Mostly Your Knees: Remembering STS-9, OTD in 1983

STS-9 roars into space on 28 November 1983. Photo Credit: NASA

Since the dawn of the International Space Station (ISS) era, it has become commonplace to see representatives of multiple sovereign countries flying, living and working together in our off-the-planet home. Following the launch of Dragon Resilience, earlier this month, the station’s incumbent Expedition 64 crew—now seven-strong—includes two Russians, four Americans and a Japanese astronaut.

But on 28 November 1983, for the first time in U.S. history, shuttle Columbia launched into orbit with five Americans and a physicist from what was then West Germany. STS-9, launched on this day, nearly four decades ago, marked the first time that a non-American ever flew aboard an American spacecraft.

Video Credit: NASA/National Space Society

STS-9 would go down in the history books for other reasons, too. Commanded by veteran astronaut John Young, the first man to log six spaceflights, it was the first mission in history to include as many as six people on the same spacecraft from launch through landing. Young was joined by pilot Brewster Shaw, mission specialists Owen Garriott and Bob Parker and payload specialists Byron Lichtenberg and Merbold. They would fly the longest shuttle flight at that time, more than ten days in duration, a record which would last until January 1990.

And thanks to their particularly unique payload—the joint U.S./European Spacelab-1—they would also become the first crew in history to operate around-the-clock, working in two 12-hour shifts to support 72 experiments in atmospheric and plasma physics, astronomy and solar physics, materials science and technology and astrobiology and Earth observations. Much of the work was conducted in the pressurized Spacelab module, which was linked to Columbia’s middeck by means of an access tunnel, whilst some experiments sat exposed the vacuum of space on a large pallet.

But STS-9 was by no means smooth sailing. Originally expected to launch in October 1983, it was extensively delayed following problems which arose on the previous shuttle mission, STS-8. During post-flight inspections of Challenger’s twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), engineers noted excessive corrosion in the nozzle “throat” of the left-hand booster.

Photo Credit: NASA

A 3-inch-thick (8 cm) carbon-fiber resin lining, meant to protect the nozzle, had eroded more severely than it should have done. The findings were so serious that NASA calculated that only about 14 seconds of SRB “burn” time remained before the nozzle would have ruptured. And that would have resulted in the loss of STS-8 and her crew.

The fault was traced to a specific batch of resin used on Challenger’s boosters and STS-9 was correspondingly delayed to late November to permit time for Columbia’s nozzles to be replaced. But this proved easier said than done.

“NASA now believes that excessive corrosion of the SRB nozzle throat…relates to processing of the nozzle during the cure cycle,” Flight International explained in late October. “The resin used to line the throat of the nozzle is available from two manufacturers and material supplied by one of them is apparently more sensitive to the manufacturing process than the other. High pressure applied early in the cure cycle of the “sensitive” material is said to have prevented proper escape of volatiles, resulting in a weaker lining.”

Photo Credit: NASA

The result was a phenomenon known as “spalling” in the char-layer of the SRB throat material. This caused it to flake away, rather than steadily eroding as it ordinarily should. NASA revealed that both resins had met stringent test conditions, but the issue had previously gone unseen on any other mission. And since the nozzle sat right at the base of the SRB, the only solution was to roll STS-9 off historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for repairs. Columbia and her External Tank (ET) were detached and the entire left-hand booster was disassembled to reach the aft segment and nozzle.

It was a far from ideal situation for STS-9, whose U.S. and European investigators had put together an intricate flight plan, whose astronomical and Earth observations were highly dependent upon the viewing conditions afforded by an October-November launch. Any delay beyond that risked not only a loss of scientific data, but also a reported $300,000 cost for each month of added delay. Finally, on 8 November, the repaired shuttle was returned to the launch pad with an expectation of launching at month’s end.

Monday 28 November dawned fine and reasonably dry, despite concerns about thunderstorms in the Cape Canaveral area and an iffy situation at one of Columbia’s Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) sites. As it was the ninth mission of the shuttle, spectators along the Space Coast were correspondingly fewer in number, although many VIPs from Europe and Japan were on hand to see their experiments take flight. Countdown operations proceeded without incident and at T-31 seconds Columbia’s on-board computers assumed primary command of vehicle critical functions.

John Young (left), pictured during STS-9, his final space mission. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

“Coming up on the 30-second point…and we are Go for Autosequence Start,” came the call from the NASA launch announcer. “The SRB hydraulic power units have started; these move the solid motor nozzles to steer the vehicle…T-20 seconds…18, 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12…ten…we have Go for main engine start…eight, seven six…we have main engine start…three, two, one and…solid motor ignition and liftoff…Liftoff of Columbia and the first flight of the European Space Agency’s Spacelab…the Shuttle has cleared the tower.”

Launch came precisely at 11 a.m. EST, right at the start of a 14-minute “window” for that day. “Things are shakin’,” Young quipped at the post-mission press conference. “Mostly your knees!”

In his mind, the most noticeable aspect of the ascent was a very high roll rate to 135 degrees during the Roll Program maneuver, in which the STS-9 stack rolled at 15 degrees per second. And for Shaw, making his first flight, the gradually increase G-levels were readily apparent, as was the gunk deposited on Columbia’s cockpit windows after SRB separation. “We got a lot of material over our front windshield,” Shaw said later, “which surprised us a little bit.”

Photo Credit: NASA

Settling into orbit for the ninth time in shuttle history, and her own sixth mission, Columbia would go on to spend ten days in space and accomplish one of the most spectacular voyages of scientific inquiry ever undertaken. Spacelab-1 was the first of 16 flights by the Spacelab module, which between 1983 and 1998 would support hundreds of investigations in the fields of life and microgravity sciences and fluid and combustion physics. But in spite of the success that STS-9 became, there was one more eye-opener in store for the crew as they prepared to access the Spacelab.

“We couldn’t get the [Spacelab] hatch open,” remembered Shaw, with a measure of incredulity. “We couldn’t get into the [module] at all.” It was a momentary scare, particularly looking into the faces of Garriott and Parker. “These guys are seeing their lives pass in front of their faces,” said Shaw, “if we can’t get in there and do the stuff they’ve been training to do”.

However, by the evening of 28 November 1983, Spacelab-1 was open for business, the lights turned on and its first experiments coming alive. And in many ways, the temporary space station that it provided laid a cornerstone for the science and the international collaboration that occurs every day aboard the ISS.

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