“Eight, seven, six … Go for Main Engine Start … ”
It was a familiar preamble from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) launch commentator which closely mirrored the final seconds before each of the previous 114 space shuttle missions. Ever since the maiden voyage of the first of this reusable fleet of orbiters in April 1981, the trio of Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) roared to life, producing a noticeable “twang” effect, as the vehicle structurally flexed upward, before the ignition of the twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) at T-0. “And liftoff of the Space Shuttle Discovery,” came the call, as six American astronauts and one German spacefarer speared into a crystal clear Florida sky, “returning to the space station, paving the way for future missions beyond.” It was 2:37:55 p.m. EDT. It was also 4 July 2006, and particular poignancy accompanied the launch of STS-121, which became the first—and so far only—occasion on which U.S. astronauts have rocketed into space on Independence Day.
To history, STS-121 would carry its own significance, as the “second” Return to Flight (RTF) mission in the wake of the Columbia tragedy, serving not only to deliver critical equipment and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), but also to demonstrate procedures and tools for inspecting the integrity of the shuttle’s heat shield. The seven-strong STS-121 crew—Commander Steve Lindsey, Pilot Mark Kelly, Mission Specialists Mike Fossum, Lisa Nowak, Stephanie Wilson, and Piers Sellers, together with Germany’s Thomas Reiter—had departed the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building at the Cape, earlier that morning, waving their respective national flags. “I don’t know if it was the German Fourth of July or not!” Lindsey later quipped at the post-flight press conference.
Yet an Independence Day launch was not originally on the cards, for Discovery and her crew had already weathered a pair of scrubbed attempts on 1 and 2 July, the most recent of which prompted a 48-hour delay.
Fittingly, 2006 marked 230 years since the members of the Second Continental Congress drafted the language of separation of the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain. “On the nation’s 230th birthday, Discovery rocketed into the Florida sky this afternoon,” NASA reported after the successful launch, noting that this was “the first human spacecraft to launch on an Independence Day holiday.” As described in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, five previous shuttle missions had already observed the Fourth of July holiday whilst in space, with Columbia’s STS-4 crew of Commander Ken Mattingly and Pilot Hank Hartsfield having actually landed on Independence Day, to be greeted by then-President Ronald Reagan, back in 1982.
Among the STS-121 crew was Mark Kelly, who tweeted last year of his memories of launching on Independence Day. “9 yrs ago today, I celebrated July 4th w/some serious fireworks,” he tweeted, “leaving the planet as the pilot of Discovery.” In response, Kelly’s former shuttle crewmate Mike Fossum added: “Great to share the ride with you on STS-121! Can’t believe it’s been 9 years!!”
Of course, by 2006, numerous Americans had also celebrated Independence Day in orbit, aboard both Russia’s Mir space station and aboard the ISS. On the Fourth of July in 1995, six U.S. astronauts—including long-duration crewman Norm Thagard—and four Russian cosmonauts were aboard the shuttle-Mir complex during STS-71, the first docking mission between the two former superpowers. For the next two years, U.S. astronauts would be in residence aboard Mir as part of long-duration missions, with Shannon Lucid witnessing Independence Day in 1996 and British-born Mike Foale gazing down on the Home Planet exactly 12 months later. Interestingly, at the time of Foale’s experience, seven other Americans also observed the holiday from aboard Shuttle Columbia on the STS-94 mission, marking the first occasion that U.S. astronauts had been in space on the Fourth of July, aboard two separate spacecraft, which were not docked together at the time.
With the conclusion of the shuttle-Mir program in mid-1998, and with the first long-duration ISS expeditions not due to commence until the fall of 2000, it was several years before Americans again celebrated the occasion in orbit. At length, on 4 July 2001, U.S. astronauts Jim Voss and Susan Helms were in residence aboard the fledgling ISS as members of Expedition 2. “The Nation’s largest Independence Day celebration will be joined by visitors from outer space—not aliens, but NASA’s International Space Station crew,” it was reported, as the United States marked 225 years of political existence. “The two NASA members of the space station crew will send their ‘out of this world’ birthday message, reflecting on the birth of America, during the Fourth of July gala concert beginning at 8 p.m. EDT from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.”
