The Real Mission Impossible: 30 Years Since Mission 61C (Part 2)

Robert 'Hoot' Gibson (right) and George 'Pinky' Nelson lead the 61C crew out of the Operations & Checkout Building for launch. Following is crewmate Steve Hawley. Photo Credit: NASA
Robert “Hoot” Gibson (right) and George “Pinky” Nelson lead the 61C crew out of the Operations & Checkout Building for launch. Following is crewmate Steve Hawley. Photo Credit: NASA

On Mission 61C, launched 30 years ago next week, on 12 January 1986, Space Shuttle Columbia was making her first orbital flight in over two years. Late in January 1984, a month after returning from her STS-9 mission, she was transported from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida to California for a major program of upgrades at prime contractor Rockwell International’s plant in Palmdale. She received Heads-Up Displays (HUDs) for her pilots, lost her original ejection seats in favor of lighter versions, and was equipped with new instruments—including a tail-mounted Shuttle Infrared Leeside Temperature Sensing (SILTS) pod—to monitor her performance during flight. Returned to the Cape in July 1985, she entered formal processing for Mission 61C in September, by which time the flight’s payload had changed again. As outlined in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, the crew would retain their Materials Science Laboratory (MSL)-2 payload and gain the Satcom Ku-2 communications satellite and a “bridge” of Getaway Special (GAS) experiment canisters, but the remainder of their scheduled five days in orbit would be relatively roomy. To 61C Mission Specialist Steve Hawley, this provided every reason for NASA to cancel the flight … but for one thing: the presence of Congressman Bill Nelson.

“Frankly, our payload wasn’t very robust,” he told the NASA oral historian, “and were it not for [Nelson’s] presence on the flight, we might have been cancelled. We had one satellite and some other experiments. It was a clearing-house sale!” Mission 61C finally received a firm launch date of 18 December 1985, and should have been NASA’s 10th flight of the year, capping a triumphant run of shuttle achievements and heralding the dawn of an even brighter 1986. However, it did not happen. Launch on the 18th, scheduled for 7 a.m. EST, was postponed by 24 hours to give technicians more time to finish closing out Columbia’s aft compartment. The second effort to get the queen of the fleet airborne, on the 19th, ended dramatically just 14 seconds before launch, when flight controllers received an indication that the hydraulic power unit on the right-hand Solid Rocket Booster had exceeded allowable turbine speed limits. “We were happy as clams,” Charlie Bolden recalled of the build-up to that attempt. “All of a sudden, everything stopped and the countdown clock went back to T-9 [minutes] and kind of ticked there. We had no idea what had happened. As they started looking at the data, they had an indication that we had a problem with the right-hand booster.” The signal turned out to be erroneous, but by then the window had closed and the seven astronauts were obliged to disembark.

Launch was moved to 6 January 1986 and was under considerable pressure to get underway, because the next flight—Mission 51L—was due to fly from the newly-refurbished Pad 39B on the 22nd, carrying New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe as the nation’s first private-citizen astronaut. NASA also wanted Columbia back from 61C as quickly as possible, because she was booked for the ASTRO-1 mission to observe Halley’s Comet in early March. A launch on 18 or 19 December would have allowed just enough time to refurbish Columbia and install a battery of three ultraviolet telescopes for ASTRO-1. Delaying 61C past Christmas and into the New Year was a headache which the space agency could ill afford, but worse was to come.

"Mission Impossible" finally launches as Columbia roars into the darkened Florida skies on 12 January 1986. Photo Credit: NASA
“Mission Impossible” finally launches as Columbia roars into the darkened Florida skies on 12 January 1986. Photo Credit: NASA

For the crew, the festive period was a chance to relax after more than a year of intensive training in the simulators and uncertainty over when they would ever fly. “We stayed in quarantine a lot of the time,” remembered Steve Hawley in his NASA oral history. “When you’re in a launch mode, down in Florida, the pace is not very hectic. You’re not in training, like you would be if you’re in Houston and going to the simulators every day. You’re reviewing procedures and checklists and having a nice time, because you have the opportunity to sort of sit back without the pressure of having to be in a sim. I’ve always enjoyed the time in quarantine, although, because of the launch time, we were getting up at two in the morning every day!”

