‘Let Freedom Roar’: 15 Years Since the Flag-Bearing Mission of STS-108 (Part 1)

As evidenced by these three hats on-console in the Mission Control Center (MCC) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, STS-108 truly let freedom roar on 5 December 2001. Photo Credit: NASA
As evidenced by these three hats on-console in the Mission Control Center (MCC) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, STS-108 truly let freedom roar on 5 December 2001. Photo Credit: NASA

Fifteen years ago, this week—as America and the world reeled from the 9/11 terrorist atrocities—Space Shuttle Endeavour launched on a poignant, 12-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS). For STS-108 was the first U.S. piloted spaceflight to occur after the tragedy which cost almost 3,000 human lives. In the words of STS-108 Commander Dom Gorie, speaking to Launch Director Mike Leinbach in the minutes before the shuttle’s 5 December 2001 liftoff, months of sorrow were replaced by a renewed sense of optimism and shared purpose. “From the entire crew, we’re well aware that for over 200 years and certainly over the last two months, freedom rings loud and clear across this country,” Gorie told Leinbach. “But right here and now, it’s time to let freedom roar!”

That “freedom” had, however, not come without cost. Security around the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida in the fall of 2001 had been significantly heightened and the rollout of the STS-108 stack from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to Pad 39B on 31 October was accompanied by F-15 fighters, as well as an almost unprecedented communications blackout. Not until Endeavour was physically “hard-down” on the launch pad did NASA formally announce that the rollout had occurred. KSC Director Roy Bridges wanted to impose the kind of secrecy unseen since the classified Department of Defense shuttle missions of the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s, but this was considered unnecessary, in view of the fact that STS-108’s target launch date of 29 November was already in the public domain. Four days before launch, the crew arrived at the Cape, aboard five T-38 Talon jets, and touched down on the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF).

Commander Dom Gorie (left) and Pilot Mark Kelly were both Operation Desert Storm veterans, having logged 77 combat missions between them. Photo Credit: NASA
Commander Dom Gorie (left) and Pilot Mark Kelly were both Operation Desert Storm veterans, having logged 77 combat missions between them. Photo Credit: NASA

Commanded by Gorie, the “core” crew consisted of Pilot Mark Kelly and Mission Specialists Linda Godwin and Dan Tani, all of whom would occupy Endeavour’s flight deck during ascent and re-entry and all of whom had been announced by NASA in January 2001. (Interestingly, as naval aviators before their astronaut careers, both Gorie and Kelly participated in Operation Desert Storm, logging 77 combat missions between them.) Downstairs, on the middeck, were seated the Expedition 4 crew of Commander Yuri Onufrienko and Flight Engineers Carl Walz and Dan Bursch, who would be delivered to the ISS for a five-month increment. Returning home in their places at the close of STS-108 would be Expedition 3 Commander Frank Culbertson—the only American to have been in orbit on the day of the 9/11 attacks—and his Russian crewmates Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin. With the exception of Culbertson, who was named to command Expedition 3 in September 1999, the station residents had all been in training since November 1997. Indeed, at the time of their launch, Walz and Bursch earned the somewhat unenviable accolade for having trained longer than any previous U.S. astronaut crew.

As part of efforts to remember the lives lost in the atrocities, Endeavour carried 6,000 small U.S. flags, part of the “Flags for Heroes and Families” campaign, spearheaded by NASA Administrator Dan Goldin. In October 2001, he announced that the flags would be flown into space and later presented to the victims’ families and survivors of the attacks. Goldin noted that the campaign was “a way for us to honor and show our support for the thousands of brave men and women who have selflessly contributed to the relief and recovery efforts,” as well as providing “a patriotic symbol of our strength and solidarity and our Nation’s resolve to prevail.”

Each of the small flags measured 4 inches (10 cm) by 6 inches (15 cm) and were joined by several other items, emblematic of the United States. One of these was a U.S. flag recovered virtually intact from the ruins of the World Trade Center. “It’s a very strong symbol that this flag survived,” said Gorie. “It’s going to fly to the highest place that we can fly it.” A Marine Corps flag from the devastated Pentagon was also aboard Endeavour, as was a U.S. flag from the Pennsylvania State Capitol building. (The latter, of course, carried particular significance, since Pennsylvania was the state in which United Airlines Flight 93 crashed on that terrible day.) This collection of flags was accompanied by dozens of New York City police patches and badges, a New York Fire Department flag, and a poster emblazoned with the photographs of all 343 firefighters who perished on 9/11.

