASA already had plans to assemble a pair of structures—an inverted tetrahedron, known as the Experimental Assembly of Structures in EVA (EASE), and a 43-foot-tall (13-meter) tower, the Assembly Concept for Construction of Erectable Space Structures (ACCESS)—in the shuttle’s payload bay.
Mounted atop a Mission-Peculiar Equipment Support Structure (MPESS) for launch, the EASE-ACCESS assembly tasks required no specialized tools and called for spacewalkers to snap together their prefabricated segments, linking them in place with nodes, socket-clusters and lockable “sleeves.” The downside was that there were a lot of parts: ACCESS had 93 tubular aluminum struts, measuring anywhere from 4.5 feet (1.35 meters) to six feet (1.8 meters) long, whilst EASE possessed six beams, each extending to 11.8 feet (3.6 meters). Due to shuttle manifest changes, numerous astronauts trained for the assembly EVAs—including James “Ox” van Hoften and Steve Hawley and, for a time, even the crew of the ill-fated Mission 51L—before settling on Mission 61B. In fact, the precise objectives of Brewster Shaw’s flight had changed several times since his crew had been announced by NASA in February 1984: at first, they were tasked with the retrieval of the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) in February 1985, then a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) and eventually a trio of payloads, including satellites for Australia, Mexico, and Radio Corporation of America (RCA). By the spring of 1985, their launch had slipped until the end of the year and they picked up a Mexican crewman and were later joined by McDonnell Douglas engineer Charlie Walker.
Yet it was Jerry Ross and Woody Spring who pushed for the inclusion of the EASE-ACCESS task onto their mission and the two men worked with program managers over the course of several months to choreograph a pair of six-hour EVAs. ACCESS was fairly straightforward. “Both crew members were in fixed foot restraints,” Ross told the NASA oral historian, years later. “It was basically just a matter of bringing a part out, putting it onto this assembly fixture, hooking the components together, rotating to the three faces, then sliding the completed segment of truss up and repeating the process for a total of ten ‘bays’. We knew that technique would be a very satisfactory way of doing business, because when a crew member’s feet are anchored properly, that gives you both hands free to do work.” EASE, ironically, in view of its name, proved more difficult, since it required one spacewalker to “free-float,” without foot restraints, holding onto the structure with one hand and torqueing the beams with the other. It was clear that EASE might turn into their Achilles heel. “We learned to do it,” said Woody Spring in a NASA oral history interview, “but also learned that free-floating is not the way to put things together.”
By mid-1985, Ross—designated “EV1,” with red stripes on the legs of his Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) for identification—and Spring (“EV2,” clad in a pure-white suit) were performing at least one long-duration simulation, per week, in the Weightless Environment Training Facility (WET-F) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, deliberately spending up to six hours continuously underwater at a time. For some of the “tall” work, recalled Woody Spring, they also utilized the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator (NBS) at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Ala. “We knew … it’s absolutely essential to work with the masses and the volumes and do the choreography exactly as it will happen in orbit, so you know what to expect,” Spring explained. “If you don’t, you’ll regret it!”
On the eve of Mission 61B’s launch, the two spacewalks had been refined into a pair of intricate dance-routines. EVA-1 would feature the assembly and disassembly of the ACCESS tower, with one astronaut in foot restraints on the MPESS and the other at the end of Atlantis’ Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm, as well as up to six assemblies and disassemblies of the EASE tetrahedron. Two days later, EVA-2 would repeat the work, but would also attach flexible cables to simulate electrical wiring and evaluate their ability to physically move the structures around the payload bay.
Three days after leaving Earth, on 29 November 1985, Ross and Spring pushed open the airlock’s outer hatch and entered the payload bay for EVA-1. “What’s going through your mind is: Oh, I hope I don’t screw up!” recalled Spring. “It’s your big chance … and they’ve got all the video cameras in the world on you! If you screw up, your friends will have photos and video ready for you at the pin party, too.” For his part, Ross was so excited that he had to muster the strength not to let out a “war whoop of glee” when he ventured outside. ACCESS was built in less than an hour—half as long as expected—and they disassembled and reassembled it a second time. Pleasantly surprising was the “ease” of EASE, which proved far more straightforward in microgravity and the spacewalkers completed eight assemblies and disassemblies, rather than the planned six.
At one point, perched at the top of EASE, Spring was hit by the suddenness of orbital sunset and the most ethereal darkness that he had ever encountered. “All of a sudden, night fell,” he told the NASA oral historian. “I just wasn’t used to all of a sudden going dark, so you’ve got to get your visor up and get your [helmet] headlights on and then everything was cool. But I remember that little bit of anxiety, because you’re up on this kind of tippy structure and you’re thrashing around just a little bit.” Tiredness quickly set in, as did numbness in fingers, with mental fatigue far overlapping physical exhaustion, as the men’s minds raced at what Ross later described as “a million miles an hour.” Ross earned the nickname “Captain Cardboard” from Cleave, owing to her having to move him around repeatedly at the end of the RMS. Logging 5.5 hours outside on their first spacewalk, the two men were back in the payload bay on 1 December, this time for more than 6.5 hours, which ran so smoothly that the jubilant Ross and Spring returned inside Atlantis … and volunteered to prepare dinner for their crewmates.
In spite of the visually spectacular nature of the EVAs, they were but one facet of Mission 61B, which also marked the first occasion that shuttle fliers had celebrated Thanksgiving away from the Home Planet, saw an unusually padlocked crew access hatch and fell victim to a touch of good-natured banter among the military astronauts. As will be explored in tomorrow’s article, the shuttle manifest was so busy in the fall of 1985 and early 1986—with Columbia due to fly Mission 61C and Challenger expected to follow on Mission 51L—that Brewster Shaw’s crew opted to wait until the next two crews had returned to Earth, before holding a “big” homecoming party.
Tragically, it was not to be.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.