Columbia’s launch attempt on 6 January turned out to be one of the most hazardous yet in the shuttle’s five-year operational history. The count was halted at T-31 seconds, following the accidental draining of almost 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) of liquid oxygen from the External Tank! The fill and drain valve, it seemed, had not properly closed when commanded to do so. Launch controllers reset the clock to T-20 minutes and efforts were made to reinitiate the liquid oxygen tanking, but it was quickly realized that time was running out and the window would close before the vehicle was ready. Another 24-hour delay was called. The next attempt, on the 7th, was scrubbed due to poor weather at two Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) sites in Spain and Senegal.

Yet another try on the 9th similarly came to nothing when a liquid oxygen sensor on Pad 39A broke off and lodged itself in the prevalve of one of Columbia’s cluster of Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs). “That would have been a bad day,” Pilot Charlie Bolden recalled, grimly, years later. “It would have been catastrophic, because the engine would have exploded, had we launched.” Heavy rain put paid to the next opportunity on 10 January, but on this occasion the seven-man crew was relieved. “We went down to T-31 seconds,” said Bolden, “and they went into a hold for weather and it was the worst thunderstorm I’d ever been in. We were really not happy about being there, because you could hear the lightning! You could hear stuff crackling in your headset. You’re sitting out there on the top of two million pounds of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and two [SRBs]. None of us were enamoured with being out there.”

The repeated delays took a financial toll, too. Previously, astronauts were responsible for getting their families to Florida, paying their way, finding motel rooms for them, and putting them up. Crewman George “Pinky” Nelson’s wife, Susie, spent three weeks in a condo at Cape Canaveral, waiting, and their young children ended up missing the launch because they had missed so much school and went back to Houston. “Had the accident occurred on that flight, instead of the flight afterwards,” said Nelson, “it would have been just a nightmare scene, because the families were scattered all over the place.”

61C crewmen Steve Hawley, Robert 'Hoot' Gibson (facing camera) and Charlie Bolden demonstrate the cramped nature of Columbia's flight deck during the mission. Photo Credit: NASA
61C crewmen Steve Hawley, Robert ‘Hoot’ Gibson (facing camera), and Charlie Bolden demonstrate the cramped nature of Columbia’s flight deck during the mission. Photo Credit: NASA

Despite their frustration at the repeatedly scrubbed launch attempts, the astronauts tried to remain upbeat. “We tried to wear a different shirt each day,” joked Gibson at the post-mission press conference, “so that we’d know exactly just which attempt this was,” adding that the astronauts got very good to walking out to—and back from—the crew van. As for the cause of the delays, there could be only one person to blame: Steve Hawley.

When the astronauts left their quarters in the pre-dawn darkness of 12 January, Hawley had ridden the bus to the launch pad on 10 occasions for only two liftoffs. To this day, he is confident that a conversation and agreement he had with 61C Commander Robert “Hoot” Gibson may have helped to finally get Columbia into orbit. “I decided that if [Columbia] didn’t know it was me, then maybe we’d launch,” he said, “and so I taped my name tag with grey tape and had the glasses-nose-moustache disguise and wore that.” It worked, and 61C roared into space at 6:55 a.m. EST. Yet misfortune was not done with the crew, as recounted dramatically by Bill Nelson in his book about the flight, Mission.

Shortly after leaving the pad, Bolden noticed an ominous indication of a possible helium leak. An alarm sounded in the cockpit. “I looked down at what I could see,” Bolden said, “with everything shaking and vibrating, and we had an indication of a helium leak in the right-hand main engine. Had it been true, it was going to be a bad day.” The pilots communicated the information to Mission Control and advised them that they would work their procedures. “The ground didn’t see anything” on their data, Bolden continued. “It was a glitch in one of the computers.” He and Gibson attempted to isolate the first system, but there was no change. It still looked as if there was a leak. Isolating the second system, similarly, had no effect. “Then, I looked down, and it looked like we were making helium.” He told Gibson that it looked like a sensor problem, not a genuine leak. Gibson concurred and they reconfigured the system back to normal. It was an inauspicious start, for all this happened within seconds of liftoff.

Other than the malfunctioning helium sensor, Columbia’s seventh ascent was normal, although Bolden recalled that his first flight into space “went by really fast.” He has since downplayed his role in isolating the problem, but Bill Nelson, sitting on the middeck and listening to the communications through a headset, would later praise the pilot for “saving” the mission. “We had a problem,” Bolden admitted, “but it was an instrumentation problem.” As one of the few black astronauts, there was one particular place that Bolden wanted to see after reaching orbit: Africa. Years later, he would describe it as “awe-inspiring” and it brought tears to his eyes. However, his first glimpse of his ancestral homeland from space would closely mirror the reflections of many other astronauts: for there were no lines or boundaries to demarcate the countries or, indeed, the continents, and Bolden found it difficult to orient himself and realise what he was observing.