The following Independence Days were times of triumph and sadness, as Expedition 5’s Peggy Whitson welcomed the holiday in 2002, followed—in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster—by Expedition 7’s Ed Lu in 2003. For Whitson and her crewmates, the day “was essentially a holiday in space … although they did some work off a generic task list,” whilst that of Lu and his companion, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, their schedule comprised “light activities interspersed with time off.” A year later, Expedition 9’s Mike Fincke and his Russian commander, Gennadi Padalka, enjoyed a three-day weekend to enjoy the holiday period, whilst the following Fourth of July fell just shy of the Return to Flight (RTF) of the shuttle fleet after Columbia. Aboard the ISS for the 2005 celebration was the Expedition 11 crew, including U.S. astronaut John Phillips, whilst the following year NASA’s Jeff Williams of Expedition 13 was watching via a monitor in the station’s Destiny laboratory as Shuttle Discovery rocketed into orbit.
Interestingly, Williams is also aboard the ISS for 2016’s Independence Day, in his capacity as Commander of Expedition 48. He is one of just five Americans—joining Ellen Baker, Bonnie Dunbar, Susan Helms, and Mike Fossum—to have spent as many as two Independence Days in space.
Subsequent years have seen increased crew sizes, from three to six, with U.S. astronauts Clay Anderson, Greg Chamitoff, Mike Barratt, Tracy Caldwell-Dyson, Doug Wheelock, Shannon Walker, Ron Garan, Mike Fossum, Joe Acaba, Chris Cassidy, Karen Nyberg, Steve Swanson, and Reid Wiseman having celebrated Independence Day in orbit between 2007 and 2014. On one of these occasions, in 2008, Chamitoff and his Expedition 17 crewmates were required to work through the Fourth of July, due to plans for an impending EVA by cosmonauts Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko.
By the time the 2009 holidays came around, the ISS had grown so large—having seen all four of its U.S.-built solar array modules installed, deployed, and activated—that it was clearly visible across the continental United States throughout the Fourth of July weekend. “Many locations will have unusually long sighting opportunities of as much as five minutes, weather permitting, as the station flies almost directly overhead,” NASA reported, describing the station as “brighter than most stars at dawn and dusk, appearing as a solid, glowing light, slowly traversing the pre-dawn or evening sky.”
Poignantly, on 4 July 2010, Expedition 24’s Doug Wheelock—joined by fellow NASA astronauts Tracy Caldwell-Dyson and Shannon Walker, marking the first occasion that as many as three Americans were physically present aboard the ISS on Independence Day—delivered a personal message of reflection. Wheelock also displayed the Congressional Medal of Honor, awarded to the late U.S. Army Sgt. Lester Stone, who was killed in March 1969, during the Vietnam War. Together with their Russian comrades, Aleksandr Skvortsov, Mikhail Kornienko, and Fyodor Yurchikhin, they also supervised the arrival of a Russian Progress cargo ship.
Three years later, Expedition 36’s Chris Cassidy observed the holiday by running the “Four on the Fourth Road Race” on the station’s treadmill and issued an inspirational message to 1,200 runners from his hometown of York, Me. “I’m envious of the scenic view that you guys are about to enjoy,” a red-white-and-blue-shirted Cassidy—who today serves as Chief of the Astronaut Office—told them, “as you run through our town.” His efforts produced a welcome surprise, for his parents and brother were visible at mile markers along the York route, holding up signs of encouragement.
As Americans celebrated their nation’s 239th birthday on 4 July 2015, only one of their living countrymen was missing from the Home Planet. “I’d like to wish everybody a Happy Independence Day,” Expedition 44’s Scott Kelly began in a video message. “It’s a great holiday, a great tradition.” At the time, Kelly and his Russian crewmate Mikhail Kornienko were 99 days into their (almost) year-long mission, which concluded with a safe landing in Kazakhstan on 1 March 2016. As circumstances transpired, Kelly tweeted some stunning imagery of “fireworks” of his own, then added: “Hoping for a happy and safe #FourthofJuly for everyone in #USA and around the world. Goodnight from @Space_Station.”
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-104, a shuttle mission which closed-out Phase II of the International Space Station Program and installed the Quest airlock to the orbiting outpost.