Thirty years ago, next week, Atlantis rocketed into orbit on her second mission, just 50 days after wrapping up her maiden voyage. In so doing, she secured a new landing-to-launch record for a single orbiter which would never again be broken for the remainder of the shuttle’s career. Rising into the night on 26 November 1985—becoming only the third U.S. piloted space mission, after Apollo 17 and STS-8, to launch in the hours of darkness—Mission 61B will forever be remembered for its two spectacular EVAs, during which spacewalkers Jerry Ross and Sherwood “Woody” Spring assembled and disassembled a framework of tubular structures in the shuttle’s payload bay. Intended as part of the effort to prepare for Space Station Freedom, few could have foreseen that, 13 years later, Ross would also lead the vanguard to build the International Space Station (ISS). Yet Mission 61B involved more than EVAs: Its crew placed three satellites into orbit, featured Mexico’s first man in space, and was commanded by Atlantis’ youngest-ever skipper.
The astronauts of Mission 61B were a very close-knit team, drawn together by almost two years of flight-specific training, following the initial assignment of the NASA “core” crew—Commander Brewster Shaw, Pilot Bryan O’Connor, and Mission Specialists Ross, Spring, and Mary Cleave—in February 1984. At that time, only Shaw had flown before, and more than one of his crewmates described him as a “mentor” and likened him to a “mother-hen.” By the fall of 1985, they had been joined by McDonnell Douglas engineer Charlie Walker, who had already flown two shuttle missions, and Mexico’s first citizen in space, Rudolfo Neri Vela. He was aboard Atlantis to observe the deployment of his country’s Morelos-B communications satellite. However, in September 1985, an earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter Scale hit Mexico City, killing more than 10,000 people, and for a time the effect upon ground infrastructure almost forced Morelos-B to be deleted from the 61B payload. “If Morelos … does fly,” noted Flight International on 9 November, “it will be placed in parking orbit until Mexico’s telecommunications are rehabilitated.” As circumstances transpired, Morelos-B remained on the mission, as did Neri Vela.
An interesting story surrounds his place on the crew. Neri Vela and his backup, Ricardo Peralta y Fabi, were selected in July 1985, and having less than six months to train with an unknown crew member worried Brewster Shaw. “I’m probably a paranoid kind of guy, but I didn’t know what he was going to do on-orbit,” Shaw told the NASA oral historian, “so I remember I got this padlock and … went down to the hatch on the side of the orbiter and I padlocked the hatch control, so that you could not open the hatch.” Charlie Walker—who had flown two previous shuttle missions, in August 1984 and April 1985—was a “known” quantity, but Shaw was concerned that Neri Vela might “flip out” during launch or in space. Fellow astronaut Mike Mullane made reference to the padlock episode in his 2006 memoir, Riding Rockets, noting that future missions benefited from a similar arrangement, with only the shuttle’s commander having access to the key. “I don’t know if I was supposed to do that or not,” added Shaw, “but that’s a decision I made as being responsible for my crew. I don’t think Rodolfo noticed it, but some of the other crew noticed it.”
Late in their training, the 61B crew posed for an unofficial portrait, featuring engineers Cleave and Walker in white lab coats, Shaw wearing a “Boss” badge, O’Connor dressed in leather cap and goggles as the barnstorming fighter ace, Ross and Spring in space suits and construction helmets … and Neri Vela in a traditional serape and sombrero. “That photo could not be the official one,” admitted Spring in his NASA oral history, “because the Mexican government took a little bit of umbrage at Rodolfo being dressed up in a serape and a sombrero, but then post-flight we went down to Mexico City … and the first thing they did was take us to the folk ballet, where everybody is dressed up exactly like that!” In the photograph, Spring also posed with a stuffed kangaroo toy in his lap, honoring one of 61B’s other communications satellites: Australia’s Aussat-2. Their third satellite was Radio Corporation of America’s (RCA) payload, Satcom K-2, which was, at the time, the highest-powered domestic communications satellite in service. Its size and weight also required it to be boosted into geostationary orbit using McDonnell Douglas’ uprated Payload Assist Module (PAM)-D2 booster, which was embarking on its first flight.
