When the crew of STS-80—launched 20 years ago, this week—were assigned to their mission in January 1996, theirs was expected to be one of the longest space shuttle flights in history. Commander Ken Cockrell, Pilot Kent Rominger, and Mission Specialists Tammy Jernigan, Tom Jones, and Story Musgrave were tasked with spending almost 16 days in orbit and would deploy and retrieve two free-flying satellites and execute a pair of spacewalks for International Space Station (ISS) precursor work. As outlined in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, STS-80 set a record as the first shuttle mission to conduct simultaneous rendezvous and proximity operations with two other spacecraft, forming a three-spacecraft “ballet” for several days around Thanksgiving in 1996. Yet the second half of their mission would bring a juxtaposition of triumph and disappointment.
For STS-80 has become known to history as one of only two shuttle flights—the other being STS-5 in November 1982—whose Extravehicular Activity (EVA) component was totally canceled, due to technical problems. When the crew was announced, it was intended that Jernigan and Jones would perform a pair of six-hour spacewalks to build experience, ahead of the “Wall of EVA” to build the ISS. “Of all the space station assembly missions coming up, probably more than 80 percent of them” required spacewalks, Jones said before the flight. “They’re going to depend on these concepts that we think we’ve gotten right, but we’ve got to prove.”
The first EVA was targeted for 28 November 1996, nine days into the mission, and would require Jernigan and Jones to run an “end-to-end” demonstration of how to replace an ISS battery, using a telescoping, six-foot-long (1.8-meter) crane. Training had taught them to expect to complete this task within about three hours, after which they would evaluate the capability of the crane to move a small cable caddy around Columbia’s payload bay. Interestingly, theirs promised to be the very first spacewalk ever performed from Columbia; a previous EVA on STS-5 had been frustrated by troublesome space suits and crew illness. Two days later, on 30 November, Jernigan and Jones would have made a second EVA. They would each have spent two hours working on the battery, whilst standing on a mobile work platform at the tip of the shuttle’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm, before turning to a series of other tools and tasks. They would have tested a Body Restraint Tether (BRT), designed to keep spacewalkers stable during work tasks, and a Multi-Use Tether (MUT) to fit rectangular-cross-section ISS handrails and oval-cross-section shuttle ones.
Ideally, Jernigan and Jones were joined on the STS-80 crew by one of the world’s most experienced spacewalkers, as well as the then-oldest human ever to have voyaged into space. As detailed in a previous article by AmericaSpace’s Emily Carney, Musgrave had been an astronaut since August 1967 and had performed the very first shuttle EVA in April 1983, followed by three more spacewalks to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in December 1993. By the time Columbia rose to orbit on 19 November 1996, Musgrave was the United States’ second most experienced spacewalker, narrowly surpassed by Tom Akers. It was Musgrave’s task to assist Jernigan and Jones into their space suits and choreograph their EVAs from the shuttle’s flight deck.
Late on 27 November, the cabin pressure was lowered in order to reduce the amount of time needed for the spacewalkers to pre-breathe pure oxygen. Next morning—a little ironically, with the benefit of hindsight—the crew was awakened by the sound of Robert Palmer’s “Some Guys Have All The Luck.” Sadly, Jernigan and Jones’ EVA fortunes proved ill-starred that day, when the outermost hatch on Columbia’s airlock failed to open.
“Initially, I thought we just had a sticky hatch and the fact that Tammy’s initial rotation wasn’t able to free it up was just an indication that we’d have to put a little more elbow grease into it,” Jones told CNN in a space-to-ground news conference on 2 December. “Certainly, we are feeling some combination of disappointment at the failure of the hatch, but pleasure in being part of this mission that’s been in every other way very successful,” added Jernigan. Both astronauts remained confident that lessons would be learned from the experiment. The airlock hatch handle stopped after about 30 degrees of rotation, making it unable to release a series of latches around its circumference.
Unable to release the hatch dogs using the rotary handle, the EVA crew was told to repressurize the airlock and postpone the EVA while flight controllers looked for a cause—and a fix. “That was the most dismal Thanksgiving dinner I’ll ever consume,” said Jones. “Our EVA had been canceled—we hoped temporarily—and none of us felt very grateful for the experience.”
An engineering team was promptly assembled to determine the most likely cause of the mishap, and Mission Control adjusted the STS-80 crew’s schedule in hopeful anticipation of a second attempt on 29 November. A minor problem was also noted with a signal conditioner in Jones’ suit, and it was decided to replace it should the EVA go ahead.
By the afternoon of 29 November, however, analysis seemed to fall on the side of a misalignment of the hatch against the airlock seal. Since the airlock needed to be capable to support a “contingency” EVA—to manually close the orbiter’s payload bay doors, for instance—engineers worked to assess emergency procedures to open the hatch, including orienting Columbia’s topside to the Sun to warm it and having Jernigan and Jones apply pressure from inside the airlock.
