Doing Tab November: Remembering STS-4, Four Decades On

Spectacular view of Earth behind Columbia’s vertical stabilizer. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Forty years ago today, on 27 June 1982, Columbia rose from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, for STS-4, the fourth and final Orbital Flight Test (OFT) of the Space Shuttle Program. Aboard the reusable orbiter were Commander Ken Mattingly and Pilot Hank Hartsfield. Theirs was to be the final shuttle test flight, after which the vehicle would be declared “operational”—or so the rhetoric went—for commercial missions for national and international customers, military missions for the Department of Defense and scientific missions with Europe’s Spacelab. In the heady days of the early 1980s, it was hoped that four members of the shuttle fleet would launch every two weeks, achieving multiple flights in each calendar year. But it was a pledge that the shuttle program never came close to achieving.

Video Credit: National Space Society

Yet there were glimmers of hope that the spacecraft could be turned around with relative quickness. The processing time needed to reconfigure Columbia following her STS-3 mission in March 1982 had been significantly reduced to just 42 days. Compared to the 610 days needed to process Columbia’s maiden voyage, STS-1, the 104 days to ready her for STS-2 and the 68 days to get her primed for STS-3, it seemed a step in the right direction.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was (and still is) naïve to suppose that a vehicle of such enormous complexity could possibly achieve the kind of reliability and frequency of a passenger airliner. Astronaut Bryan O’Connor remembered a conversation with Mattingly. “I told him I just didn’t feel comfortable with how we could possibly get to a confidence level after such a short test program,” O’Connor told the NASA oral historian.

STS4-088-S82-32199-5.29.82 Retro Space Images post of NASA image of STS 4 Hank Hartsfield Ken Mattingly Photo Credit NASA / Retro Space Images posted on AmericaSpace
Hank Hartsfield (left), pictured with crewmate Ken Mattingly, shortly before the launch of STS-4. Photo Credit: NASA

Mattingly smiled, a wizened grin cracking across his face. He told O’Connor not to worry about the NASA Headquarters rhetoric: “You and I both know that it will take a hundred flights before this thing is operational.” In fact, it would take even more than that.

But in the late spring of 1982, the story was quite different. On the outside, the shuttle seemed to be prospering, and it was with much anticipation that NASA readied Columbia for her fourth and final OFT mission. Thirty-six protective tiles and fragments of 14 others had fallen from her nose and aft body flap during STS-3, but none of those areas were subjected to exceptionally high temperatures during atmospheric re-entry.

Image Credit: NASA

Elsewhere, STS-4’s payloads were being installed. An important new commercial facility, the Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System (CFES), was aboard, as was the first trashcan-sized “Getaway Special” (GAS) canister, affixed to Columbia’s payload bay wall and donated to Utah State University for a suite of student experiments.

But one passenger which received less attention was the shuttle’s first classified payload for the Department of Defense. Labeled “DoD-82-1”—the first DoD payload to fly on the shuttle in Fiscal Year 1982—its centerpiece was the Cryogenic Infrared Radiance Instrument for Shuttle (CIRRIS), a sensitive detector to test sensors for an advanced “staring-mosaic” surveillance satellite called Teal Ruby.

Pictured during their training for STS-4 are Commander Ken Mattingly (left) and Pilot Hank Hartsfield. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Early on 27 June 1982, Mattingly—a veteran of Apollo 16, the second-to-last crewed mission to the Moon—and Hartsfield departed their crew quarters, bound for Pad 39A and the waiting Columbia. But right up until the previous evening, their launch had seemed in doubt. A severe hailstorm had damaged several of the shuttle’s protective tiles and deposited water behind the covers of a pair of Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters. After a lengthy analysis, STS-4 was cleared to fly and Columbia rose from Earth at precisely 11 a.m. EDT, right on the opening of that day’s 4.5-hour “launch window”.

“It just goes,” Mattingly said later of his first shuttle launch. He described it as the smoothest ride in the world, compared to his previous launch aboard a bone-jarring Saturn V. STS-4’s ascent was nominal, save for temperature drops in several hydraulic sensors in Columbia’s nose landing gear wheel well. It was attributed to rainwater penetration and prompted NASA to position the shuttle in a belly-to-Sun attitude to evaporate it.

Ken Mattingly (foreground) and Hank Hartsfield depart the Operations & Checkout Building on their way to the launch pad. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

And that yielded some of the most spectacular views of the whole mission. For the first 12 hours, Columbia’s belly faced the Sun and the payload bay and overhead windows were pointed Earthward. “All of a sudden,” Mattingly said later, “it was like you pulled the shades back on a bay window…and the Earth appeared!”  

But STS-4’s ascent had gone awry for the twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), both of whose parachutes failed during descent. They sank after splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean and although an underwater remote camera successfully photographed the wreckage, it proved too expensive to retrieve them. The cause was traced to a new feature intended to separate the parachutes from the SRBs at the instant of splashdown to prevent them from getting dragged along by their deflated canopies.

STS-4 takes flight at 11 a.m. EDT on 27 June 1982. Photo Credi: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

On-orbit, however, water continued to linger in several nooks and crannies aboard Columbia, leading to fears that during “cold” periods it could freeze and crack more sensitive areas of thermal protection material. Another “solar-inertial” attitude was therefore adopted for almost 23 hours, which seemed to correct the problem.

For the astronauts, it was a run-of-the-mill part of a test program. “We had been assigned to do a bunch of thermal tests, where you put the orbiter in an attitude and get one side hot, and then one side cold, and then spin it around,” said Mattingly. “It was something that had to be done but was really not a glamorous kind of test that you can run.”