If Woody Spring considered the moments before his first EVA as being more anxious than the launch itself, that did nothing to detract from the excitement of Atlantis’ second climb into orbit. “It was a perfect night,” he recalled. “We had a full Moon, the day before Thanksgiving, severe, clear, not a cloud in the sky; it was a gorgeous night.” Spring was seated on the shuttle’s middeck, together with the payload specialists, whilst Ross sat upstairs, directly behind the pilot, and Cleave occupied the flight engineer’s position. With five minutes to go, O’Connor—the first shuttle pilot from NASA’s 1980 astronaut class to draw a flight assignment—activated the three Auxiliary Power Units (APUs).
Not until relatively close to the flight did the crew realize that they would be launching at night. As the final seconds ticked away to launch, O’Connor glanced across the cabin toward Shaw and noticed that the commander had momentarily removed his gloves to wipe sweat from his hands. “Oh, my God,” O’Connor thought. “My commander, who’s been through this before … his hands are sweating! Why aren’t mine sweating? I need to be nervous now, if he’s nervous.” The sound of Atlantis’ main engines igniting, said Spring, was like a roomful of lions, roaring, directly behind him. “And you can feel it,” he remembered. “This vehicle’s alive. Then the main engines gimbal, getting ready. From the moment of main engine start, you get one and a half seconds where the vehicle actually swings about three degrees of arc and then comes back again, then the Solid Rocket Boosters ignite.” With a force akin to a sledgehammer blast, they were propeled away from the launch pad in what Spring could only describe as “a barn-burner.” The launch, Shaw recalled later, could be seen from as far away as the Carolinas and the south end of Florida. Eight minutes later, in a preliminary orbit, Spring released a pencil and watched it float freely. He let out a whoop of delight as Cleave giggled with excitement over the intercom. They were in space.
A busy mission got underway almost immediately, with Spring supervising the deployments of the Mexican and Australian communications satellites and Ross overseeing the release of Satcom K-2. Morelos was sent spinning out of the payload bay (“with a resounding thump,” according to Spring), early on 27 November and, after the crew had slept, was followed by Aussat later that night. Finally, the cube-shaped Satcom was released on the afternoon of the 28th.
To say that the 61B crew had a good time together, on the ground and in orbit, is something of an understatement. Years later, Ross recounted that O’Connor and Spring were the comedians, with the latter producing the idle jokes and the former mastering the dry wit. “He will sucker you in on some really serious discussion,” Ross said of O’Connor, “and then hit you over the head with a two-by-four with some joke or comment!” Before launch, O’Connor had recorded the Naval Academy song, Anchors Aweigh, and hidden it somewhere in the middle of Army’s aviator Spring’s Walkman music cassette. A couple of days into the mission, with the lights turned off and the crew ready for sleep, Spring suddenly screamed, “O’Connor, you son of a b***h!” The prankster had completely forgotten about it, but was quickly reminded. “It was his Peter, Paul and Mary album,” O’Connor recalled with glee, “and it was right in the middle of I’ve Got a Hammer … and suddenly up comes this really loud Navy fight song!”
Thanksgiving on the second day of the mission offered the chance for the crew to eat irradiated turkey, pumpkin bread, mashed potatoes, beans, and a somewhat tasteless concoction which was labelled “gravy.” In fact, many foods which tasted fine on Earth were quite different in orbit: shrimp cocktails resembled battery acid, laced in sawdust, and Spring found the grapefruit juices appalling. Neri Vela also brought along some Mexican foodstuffs, including flour tortillas.
“The landing,” said O’Connor, “isn’t nearly as exciting as the launch.” Re-entry was over the darkened Pacific Ocean, and cloud cover restricted their view of the runway at Edwards until Atlantis was a couple of kilometres above the ground. Shaw brought her in to a perfect landing at 1:33:49 p.m. PST (4:33:49 p.m. EST) on 3 December 1985, an orbit earlier than planned. There was a slight tail wind, and both Shaw and O’Connor were concerned about the integrity of the brakes and tires, but the vehicle slowed to a stop, right on the centerline. Thus ended the ninth shuttle mission of 1985, which enabled Mission 61B to contribute to another record, which to this day remains unbroken: the greatest number of piloted spaceflights in a single calendar year.
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the 15th anniversary of STS-97, which brought power to the International Space Station (ISS) and the first human visitors to the incumbent Expedition 1 crew.