‘In A Heartbeat’: 25 Years Since STS-42 Inaugurated International Space Year (Part 2)

Discovery spears for orbit on 22 January 1992, after an hour-long delay, caused by a fuel cell anomaly. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de
Discovery spears for orbit on 22 January 1992, after an hour-long delay, caused by a fuel cell anomaly. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

A quarter-century ago, this month, a space mission rooted in disappointment and tragedy finally took flight. Aboard Space Shuttle Discovery, astronauts from the United States, Germany, and Canada embarked on a week-long voyage whose objectives featured the combined efforts of more than 200 scientists, spread across a half-dozen sovereign nations. The first International Microgravity Laboratory (IML-1) was intended to serve as an early precursor for Space Station operations. However, as outlined in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, it suffered lengthy delays, caused by the Challenger disaster and later technical troubles which afflicted the shuttle fleet, as well as the untimely death—just months before liftoff—of one of its crew members.

Originally, IML-1 was to be the first of three missions, featuring the European-built Spacelab pressurized module, devoted to research in the life and microgravity sciences. In particular, NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Deutsche Agentur für Raumfahrtangelegenheiten (DARA, the newly-unified German space agency), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the French Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES), and the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA) sponsored significant research aboard IML-1. A follow-up mission, IML-2, took place in mid-1994, but IML-3 was canceled and many of its objectives formed the basis of the Life and Microgravity Spacelab (LMS) flight in the summer of 1996.

After many delays, the STS-42 crew—Commander Ron Grabe, Pilot Steve Oswald, Payload Commander Norm Thagard, Mission Specialists Bill Readdy and Dave Hilmers, and Payload Specialists Roberta Bondar and Ulf Merbold—headed out of the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida on the morning of 22 January 1992. A few weeks earlier, the astronauts had completed a Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT) and Oswald earned himself the accolade of becoming the first astronaut to use the bathroom at the crew access level of Pad 39A. Despite having only consumed coffee and orange juice that morning, the blood-flow from his legs into his torso inevitably took its toll. He knew that he had to relieve himself.

Commander Ron Grabe and Pilot Steve Oswald lead their STS-42 crewmates out to Pad 39A on 22 January 1992. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de
Commander Ron Grabe and Pilot Steve Oswald lead their STS-42 crewmates out to Pad 39A on 22 January 1992. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

“Of course, you’re out for two-and-a-half to three hours,” he told a Smithsonian interviewer, years later. Ordinarily, the astronauts wore modified diapers, but every time Oswald made to use them, someone would call him on the intercom and break the spell. “Like most of us, after 40 years of being told not to pee while you’re lying on your back, it’s a hard thing to do!” When the TCDT ended, he was first to rush through Discovery’s side hatch and straight for the bathroom. “I was in that bathroom in a heartbeat,” he said, “and that’s how I made history!”

Launch of Discovery on 22 January was scheduled for 8:54 a.m. EST, at the opening of a 2.5-hour “window.” However, a hydrogen pump motor anomaly with one of the shuttle’s fuel cells forced a delay of almost an hour and the STS-42 astronauts finally rocketed to orbit at 9:52 a.m. From his seat on the right side of the flight deck, Steve Oswald found his first launch into orbit difficult to describe. “The vibration and raw power that’s being exerted on the vehicle during the first two minutes of the flight is truly awesome,” he recalled of the enormous impulse of two Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) and the shuttle’s own cluster of three main engines. “The view that I was getting out the right side of the vehicle during ascent was truly spectacular, looking out on the East Coast.” Separation of the SRBs, Oswald noted, was “like an automobile accident,” in terms of the noise and light flooding through Discovery’s windows—a situation for which he was “sort of unprepared.”

