‘A Vision of Pure Beauty’: Remembering STS-59, 25 Years On (Part 2)

Twenty-five years ago this week, the crew of Endeavour on STS-59 demonstrated that the shuttle program was imbued with “Radar Love”, as they operated the first Space Radar Laboratory (SRL-1) to acquire unprecedented views of the Home Planet from orbit. For 11 days, astronauts Sid Gutierrez, Kevin Chilton, Jay Apt, Rich Clifford, Linda Godwin and Tom Jones worked around the clock to ensure that the radar instruments of the SRL-1 payload gathered an enormous quantity of scientific data. Much of that data is still being analyzed to this day and has helped to shape our understanding of Earth’s past, present, and, potentially, its future.

As described in last weekend’s AmericaSpace history article, SRL-1 had its genesis in the Shuttle Imaging Radar (SIR), which flew aboard two missions in the early 1980s. On STS-2 in November 1981, SIR-A’s capabilities were left undemonstrated, because the scheduled five-day mission was cut short by a fuel cell malfunction and shuttle Columbia returned to Earth after just 54 hours. Three years later, however, it flew again aboard Challenger on STS-41G as “SIR-B”, and its success provoked astonishment. Over an eight-day period in October 1984, it identified ancient caravan trails in Arabia, allowed geologists to construct three-dimensional maps of subtle features on California’s Mount Shasta, permitted contour modeling of parts of eastern and southern Africa, and examined intricate structural features, including fault-lines, folds, fractures, dunes, and rock layers.

A dedicated SRL-1 payload, incorporating both SIR and a German-built X-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (X-SAR), had been on the cards since before the Challenger disaster and was originally assigned to fly one of the shuttle’s missions from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., into near-polar orbit. The loss of Challenger and the end of operations at Vandenberg, without a single launch, led to a decision to fly SRL-1 from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and an orbital inclination no higher than 57 degrees. By 9 April 1994, after two years of training, the six-member crew was ready to go.

Writing almost a decade later, in his memoir, Sky Walking, Tom Jones remembered lucidly the adrenaline-charged minutes of his first climb into orbit. A “nasty shaking” was accompanied by a peculiar sensation of the entire cabin whipsawing around him, as the computer-controlled “Roll Program” maneuver, 10 seconds after liftoff, oriented Endeavour for her 57-degree orbit. Jones thought of his father, who had passed a little more than a year earlier. Two minutes into the ascent, the twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) were safely jettisoned and the shuttle continued to power her way into orbit under the thrust of her main engines. At length, Gutierrez and Chilton congratulated Jones as Endeavour crossed the 62-mile (100 km) Kármán line and passed the official boundary between the “sensible” atmosphere and the edge of space.

Suddenly, the G-imposed pressure on his chest was gone, he felt light under his harness straps and was hit by the instant realization: “This must be weightlessness!” In Skywalking, Jones noted that the sensation of perpetual free-fall was perplexing, but that he encountered no orientation difficulties. Then, as his body adapted to microgravity, fluids normally pulled into his legs and lower abdomen instead migrated toward his chest and his inner-ear balance organs sent confusing messages to his brain, provoking a wave of nausea.

It came, he wrote, as a sudden doubled-over spasm, eyes closed, feeling miserable, and was gone within minutes. A shot of the anti-nausea drug Phenergan from Clifford provided instant relief, but the malaise would return to haunt Jones a couple of times during the early stages of the flight. Yet the view of Earth was glorious. “As Endeavour rose toward sunrise, I gasped,” he wrote. “Between heaven and Earth was a vision of pure beauty, the robin’s-egg-blue of the atmosphere backlighting the darkened horizon.”

But the clock was forever their enemy. As time ticked down toward the first sleep period for the blue team, Godwin’s red shift led the activation of SRL-1. Despite initial problems with the power-up of the X-SAR amplifier—caused by an overly sensitive protection circuit—the German-built radar entered full operations on 10 April. Although the mission was baselined for nine days, it was expected that with appropriate use of consumables, a tenth day could be squeezed out of Endeavour. The decision to extend STS-59 did not drag its heels and came late on Day One, setting the mission on its path of science-gathering discovery in fine fashion.

The astonishing experience of 16 sunrises and sunsets in each 24-hour period was best illustrated through one of Tom Jones’ written recollections. Orbiting at twice the average shuttle inclination, and a much lower altitude of just 136 miles (220 km), he and his crewmates were provided with an astonishing vista of the Home Planet. “Now the eggshell-blue light of the sunrise is coating the horizon,” he wrote. “The payload bay is now going bluish-white as we come up out of the darkness. Across Nova Scotia now, and Labrador, and still no sunshine visible. I can still see the stars. No, not for long. Here comes the orange of the Sun. Boom! Sunrise! Now the payload bay is pink-orange, yellow, going to white, and it will soon be brilliant. Fantastic!”

