The Real Mission Impossible: Remembering STS-61C's Quest for Space

The opening weeks of each year are always tinged with sadness for America’s space program, as the nation observes a triplet of cruel anniversaries: the 1967 loss of Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in a fire on Pad 34, the 1986 disaster which engulfed the Challenger Seven in the skies above Cape Canaveral and, more recently, but no less painfully, the 2003 destruction of Columbia as her own seven-strong crew returned from a highly successful research mission in low-Earth orbit.

Yet at the dawn of the New Year in 1986, as the 51L astronauts trained for a mission they would never get to fully execute, another crew came to edge of disaster not once, but twice. Forget Tom Cruise. Columbia’s almost-ill-fated Mission 61C in January 1986 was the “real” Mission Impossible.

The 61C crew had been assigned more than a year earlier, in October 1984, and for a while it seemed that simply getting a solid payload for their mission would be impossible. Commander Robert “Hoot” Gibson, pilot Charlie Bolden—a future NASA Administrator under Barack Obama’s administration—and mission specialists George “Pinky” Nelson, Steve Hawley and Costa Rica-born Franklin Chang-Diaz were initially pointed at a flight to deploy a pair of communications satellites and perform materials science experiments. Then their mission changed to deploy a large NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) and a Spartan free-flying payload to observe Halley’s Comet, before a raft of additional changes throughout 1985. By the end of the year, finally, they had been assigned a powerful Radio Corporation of America (RCA) communications satellite called Satcom Ku-1.

Gibson’s crew was also expanded to seven members with two payload specialists. One of them, RCA’s Bob Cenker, would oversee the deployment of Satcom Ku-1. The other was originally meant to be a Hughes Aircraft engineer named Greg Jarvis, who had already been moved off several earlier shuttle missions and would be moved off 61C…to a seat on Challenger’s tragic final voyage. In place of Jarvis was Congressman Bill Nelson, one of a series of politicians NASA was flying on the shuttle to curry favor with its political masters.

The first sense that 61C might turn into an impossible mission came during training when Gibson taught Bolden about shuttle systems and aerodynamics and the mysterious concept of “Hoot’s Law”. By his own admission, Bolden struggled during his first few months of mission-specific training; on one occasion, in the simulator, the instructors threw an engine malfunction at the crew. Bolden accidentally shut down the wrong power bus, disabling a healthy main engine. “We went from having one engine down in the orbiter, which we could’ve gotten out of, to having two engines down,” Bolden told the NASA oral historian years later, “and we were in the water, dead.” If this simulation had been for real, the shuttle would indeed have been lost, with all hands.

Gibson turned to Bolden, patted his pilot on the shoulder and spoke. “Charlie, let me tell you about Hoot’s Law.”

“What’s Hoot’s Law?”

“No matter how bad things get, you can always make them worse!”

Gibson’s words proved ominously prescient. Scheduled to launch at 7 a.m. EST on 18 December 1985 as the tenth shuttle mission of the year, 61C was routinely postponed by 24 hours to give technicians more time to finish closing out shuttle Columbia’s aft compartment. Next day, the countdown was halted dramatically at T-14 seconds, when flight controllers received an indication that the Hydraulic Power Unit (HPU) on the right-hand Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) had exceeded its maximum allowable turbine speed limit.

“We were happy as clams,” Bolden recalled of the build-up to the second launch attempt. “All of a sudden, everything stopped and the countdown clock went back to T-9 [minutes] and kind of ticked there. We had no idea what had happened. As they started looking at the data, they had an indication that we had a problem with the right-hand booster.” Although the HPU fault turned out to be an erroneous signal, the launch window for the day had closed and the attempt was scrubbed.

With the impending Christmas holidays, 61C’s next launch date was set for 6 January 1986, which pushed it right up against the next mission, 51L, scheduled to fly later that same month. The delay also posited a problem for Columbia herself in terms of how quickly she could be turned around between flights, since she was set for another mission, 61E, in March 1986, to observe Halley’s Comet.

For the crew, the festive period was a chance to relax after more than a year of intensive training in the simulators and uncertainty over when they would ever fly. “We stayed in quarantine a lot of the time,” remembered Hawley in his NASA oral history. “When you’re in a launch mode, down in Florida, the pace is not very hectic. You’re not in training, like you would be if you’re in Houston and going to the simulators every day. You’re reviewing procedures and checklists and having a nice time, because you have the opportunity to sort of sit back without the pressure of having to be in a sim. I’ve always enjoyed the time in quarantine, although, because of the launch time, we were getting up at two in the morning every day!”

Video Credit: NASA

Columbia’s launch attempt on 6 January turned out to be one of the most hazardous yet in the shuttle’s five-year operational history. The count was halted at T-31 seconds, following the accidental draining of 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) of liquid oxygen from the External Tank. The fill and drain valve had not properly closed when commanded to do so.

Launch controllers reset the clock to T-20 minutes and efforts were made to reinitiate the liquid oxygen tanking, but it was quickly realized that time was running out and the window would close before the vehicle was ready. Another 24-hour delay was called. The next attempt, on the 7th, was scrubbed due to poor weather at two Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) sites in Spain and Senegal.

Yet another try on the 9th similarly came to nothing when a liquid oxygen sensor on Pad 39A broke off and lodged itself in the prevalve of one of Columbia’s cluster of Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs). “That would have been a bad day,” Bolden recalled, grimly. “It would have been catastrophic, because the engine would have exploded, had we launched.” Heavy rain put paid to the next opportunity on 10 January, but on this occasion the seven-man crew was relieved. “We went down to T-31 seconds,” said Bolden, “and they went into a hold for weather and it was the worst thunderstorm I’d ever been in. We were really not happy about being there, because you could hear the lightning! You could hear stuff crackling in your headset. You’re sitting out there on the top of two million pounds of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and two [SRBs]. None of us were enamoured with being out there.”

The repeated delays took a financial toll, too. Previously, astronauts were responsible for getting their families to Florida, paying their way, finding motel rooms for them, and putting them up. Pinky Nelson’s wife, Susie, spent three weeks in a condo at Cape Canaveral, waiting, and their young children ended up missing the launch because they had missed so much school and went back to Houston. “Had the accident occurred on that flight, instead of the flight afterwards,” said Nelson, “it would have been just a nightmare scene, because the families were scattered all over the place.”

Despite their frustration at the repeatedly scrubbed launch attempts, the astronauts tried to remain upbeat. “We tried to wear a different shirt each day,” joked Gibson at the post-mission press conference, “so that we’d know exactly just which attempt this was,” adding that the astronauts got very good to walking out to—and back from—the crew van. As for the cause of the delays, there could be only one person to blame: Steve Hawley.

When the astronauts left their quarters in the pre-dawn darkness of 12 January, Hawley had ridden the bus to the launch pad on ten occasions for only two liftoffs. To this day, he is confident that a conversation and agreement he had with Gibson may have helped to finally get Columbia into orbit. “I decided that if [Columbia] didn’t know it was me, then maybe we’d launch,” he said, “and so I taped my name tag with grey tape and had the glasses-nose-moustache disguise and wore that.” It worked, and 61C roared aloft at 6:55 a.m. EST. Yet as next weekend’s AmericaSpace history article will show, the gods of misfortune were not yet done with Mission 61C.

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