Upon arrival in orbit, the seven astronauts quickly split into two 12-hour shifts, to run the IML-1 experiments around-the-clock. Thagard and Bondar—members of the “Red Team”—oversaw the activation of the Spacelab module, joined by their Blue Team counterpart Readdy. With operations underway, Readdy and his Blue Team crewmates Hilmers and Merbold headed for their bunks in Discovery’s middeck to begin an abbreviated six-hour sleep period. They then came on-duty at nine hours into the flight, when Thagard, Bondar, and fellow Red Team members Grabe and Oswald headed for bed. In Hilmers’ recollection, sleeping so soon after launch was extremely difficult.

In fact, a few months earlier, Hilmers had not been assigned to STS-42 at all. He had already made three shuttle flights, most recently in the spring of 1990, and had been planning on retiring from the Astronaut Office and entering medical school. Then, on 5 April 1991, STS-42 Mission Specialist Manley “Sonny” Carter was killed in an aircraft accident. As he waited for admission into medical school, Hilmers told Chief Astronaut Dan Brandenstein that he was happy to do any job until his departure. He worked in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL) and was about a week away from taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

“Shortly after we learned about Sonny’s death, Dan approached me and asked if I could step in,” Hilmers told this author in an email correspondence. “I was experienced, wasn’t assigned to a flight and I knew the Commander (Ron Grabe) and the Payload Commander (Norm Thagard) very well. I was able to take the MCAT, finish my courses, apply to medical school and fly the mission. It was very busy time!”

That said, the astronauts made time during their mission to pay homage to their late comrade. “The late Capt. Manley L. Carter, or ‘Sonny’ as we all knew him, was a member of our crew until his tragic death,” eulogized Grabe, in an address to Mission Control. “The gold star, shining brightly in our crew patch represents the way that we will always remember Sonny: a radiant figure, illuminating everyone who met him with his warmth, charm and love. His multitude of talents and incomparable joy for life will never be forgotten.”

Added Carter’s replacement, Dave Hilmers: “No one ever returned from a flight with a greater sense of awe and wonder than Sonny. He was convinced that it was vital for our country, and for the generations which will follow us, to maintain a manned presence in space. We can only hope that he would proud of the way that we have carried out this mission after him.”

Pictured during a visual acuity test with Ulf Merbold, astronaut Dave Hilmers (right) was added to the STS-42 crew only nine months before launch. Photo Credit: NASA
Pictured during a visual acuity test with Ulf Merbold, astronaut Dave Hilmers (right) was added to the STS-42 crew only nine months before launch. Photo Credit: NASA

Due to the heavier return weight of the orbiter, with the Spacelab module in the payload bay, STS-42 was always scheduled to return to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., despite NASA’s 1991 decision to place KSC’s shuttle runway on an equal priority footing.

The IML-1 experiments were devoted entirely to materials and life science in the microgravity environment. Of the life sciences complement, Europe’s Biorack sought to understand the fundamental functions of organisms, including cell proliferation and differentiation, genetics, gravity sensing, and membrane behavior. Embryonic mouse limb cells were studied in an effort to characterize the similarities observed between skeletal malformations in rodents and human children, with a focus on helping to clarify the processes by which bones heal in microgravity. Other experiments utilised the eggs of African clawed frogs and fruit flies, together with yeast, bacteria, lentil roots and plant shoots, and slime mold, to understand the role of gravity in embryonic and cell development. The effect of radiation on soil samples and the eggs of stick insects was also closely studied and Germany’s Biostack facility analyzed the influence of cosmic rays on bacteria and fungus spores, together with cress seeds and shrimp eggs.

Elsewhere, housed inside a Spacelab Double Rack, was the Gravitational Plant Physiology Facility, which provided nothing less than a small space-based botanical laboratory, equipped with centrifuge chambers, floodlights, videotape recorders, and plant compartments. It supported investigations into the gravity-sensing mechanisms of oat seeds and the reactions of wheat specimens to the effect of light stimulation.