Amidst all the high technology and intensive science workload, STS-59 was a profoundly spiritual experience. On the second Sunday after Easter, Jones, Chilton and Gutierrez—all Catholics, and Chilton a Eucharistic minister—gathered on the flight deck for a short service of Communion. They also had the opportunity, on 16 April, to speak via amateur radio with fellow astronauts Norm Thagard, Bonnie Dunbar and Ken Cameron, who had recently moved to Russia to support the early shuttle-Mir effort.

Overall, SRL-1 was a remarkable scientific triumph. In its post-flight report, NASA announced that the SIR-C/X-SAR observations accomplished 97 percent of their required data takes from 400 primary science targets and 99 percent from 19 critical “super-sites”. The crew also took imagery of Germany’s Rugen Island in the Baltic Sea and examined Japanese rice fields. Ninety-four hours of radar data, taken over 44 discrete nations and covering in excess of 27 million miles2 (70 million km2), were stored on 165 digital tapes. Elsewhere, the Measurement of Air Pollution by Satellite (MAPS) experiment acquired data on the regrowth of forests in a fire-scarred area of China. On one occasion, Jones verbally reported on thunderstorms over Taiwan, the Philippines and New Guinea to augment the MAPS data.

On 19 April, the payload bay doors were closed and sealed on time, but cloud conditions at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at the Cape caused the first scheduled landing attempt of the day to be waved off, just 30 minutes before the de-orbit burn. “Unfavorable and dynamic” weather put paid to a second attempt to bring STS-59 home. This forced mission managers to reschedule the landing for the following day. However, weather at KSC remained “No-Go” and Gutierrez and his crew were diverted to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., touching down without incident at 9:54 a.m. PDT on 20 April on concrete Runway 22. STS-59 had proven a spectacular success, gathering sufficient data to fill an estimated 20,000 encyclopedias, taking more than 15,000 photographs and requiring over 400 maneuvers to position the shuttle for the radar observations.

Two weeks later, with the ink barely dry on their crew flight report, Jones returned to his office at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, to begin his next assignment. More than two years of his professional life at NASA had been devoted to the Space Radar Laboratory, and in August 1993 he had been assigned to serve as payload commander for the second flight, SRL-2. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of Pasadena, Calif., which developed the radar, wanted two of its own experts to serve as payload specialists, but had been told that NASA mission specialists could handle the tasks. Next, JPL insisted that at least one crew member should fly both missions.

This followed typical NASA practice of “carrying over” an experienced crew member from one payload to the next on important science flights, but Jones’ transition from SRL-1 to SRL-2 offered something a little different. Originally, the two radar flights were supposed to fly at least a year apart, as shown by NASA’s February 1991 and January 1992 manifests, which anticipated a 15-month gap between them. However, when the decision was taken, in mid-1992, to advance Endeavour’s STS-61 Hubble Space Telescope (HST) repair flight ahead of SRL-1, the two missions drew much closer—within four months of each other—on the manifest.

By the time Jones was named as the SRL-2 payload commander, he was still almost eight months away even from flying SRL-1. “I recalled my surprise,” he wrote in Skywalking, “when I met with chief astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson…He had just invited me to fly again.” By then, the manifest envisaged SRL-2—aboard STS-68—flying aboard Endeavour in mid-August 1994, a mere four months after SRL-1. “Hoot laughed at my startled reaction,” Jones continued, “but he wasn’t kidding. What else could I say but yes?” Two months later, in October 1993, NASA announced the names of the remainder of the STS-68 crew: Mike Baker in command, joined by pilot Terry Wilcutt and mission specialists Steve Smith, Dan Bursch and Jeff Wisoff. The five men pestered Jones mercilessly during his SRL-1 training and even whilst he was in orbit.

“Don’t forget you start sims with us next week,” read one note from Baker. It was signed off with simplicity: “Your STS-68 Associates.”



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One Comment

  1. It’s interesting to note that SRL-1 would have launched out of Vandenberg AFB, Ca but for the Challenger disaster. The ATLAS shuttle missions (STS-45, 56 and 66) would also have benefited greatly from a polar orbit. I’m surprised a dog-leg maneuver wasn’t considered for those missions as was done by the top secret STS-36 in 1990. Even today Antares rockets launching Cygnus cargo ships out of Wallops, Va then perform a dog-leg southwards to chase down the ISS. Theoretically, a polar orbit can be reached launching out of Cape Canaveral, Fl as SpaceX is rumored to be considering ending Vandenberg operations.

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