“A very long six seconds,” said STS-52 Commander Jim Wetherbee, of his final moments on Earth, “because by now, your brain’s working overtime!” A quarter-century ago, today, on 22 October 1992, Wetherbee and his five crewmates—U.S. astronauts Mike Baker, Bill Shepherd, Tammy Jernigan and Lacy Veach, together with Canada’s Steve MacLean—launched aboard shuttle Columbia on a ten-day voyage to deploy an Italian satellite and perform a battery of U.S., European and Canadian experiments. The six seconds about which Wetherbee spoke was the span of time from the ignition of the three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) to the liftoff of Columbia from Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. When those six seconds were done, and the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) roared to life, the sensation could only be described with two words: Speed and Power.
“The vehicle has a tremendous amount of speed,” Wetherbee reflected, “and tremendous power, as you’re heading uphill.” Passing through the phase of maximum aerodynamic pressure (colloquially nicknamed “Max Q”), the six astronauts experienced oscillations of between plus and minus two degrees per second. This was unseen in the launch camera footage, but acutely noticeable to the crew. “And that’s an interesting feeling in itself,” Wetherbee continued. “You can feel each and every one of the 7.5 million pounds of thrust and, when it starts moving around, it’s pretty interesting.”
As NASA’s oldest operational shuttle, Columbia was embarking on her 13th space voyage on STS-52. During a career which had spanned more than a decade at that stage, she had flown the very first mission of the shuttle program, tested the Canadian-built robotic arm for the first time, deployed the first commercial satellites, carried the first Spacelab and the first foreign astronaut on a U.S. space vehicle. Primary payloads for STS-52 were Italy’s Laser Geodynamics Satellite (LAGEOS)-II, destined for a high orbit to conduct precise measurements of tectonic-plate shifting within Earth’s surface, together with the U.S. Microgravity Payload, containing three materials research experiments.
It is interesting that Wetherbee was not originally expected to command STS-52 at all. After his first shuttle mission, in January 1990, he briefly trained as a backup crew member for the time-critical flight to deploy the Ulysses solar probe, before being named as pilot for STS-46 in December 1990. However, circumstances changed in the summer of the following year, when a pair of veteran shuttle commanders retired and prompted NASA to reassign “rookie” pilot Andy Allen to Wetherbee’s slot and promote Wetherbee himself to the command of STS-52.
Original plans called for Columbia to launch on 15 October 1992, producing the shortest landing-to-launch interval by a single orbiter—just 98 days—recorded in the post-Challenger shuttle era. However, this date slipped by one week, due to suspected cracks in the liquid hydrogen coolant manifold in one of Columbia’s main engines. Rather than conducting a painstaking X-ray analysis of the damage, NASA opted to replace the engine. Still, when Wetherbee and his crew finally rose from Earth at 1:09 p.m. EDT on 22 October 1992, they set a new post-Challenger landing-to-launch record of just 105 days.
STS-52’s launch was, however, itself postponed by a couple of hours on the 22nd, due to unacceptable crosswinds on the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF), which Wetherbee and Baker would use in the event an emergency forced a Return to Launch Site (RTLS) abort. Discussions between members of the Mission Management Team, chaired by former astronaut Brewster Shaw, concluded that although the 23 mph (37 km/h) crosswinds did exceed flight rules, they were safe enough for Columbia to go.
Ascent Flight Director Jeff Bantle’s reservations were overruled and Shaw elected to proceed with the launch, based on simulations which verified that Wetherbee could still brake the shuttle to a safe stop on the runway in the event of an RTLS contingency. “We accepted Jeff’s recommendation,” Shaw said at the post-launch press conference, “based on his interpretation of the guidelines and made a management decision that went in a different direction.”
As STS-52 ticked down to launch, it did so against the backdrop of 50 previous shuttle flights, one of which—tragic Mission 51L on 28 January 1986—had failed to reach its destination. That half-century of missions had seen the deployment of over 50 satellites for purposes as diverse as communications and astronomy, military reconnaissance and intelligence and science and technology. Payloads had been retrieved from space and brought back to Earth or re-boosted back into orbit. Spacewalkers had performed 16 sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) to effect repairs, maintenance and practice construction techniques for a future space station, whilst scientists had labored on nine Spacelab flights devoted to life and microgravity sciences, fluid physics and astrophysics.
As STS-52 headed into a clear Florida sky, 25 years ago, today, Jim Wetherbee and his crew were beginning the second half-century of shuttle operations. During that second half-century of flights—which lasted through the fall of 2000—the shuttle would reach great heights of achievement. Four orbiters launched 27 major payloads, supported nine dockings with Russia’s Mir space station and lofted the early modules of the International Space Station (ISS) into orbit. NASA’s scientific showpiece, the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope, was dramatically brought back from the brink of disaster by shuttle spacewalkers, and a semi-permanent presence of U.S. astronauts in space was established.
But more importantly, perhaps, the second half-century of shuttle flights also saw more men and women granted the opportunity to see the Home Planet from orbit. And for STS-52 astronaut Lacy Veach, who would die from cancer less than three years later, the sight of Earth in all its grandeur was worth the trip. “You can never believe the beauty of Island Earth,” he once remarked, “until you see it in its entirety from space.”