With Canadian astronauts Roberta Bondar and Ken Money having trained extensively for IML-1 payload science activities, the contribution of their nation to the mission was correspondingly important. Canada’s Space Physiology Experiments focused on the adaptation of the human organism to the weightless environment, including the vestibular apparatus, the body’s sense of position, energy expenditure, cardiovascular adaptation, eye-motion oscillations, and back pain. The latter was devised in response to spinal lengthening by 2-2.8 inches (5-7 cm) and back pain in two-thirds of astronauts.

In support of these experiments, the IML-1 science crew utilized “The Sled,” in the center aisle of the Spacelab module, and wore a helmet instrumented with accelerometers to measure head motions and visors to provide visual stimuli. Crew members’ responses were monitored to gauge their ability to visually track moving objects. Studies of the adaptation of the “otolith”—the gravity-sensing part of the inner ear—and its effect upon the nervous system, together with head and eye movements, were also performed in the sled and in a swiveling chair.

In the microgravity science arena, NASA experiments in vapor-driven protein crystal growth were undertaken, together with German Cryostat investigations which employed “liquid diffusion” and offered researchers the flexibility of a temperature-controlled facility. NASA’s Fluids Experiment System and Vapor Crystal Growth System carried a range of investigations which grew crystals of triglycine sulphate and mercury iodide, as well as performing laser diagnostic recording and creating more than 300 three-dimensional structural holograms for post-mission analysis. Several of the mercury iodide experiments were supported by CNES, the French national space organization, and record-sized crystals were yielded. The Japanese Organic Crystal Growth Facility sought to produce semiconducting crystals of tetrathiafulvalene and nickel, whilst the European Critical Point Facility explored the behavior of fluids when they reached the precise temperature-pressure stage at which the difference between vapor and liquid became indistinguishable.

All told, more than 100 percent of IML-1’s pre-flight scientific research objectives were met, with over 100 hours of television downlinked to the ground and the recording of around 70 videotapes of research data. The crew grew many crystals, returned billions of cells and hundreds of plants during their mission. At times, Dave Hilmers recalled, they would have benefited from traffic lights in the tunnel linking the shuttle’s middeck to the Spacelab module, so hectic was the passage of crew members.

Planned for seven days, the astronauts’ consumables expenditure allowed an additional 24 hours to be added for research. At length, Hilmers and Merbold closed out the Spacelab module and sealed the hatch early on 30 January 1992. Returning to the cramped confines of Discovery’s middeck after having had the voluminous area of the Spacelab for the past week surprised Hilmers. Later that morning, deftly flown by Grabe and Oswald, the shuttle alighted smoothly on concrete Runway 22 at Edwards at 8:07 a.m. PST, wrapping up a flight of just over eight days.

STS-42 had been the first human space mission to be launched and completed in the International Space Year of 1992. However, already in orbit on New Year’s Day were Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Volkov and Sergei Krikalev, aboard the Mir space station. And on 24 January, just two days after liftoff, the shuttle crew had the opportunity to spot Mir. “We got a call up from the ground,” Bill Readdy remembered. “They said “Look out Window No. 5. What do you see?” The high-inclination orbit of the shuttle, at 57 degrees, and Mir’s own 51.6 degrees, provided for what Readdy described as “one of those really odd kind of coincidences” that the astronauts could see the Russian station.

“You couldn’t see the individual modules or anything, but it was not a star,” he said. “It was extremely bright and kind of irregular. That was my first look at the Mir space station.” Interestingly, it would not be his last. Later in their careers, Readdy would command a shuttle-Mir docking mission and Norm Thagard would become the first U.S. astronaut ever to board the Russian station for a long-duration increment. Moreover, by pure serendipity, Steve Oswald would be on-orbit aboard the shuttle at the same time as Thagard boarded Mir and the two former STS-42 crewmates would engage in a brief ship-to-ship communication session, via radio.

Therefore, in a very real sense, the science and humans of STS-42 provided the building blocks for the Mir operations which ultimately sowed the seeds for the construction of today’s International Space Station (ISS).


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 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, which killed three astronauts and severely delayed America’s plan to land a man on the Moon.



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