Twenty-five years ago, the five-man crew of shuttle Discovery settled into orbit for a mission about which a cloak of secrecy would descend for the final time. All told, the Space Shuttle Program (SSP) delivered ten major payloads into orbit for the Department of Defense—including communications satellites, reconnaissance/intelligence sentinels and technology demonstrations—between January 1985 and December 1992. But on STS-53, that era of classified shuttle missions would draw to a close. “The fact that complex mutual objectives have been achieved by two federal organizations, chartered with often divergent goals,” said then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, “is a wonderful and remarkable demonstration of inter-agency co-operation at its best.” Veteran STS-53 astronaut Jim Voss took the time to respond to several questions about his mission for this commemorative AmericaSpace article.
The five-man crew for STS-53 had been announced a year earlier, in August 1991. Commanding the flight was shuttle veteran Dave Walker, who but for a quirk of ill-fortune might have led another Department of Defense mission in the fall of 1991. He was joined by seasoned astronauts Bob Cabana, Jim Voss and the first African-American spacefarer, Guy Bluford, together with “rookie” spacefarer Michael “Rich” Clifford. At the time of the assignment, Voss was already in dedicated training for STS-44, which flew in November 1991. “They started some initial training,” he recalled of his four crewmates working without him, “but I got there in time for the start of dedicated crew training. It was special to be assigned to two flights at the same time.” With Walker a naval aviator, Cabana a Marine, Bluford an Air Force engineer and Voss and Clifford both Army astronauts, STS-53 marked only the second shuttle mission to include active-duty members of four of the United States’ five military forces. Their light-hearted inter-service rivalry was highlighted on launch morning, 2 December 1992, when Cabana strode out of the Operations & Checkout Building, proudly brandishing a “Beat Army” placard. Much to Cabana’s chagrin, the Navy ended up losing to the Army 25-24 in the Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Penn.
Video Credit: NASA/CNN
Representing such a broad swathe of the U.S. armed services, and having been trained by the so-called “Bad Dog” training team at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, the STS-53 crew quickly earned the nickname “Dogs of War”. Each man gained his own dog-name, with sandy-haired Walker dubbed “Red Dog”, Cabana labeled “Mighty Dog”, Voss in receipt of “Dogface”, a tribute to the U.S. Army’s Dogface infantrymen of World War II, whilst “rookie” astronaut Clifford drew “Puppy Dog”. For Bluford, who was in Europe on a NASA public affairs visit when Walker gave out the dog-names, the unfortunate moniker of “Dog-Gone” stuck.
At one point in training, Walker bought a decrepit old car, which became the Dogmobile. “Dave paid $600 for the station wagon,” Voss told AmericaSpace. “It had been painted with cans of flat-black spray paint to cover the rust. It became the Dogmobile, when we painted dog-names on the doors and started outfitting it with space-themed parts, including shuttle cue-cards.” The other crew members recalled other antics. “The trainers and support people in Mission Control all had dog-names,” remembered Bluford. “We would drive around JSC in the Dogmobile.” The crew mascot in Mission Control was known as “Duty Dog”, whilst a stowaway—a rubberized dog-mask, hung over a shuttle launch and entry suit—was hidden in the shuttle’s underfloor lockers and released in space. Called “Dog Breath”, it was placed in a corner of the middeck to watch over the astronauts to ensure they did a good job. “We had a lot of fun with the dog theme,” Voss told AmericaSpace. “Woof became the normal greeting between crew or anyone with a dog-name.”
Flying a classified, or even semi-classified, Department of Defense mission presented its own challenges. “Training was more difficult during the classified flights, due to the security measures necessary to protect the payload information,” Voss told AmericaSpace. “One could not just call and talk about a training issue or pick up a training manual from your desk. All of the training for the classified part of the flight was done in a protected environment.”
By the eve of launch, Discovery was the shuttle program’s fleet leader, having successfully flown 14 missions, totaling more than 82 days in space. In readiness for STS-53, she had received numerous modifications, including a drag-chute for landing, a capability for redundant nosewheel steering, improved Auxiliary Power Units (APUs) and enhanced avionics. When she was rolled out to the launch pad on 8 November 1992, the STS-53 crew joined her, riding aboard the crawler, in what Bluford described as “a wonderful ride”.
Launch on 2 December was targeted for 6:59 a.m. EST, but was delayed by more than an hour, due to the presence of ice on the vehicle and a wing-load indicator violation. Temperatures in Florida had dipped to just -4 degrees Celsius (24.8 degrees Fahrenheit) over the previous evening and the Mission Management Team elected to wait for the ice to evaporate. At 8:24 a.m., STS-53 got underway, kicking off the eighth and final shuttle mission of 1992.
Six hours after launch, the crew deployed DoD-1, their classified primary payload, which was widely believed to be a second-generation Satellite Data Systems (SDS)-B military communications satellite. With the completion of this task, they settled down to a week of scientific, medical and technological experiments, including the deployment of six radar-calibration spheres for space debris analysis. Unfortunately, a dead gas-control decoder battery prevented the spheres from being deployed and the experiment was canceled. Other activities met with greater success. Observations of “glow” interactions between the shuttle and its local atomic environment were made, a cryogenic heat-pipe was tested and a number of military camera systems were used.
As STS-53’s only rookie, Clifford slept each night in the airlock at the rear of the middeck. It was a location he enjoyed, due to its quietness, but it made for a couple of humorous incidents during the flight. On his first night, he forgot to attach his Velcro “pillow” behind his head. Throughout the night, as his crewmates got up and streamed to the bathroom, their movements generated air currents and poor Clifford’s head was repeatedly bounced against the sides of the airlock hatch. Next night, he put on his Velcro pillow, but this did little to alleviate the discomfort; at length, he resorted to fastening his sleeping bag to the forward wall of Discovery’s middeck.
At seven days in duration, STS-53 was one of the longest Department of Defense missions and Discovery returned smoothly to Earth on 9 December, touching down at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. An attempt to land in Florida was called off, due to deteriorating weather, but visibility at Edwards was hardly ideal, with a cloud ceiling of 4,000 feet (1,200 meters). Although Walker acquiesced that landing conditions did not present any difficulties, he was convinced that he had logged the shuttle program’s first “instrument approach”. With the Main Landing Gear on the runway, Cabana deployed Discovery’s drag chute and the pilots noticed a slight tugging of the vehicle to the left of the centerline. It was a teething problem associated with the new chute and had been noted on previous missions.
Although STS-53 was over, the idea of a Dog Crew would live on. Dave Walker and Jim Voss flew together on STS-69 in September 1995 and became “Dog Crew II”, with their crewmates Ken Cockrell, Jim Newman and Mike Gernhardt acquiring their own dog-names. Walker’s old Dogmobile was brought out of retirement. “We repainted it white,” recalled Voss, noting that the crew borrowed paint from the NASA T-38 paint shop, “and added a damaged T-38 wingtip on top as a fin, as well as some old shuttle hardware contributed by KSC.” They even developed their own unofficial, dog-themed patch, which they wore on the sleeves of their flight suits. “It’s a morale-builder,” Walker once said, and “gives us an excuse for parties!” And three years after that, in December 1998, STS-88 would fly the first shuttle mission to begin assembling the International Space Station (ISS). Commanding that flight was Bob Cabana and his crew also included Jim Newman, so their team became the third and final incarnation of the series, as “Dog Crew III”.
The author would like to express his thanks to Col. James S. Voss (U.S Army, Ret.) for his time in responding to questions for this article.