The cube-shaped Satcom Ku-1 payload - one of the most powerful communications satellites of its time - departs Columbia, affixed to a PAM-D2 booster. Photo Credit: NASA
The cube-shaped Satcom Ku-1 payload – one of the most powerful communications satellites of its time – departs Columbia, affixed to a PAM-D2 booster. Photo Credit: NASA

Deployment of Satcom K-1 was supervised by Pinky Nelson and fellow astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz and took place near the end of the first day in space. After several hours of checking out the payload, the satellite and its booster were released at 4:26:29 p.m. EST, a little under 10 hours into the mission. All went well, and Satcom finally achieved its geostationary “slot” at 85 degrees West longitude, where it remained operational until April 1997. It marked the last “major” commercial satellite to be launched by the shuttle, and the remainder of Mission 61C, in Hoot Gibson’s words, was “the end of innocence” for the reusable spacecraft.

The astronauts settled down to what should have been five days of experiments and observations of Halley’s Comet, which was making its closest approach to Earth since 1910. The Comet Halley Active Monitoring Program (CHAMP) required Nelson to bury himself under a black shroud to eliminate cabin light interference and take high-resolution photographs of the celestial wanderer. Much to Nelson’s annoyance, the camera failed due to a battery problem and did not even return one decent image of the comet. Although Nelson and his crewmates tried to repair CHAMP, their efforts were in vain, and by 14 January they were told to press on with the rest of their mission. Another attempt was scheduled for Challenger later in the month and then, in March, ASTRO-1 would conduct an ultraviolet analysis of Halley. However, the loss of Challenger and the stalling of the shuttle program meant that NASA lost its chance to capitalize on viewing the comet from space.

If the factors which conspired to keep Columbia on the ground were maddening, those which hampered her return to Earth proved equally trying.

Originally scheduled to touch down in Florida on 17 January—marking a return to operational use of the Shuttle Landing Facility after improvements to brakes and tyres—the attempt was brought forward by a day to provide more time to prepare for ASTRO-1. However, bad weather in Florida forced a 24-hour delay. Another delay was implemented on the 17th, for the same reason.

For Gibson, the time spent in orbital limbo was spent writing a song to the tune of Who Knows Where or When? He and Bolden sang it to Mission Control in a two-part harmony:


It seemed that we have talked like this before

The de-orbit burn that we copied then

But we can’t remember where or when


The clothes we’re wearing are the clothes we’ve worn

The food that we’re eating is getting hard to find

Since we can’t remember where or when


Some things that happened for the first time

Seem to be happening again


And so it seems we will de-orbit burn

Return to Earth and land, somewhere,

But who knows where or when?


Houston loved it and responded with a mock “Wanted” poster for all seven astronauts, calling for them to be returned to Earth immediately, if found.

The first opportunity to land in Florida on 18 January was postponed by one orbit, and when NASA finally ran out of time Columbia had to be diverted to Edwards Air Force Base in California. “Everything worked, except God!” Charlie Bolden joked. “Finally, on our fifth attempted landing, in the middle of the night, we landed at Edwards, which was interesting because with a daytime scheduled landing, you’d have thought we wouldn’t be ready for that. Hoot, in his infinite wisdom, had decided that half our landing training was going to be nighttime, because you needed to be prepared for anything.”

Columbia touched down on Runway 22 at 5:58:51 a.m. PST, wrapping up a mission of a little more than six days. Subsequent inspections would reveal severe thermal damage to her right-hand main gear inboard brake, and it was decided that major improvements to withstand higher energy wear would be incorporated before her next voyage, Mission 61E. Coupled with the landing in California, this made the scheduled launch of 61E, just seven weeks later, increasingly untenable. “The landing,” said Bolden, was “uneventful, other than the fact that it really upset Congressman Nelson, because he really had these visions of landing in Florida and taking a Florida orange!”

The recovery team at Edwards showed no mercy, and fellow astronaut Dan Brandenstein greeted the crew with a basket of California oranges and grapefruits from the California Growers’ Association! It was a joke that Nelson did not appreciate. Ten days later, he would appreciate, at least, that he had returned alive.



This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s articles will focus on the 20th anniversary of STS-72, a combined satellite deployment, retrieval, and spacewalking mission in January 1996, with a distinct Japanese flavor.



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The Real Mission Impossible: 30 Years Since Mission 61C (Part 1)

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