The STS-108 crew had been announced almost a year earlier, in January 2001. For Kelly and Tani, it would be their first space missions, having been selected together as astronaut candidates in May 1996. Kelly remembered getting a telephone call from Chief Astronaut Charlie Precourt and recognizing from the number on the caller ID that it probably meant a crew assignment. “And I almost said to him, before saying hello, that yeah, I’d take it,” remembered Kelly. “It was a good feeling getting a phone call and finding out what mission you were going to be on and who the rest of the crew was.” For Tani, it earned him the accolade of becoming only the second Japanese-American spacefarer, after Ellison Onizuka. “I got the call on a Sunday morning and when the chief of the astronauts gave me a call and asked me if I was doing anything for the next year, and if I wanted to fly in space, it was shocking to me and I remember walking around in a daze for a couple of days.”

Linda Godwin (left) would become the only woman to have spacewalked outside Mir and the ISS. Joining her for the single EVA on STS-108 was Dan Tani (right). Photo Credit: NASA
Linda Godwin (left) would become the only woman to have spacewalked outside Mir and the ISS. Joining her for the single EVA on STS-108 was Dan Tani (right). Photo Credit: NASA

Their mission, designated “Utilization Flight-1” (UF-1), marked something of a game-changer when placed in the context of the 11 shuttle ISS assembly missions which preceded it. “UF-1 is one of those cornerstone flights that marks a transition period from the initial build of the space station to its fully functioning role as an orbiting laboratory,” said Gorie, “and we are at the turning point there, where not only are we doing a crew transfer, but we’re bringing up science and payloads and bringing down completed science and payloads that are in work at the station.” This nature was further emphasized by Godwin, who noted that UF-1 came at a point where the space station’s evolution had achieved sufficient construction to make it relatively self-sufficient and self-sustaining for research. “Not only are our astronaut crews up there on the ISS maintainers and builders of station, now they’ve become researchers as well,” she told a NASA interviewer. “This is the first flight that is designated and designed to be primarily with the prime purpose of doing crew exchange and exchanging science. We see it as an exciting point in the program, where the focus … turns from assembly—getting the [Destiny] laboratory up and operating—to really trying to utilize the laboratory … and putting the focus now more on really using this laboratory.”

Their primary payload was Italy’s Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), making its second orbital flight after STS-100. This cylindrical module, 21 feet (6.4 meters) long and 15 feet (4.6 meters) in diameter, weighed about 9,000 pounds (4,000 kg) and on STS-108 would transport around 6,000 pounds (2,700 kg) of equipment, crew supplies, and scientific payloads uphill. Specifically, Raffaello housed eight Resupply Stowage Racks (RSRs) and four Resupply Stowage Platforms (RSPs) to augment existing ISS systems and the space station’s spare parts inventory. Raffaello would bring around 4,400 pounds (2,000 kg) of experiment samples, trash, and broken equipment back to Earth.

In the weeks preceding the launch, Gorie had nothing but praise for a crew which included himself and Godwin—a former Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office—as the veterans and Kelly and Tani as the “rookies.” Gorie had piloted two previous shuttle missions and, for him, the transition from the right seat to the left seat in the cockpit had not been exceptionally difficult. “The people that I’ve been given on this crew are so incredibly good,” he told a NASA interviewer. “We had an ascent sim that we did the other day, where I said I was going to simulate a heart attack or something that would make me unconscious and they gave … the rest of the crew an incredible array of malfunctions and failures and they did it flawlessly. They got to orbit fine without me!”