Perhaps in recognition of the disappointment, David Bowie’s “Changes” awakened the crew on the evening of 29 November, but good luck seemed beyond STS-80’s reach. At length, Capcom Dom Gorie told the astronauts that a definitive cause for the problem could not be identified and that both EVAs would be canceled. Jernigan and Jones did manage to evaluate one piece of equipment, a pistol-grip power tool, on the shuttle’s middeck and used it to loosen and tighten bolts and screws on floor panels. Their future careers would see them both perform EVAs, with Jernigan heading outside on STS-96 in mid-1999 and Jones leading a trio of spacewalks to install the U.S. Destiny lab on STS-98 in February 2001.
In the aftermath of landing, it was determined that a tiny screw had worked its way loose from an internal assembly and lodged in the hatch handle’s planetary gear assembly. No matter how hard Jernigan and Jones tried, the hatch handle would not have budged. When the mechanism was disassembled after landing, the hatch problem was attributed to mistaken installation of a non-retaining fastener sleeve, allowing the machine screw to vibrate loose and drift into the gears. Inspection changes made sure the failure never slammed the door on another EVA crew.
By the beginning of December, it was increasingly likely that STS-80 would be extended beyond its original duration of 15 days and 16 hours. The mission was formally lengthened to almost 17 days, with a new landing date of 6 December 1996. This allowed one of the crew’s deployable payloads—“ORFEUS-SPAS-2,” the second flight of the Orbiting and Retrievable Far and Extreme Ultraviolet Spectrometer, mounted atop a German-built Shuttle Pallet Satellite—to enjoy an additional 24 hours of science-gathering. Other science was undertaken with educational payloads and medical experiments, before ORFEUS-SPAS-2 was retrieved by Jernigan in the small hours of 3 December. All told, this payload employed its far-ultraviolet and extreme-ultraviolet sensors to make 420 observations of 150 celestial objects, including the Moon, several nearby stars, active galactic nuclei, and a quasar.
Seventeen days in space would have brought the STS-80 astronauts close to the 17-day record duration set by Columbia’s previous crew in July 1996. All that changed, thanks to the iffy Florida weather, which initially led NASA managers to aim to bring them home 24 hours earlier, reverting to the original 16-day duration. However, both landing opportunities at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on 5 December were called off, due to unacceptable cloud cover. Conditions seemed more optimistic for the 6th, and Entry Flight Director Wayne Hale opted not to call up Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and try again for a Florida homecoming. As circumstances transpired, low-level fog put paid to Columbia’s efforts to return to Earth on that day, too.
Quietly, but significantly, at 12:42 p.m. EST on 6 December, Ken Cockrell, Kent Rominger, Tammy Jernigan, Tom Jones, and Story Musgrave officially set the new record for the longest space shuttle ever conducted. Eighteen hours later, they received the go-ahead to perform the irreversible deorbit burn, committing Columbia to a perilous hypersonic descent back through Earth’s atmosphere.
For Musgrave, it was a memorable close to a three-decade astronaut career. Aged 61, he became the oldest human ever to have flown into space—a record he would lose to John Glenn, less than two years later—and only the second person, after John Young, to have recorded six discrete space missions. (He also became the first human to have flown as many as six times on the shuttle and is the only person to have flown aboard all five orbiters: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour.)
Aware that STS-80 would be his final mission, Musgrave stood on the flight deck for the entire descent, videotaping the spectacular, trailing re-entry plume, through Columbia’s overhead windows, from Mach 25 through Mach 12. “The video is lousy, because I’m standing up with 80 pounds (36 kg) of gear on, ready for bailout,” he told a Smithsonian interviewer, years later. “I’m taking all the Gs after an 18-day shuttle flight. I have no cooling in my suit, because I’m supposed to be downstairs, plugged into the cooling lines, instead of looking out the windows up on the flight deck. The video is a mess, but for whatever it’s worth, I have it.” Because of the viewing angle through the top cabin windows, Jones told this author, Musgrave’s plume video is actually some of the best reentry footage taken by a space shuttle crew.
Columbia alighted smoothly on Runway 33 at Kennedy’s Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at 6:49 a.m. EST on 7 December, soundly smashing the STS-78 record. At the instant of Main Gear Touchdown, STS-80 had run for 17 days, 15 hours, 53 minutes, and 18 seconds, had traveled 6.9 million miles (11.2 million km), and circled the Home Planet 279 times. With few long-duration missions left on the shuttle manifest, even in the days before the Columbia disaster, it seemed likely that STS-80 would retain this record through the end of the program. Although a few more 16-day missions were flown, the duration record set by STS-80 was never approached. Surpassed only by the Soviet Union’s Soyuz 9 mission in June 1970, it remains the second-longest non-space-station mission ever flown.
The author would like to express grateful appreciation to STS-80 Mission Specialist Tom Jones, who kindly shared his memories of this historic flight and contributed extensively to this article.
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 25th anniversary of STS-44, a Department of Defense shuttle mission in November 1991, which was shortened due to technical difficulties.