Hank Hartsfield, pictured here in a sleeping bag on Columbia’s middeck, was making his first spaceflight on STS-4. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

But aside from the thermal tests, the astronauts had a full plate of work for their seven days in space. They tested Canada’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm, maneuvering the large Induced Environmental Contamination Monitor (IECM) box around the payload bay. However, views of the bay were restricted, owing to the presence of the classified DoD-82-1 payload.

Each of its six experiments performed flawlessly, undertaking a raft of atmospheric, navigational, plasma physics and attitude-determination measurements. The sole exception to that was CIRRIS itself, which was foiled by the failure of its lens cap to open. Mission Control weighed the possibility of knocking it off with the RMS or even sending Mattingly—a veteran spacewalker—outside to manually open it. At length, it was decided not to overcomplicate what was, after all, an experimental mission. “Payloads” on the OFT flights were a bonus, not a necessity.

Commander Ken Mattingly was making his second spaceflight, having previously voyaged to the Moon on Apollo 16. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Yet Mattingly did get chance to at least try on the new shuttle Extravehicular Activity (EVA) suit on Columbia’s middeck. His sole regret, however, was that he was unable to open the door and go outside.

The failure of CIRRIS and the overly secretive nature of DoD-82-1 injected some humor into the proceedings. “A funny thing happened on that flight,” said Hartsfield. “On one experiment, they had a classified checklist [and] because we didn’t have a secure comm link, we had the checklist divided up in sections that just had letter-names, like Bravo Charlie, Tab Charlie, Tab Bravo, that they could call out.” Whenever the astronauts spoke to Air Force controllers at the Satellite Control Facility in Sunnyvale, Calif., they might, for instance, be directed to “do Tab Charlie”.

In Columbia’s middeck, one of the lockers housed all the classified materials and documents. It was padlocked before flight and after Mattingly and Hartsfield reached orbit, they opened it to complete their required tasks. As STS-4 neared its end, Hartsfield packed away the remainder of the classified gear and re-padlocked the locker.

Video Credit: CNN, via lunarmodule5/YouTube

“I got all the classified stuff put away,” he told Mattingly. “It’s all locked up.”

“Great,” replied Mattingly.

A half-hour or so later, Mission Control called and told them that the military staff in Sunnyvale wanted to speak to the crew. The Air Force controller curtly asked them to “do Tab November”. The two astronauts exchanged perplexed glances. What the hell was Tab November, they wondered? Neither man could remember. And the secretive nature of the payload meant that they could not ask over the open radio circuit.

Even if they launched on 5 July, Ken Mattingly wryly observed, NASA brass wanted STS-4 to land on the Fourth. Photo Credit: NASA

The only option was to remove the padlock on the classified locker, dig through all the materials, find the relevant checklist and identify the meaning of the code. Eventually, after much searching, Hartsfield found the glossary entry for Tab November. It read: “Put everything away and secure it!”

Columbia’s return home on Independence Day, 4 July 1982, made STS-4 the only U.S. human spaceflight to land on the United States’ national day. In attendance at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., was President Ronald Reagan. Before the flight, Mattingly and Hartsfield were briefed by NASA Administrator James Beggs and asked to think of some memorable remarks for the occasion.

Commander Ken Mattingly and Pilot Hank Hartsfield salute President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan on Edwards’ concrete Runway 22 on Independence Day in 1982. Columbia is clearly visible in the background. Photo Credit: NASA

“We knew they had hyped-up the STS-4 mission, so that they wanted to make sure that we landed on the Fourth of July,” said Mattingly. “It was in no uncertain terms that we were going to land on the Fourth of July, no matter what day we took off. Even if it was the fifth, we were going to land on the fourth. That meant, if you didn’t do any of your test mission, that’s okay, as long as you land on the fourth, because the President is going to be there. We thought that was kinda interesting!”

Fortunately, Columbia swept smoothly onto Edwards’ concrete Runway 22 like a bird of prey, touching down on Independence Day, as intended. As the shuttle slowed to a halt, Mattingly’s next thought was how to welcome Reagan aboard. Unfortunately, he would meet his commander-in-chief with a decidedly painful forehead.

Hartsfield (left) and Mattingly are greeted by President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan after STS-4. Photo Credit: NASA

Right after wheelstop, he turned to Hartsfield. “I am not gonna have somebody come up here and pull me outta this chair,” he snapped. “I’m going to give every ounce of strength I’ve got and get up on my own!” Mattingly was acutely aware of the effect of returning to terrestrial gravity after several days of weightlessness: some astronauts were fine, some felt a little nauseous, whilst others required a gurney.

That could not happen with President Reagan in attendance. As if to mentally and physically prepare himself to meet the boss, Mattingly pushed himself forcefully out of his seat…and smashed his head sharply on the overhead instrument panel. “Oh, did I have a headache,” he lamented later.

Right up until the shuttle program’s final flight in July 2011, it remained an experimental machine. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

Wiping away a couple spots of blood, he and Hartsfield composed themselves, descended the steps to the runway surface and smartly saluted Reagan. With the completion of STS-4, the shuttle’s fourth and final test flight was over. A new era of “operational” missions would commence with the next flight, STS-5 the following November.

But as Bryan O’Connor once remarked with great prescience, a machine of such immense complexity could not possibly be considered “proven” after only four missions. It would take a hundred flights, in his estimation. As circumstances transpired, when the 135th and last shuttle mission took to the skies in July 2011, it remained an experimental, dangerous and highly temperamental vehicle. At the same time, however, the shuttle proved a critical asset in enabling our future in space.

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