Godwin, on the other hand, had flown three previous missions and on STS-108 would become the only American woman to have spacewalked outside both Russia’s Mir space station and also the ISS. She was tasked with performing a single, four-hour EVA with Tani—nicknamed “Tiger” by his crewmates, in honor of his admirable golfing swing—to install thermal blankets over the Beta Gimbal Assemblies (BGAs) at the base of the station’s two Solar Array Wings (SAWs). By 2001, more than five years had elapsed since Godwin’s most recent flight. “Of course, in the Astronaut Office, we’re never totally out of training,” she explained, “but after five years, [things] have changed and so it’s been good to get back into the flow and relearn a lot of things.”

At the cusp of nightfall, Endeavour spears for orbit at 5:19 p.m. EST on 5 December 2001. Photo Credit: NASA
At the cusp of nightfall, Endeavour spears for orbit at 5:19 p.m. EST on 5 December 2001. Photo Credit: NASA

Hopes of getting Endeavour airborne at 7:41 p.m. EST on 29 November proved untenable, due to a problem with Russia’s Progress M1-7 cargo ship. This had “soft-docked” at the space station on 28 November, but had been unable to execute a “hard-dock,” due to the presence of debris on the docking port. It was noted that the cargo ship was just 0.2 inches (5 mm) out of proper alignment. An unplanned EVA by Expedition 3 crewmembers Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin on 3 December succeeded in cutting away a rubberized O-ring seal from the port and Progress M1-7 was able to accomplish a smooth hard-dock. Meanwhile, a problematic signal conditioner aboard the shuttle proved not to be a risk to flight, although conflicts with forthcoming launches and other issues meant that STS-108 had to launch by 6 December or face a delay until early January 2002.

NASA managers waited until the last possible moment before opting to postpone Endeavour’s launch. With liquid oxygen and hydrogen fueling of the External Tank (ET) due to begin at 11 a.m. EST on 29 November, a 24-hour scrub was eventually called at 10:15 a.m. The delay would also hopefully benefit from a better weather outlook, for 30 November and 1 December were expected to show an improvement from 70-percent-favorable to 90-percent-favorable. However, the decision to execute a Russian EVA led to a longer delay to no sooner than 4 December. At length, around 2 p.m., Gorie led his crew out of the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building, bound for Pad 39B. The overwhelming sense of post-9/11 security was palpable, with mobile radar—capable of detecting objects as small as 9 feet (2.7 meters) from a distance of 230 miles (370 km)—having been installed at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and small aircraft banned from flying within 35 miles (56 km) of the launch complex.

High crosswinds near the SLF runway raised the possibility of another delay, but fueling operations proceeded and Air Force meteorologists predicted an 80-percent likelihood of acceptable conditions at T-0. Unfortunately, 4 December was not to be Endeavour’s day. Cloud build-up over Pad 39B and “No-Go” status reports from the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA), the Eastern Range, and on Return to Launch Site (RTLS) abort conditions ultimately prompted a 24-hour scrub until the 5th.

The countdown was recycled for 24 hours, tracking a liftoff on 5 December. Early that morning, the crew awoke and suited-up, before departing the O&C Building at 1:30 p.m. EST. At Pad 39B, they were granted a brief opportunity to look at the vehicle, which Godwin likened to a living and breathing entity. Entering Endeavour in the vertical, she remembered some old advice from the suit technicians and Astronaut Support Personnel (ASP) to “just be a vegetable,” as the crew—clad in their pumpkin-orange launch and entry suits—were maneuvered into the cabin. By 3 p.m., all seven crew members were strapped into their seats and the countdown progressed with exceptional smoothness.

As the space station—whose on-orbit construction had begun only three years earlier and which had been continuously inhabited for a little over 13 months at that point—flew high above the Central Indian Ocean, Endeavour roared into the Florida twilight at 5:19 p.m. EST on 5 December 2001. “Pushing our goals skyward, using our station in space,” intoned the KSC launch commentator, as the youngest member of NASA’s shuttle fleet kicked off her 17th mission in textbook style. At the time of STS-108, the ISS consisted of a “train” of U.S. and Russian modules, from the Zvezda service module at its aft extremity to the Destiny lab as its forward-end “real-estate.” With the cornerstone flight of STS-108, it would be stocked with science and supplies as it transitioned from what Gorie described as a “build status” to it’s “fully functioning role as an orbiting laboratory.”


The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.



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