“A very long six seconds,” said STS-52 Commander Jim Wetherbee of his final moments on Earth, “because, by now, your brain’s working overtime!” Thirty years ago today, on 22 October 1992, Wetherbee and his five crewmates—veteran U.S. astronauts Mike Baker, Bill Shepherd, Tammy Jernigan and Lacy Veach, plus Canada’s Steve MacLean—launched aboard shuttle Columbia on a ten-day voyage to deploy an Italian satellite and perform a multitude of U.S., European and Canadian experiments.
The six seconds about which Wetherbee spoke was the span of time from the ignition of the three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) to the liftoff of Columbia from historic Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. And when those six seconds were done, and the twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) roared to life to power STS-52 airborne and off Planet Earth, the sensation could be described using just two words: Speed and Power.
“The vehicle has a tremendous amount of speed,” Wetherbee reflected, “and tremendous power, as you’re heading uphill.” Passing through the phase of maximum aerodynamic pressure (colloquially nicknamed “Max Q”), the six astronauts experienced oscillations of between plus and minus two degrees per second.
This was unseen in the ascent footage. But it was acutely noticeable to the crew.
“And that’s an interesting feeling in itself,” Wetherbee continued. “You can feel each and every one of the 7.5 million pounds of thrust and, when it starts moving around, it’s pretty interesting.”
As NASA’s oldest shuttle, Columbia was embarking on her 13th space voyage on STS-52. During a career which had spanned more than a decade at that stage, she had flown the very first mission of the program, tested the Canadian-built robotic arm for the first time, deployed the first commercial satellites, carried the first Spacelab and the first foreign astronaut on a U.S. space vehicle.
Primary payloads for STS-52 were Italy’s Laser Geodynamics Satellite (LAGEOS)-II, destined for a high orbit to conduct precise measurements of tectonic-plate shifting within Earth’s surface. And at the rear of Columbia’s payload bay was the U.S. Microgravity Payload, containing three materials research experiments.
It is interesting that Wetherbee was not originally expected to command STS-52 at all. After his first shuttle mission, STS-32 in January 1990, he briefly trained as a backup crewman for the time-critical STS-41 flight to deploy the Ulysses solar probe, before being named in December 1990 to pilot STS-46.
But circumstances changed in the summer of 1991, when several experienced shuttle commanders retired and prompted NASA to reassign “rookie” pilot Andy Allen to Wetherbee’s seat and promote Wetherbee himself to the command of STS-52. Joining him in the pilot’s seat was Mike Baker, who previously held the same post on STS-43, veteran mission specialists Veach, Shepherd and Jernigan and first-timer MacLean.
Original plans called for Columbia to launch on 15 October 1992, producing the shortest landing-to-launch interval by a single orbiter—just 98 days—in the post-Challenger shuttle era. However, this date slipped by one week, due to suspected cracks in the liquid hydrogen coolant manifold in one of Columbia’s main engines.
Rather than conducting a painstaking X-ray analysis of the damage, NASA decided the caution was the better part of valor and replaced the engine. Still, when Wetherbee and his crew finally rose from Earth at 1:09 p.m. EDT on 22 October 1992, they set a new post-Challenger landing-to-launch record of just 105 days.
The shortest interval ever achieved in the entire shuttle era was 50 days. That was set between the maiden landing of Atlantis on 7 October 1985 and her return to space, seven weeks later, on 26 November.
STS-52’s launch was, however, itself postponed by a couple of hours on the 22nd, due to unacceptable crosswinds on the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF), which Wetherbee and Baker would use if an emergency forced a Return to Launch Site (RTLS) abort. Discussions between members of the Mission Management Team (MMT), chaired by former astronaut Brewster Shaw, concluded that although the crosswinds exceeded flight rules, they were safe enough for Columbia to go.
Ascent Flight Director Jeff Bantle’s reservations were overruled and Shaw elected to proceed with the launch, based on simulations which verified that Wetherbee could still brake the shuttle to a safe stop on the runway in the event of an RTLS. “We accepted Jeff’s recommendation,” Shaw said later, “based on his interpretation of the guidelines and made a management decision that went in a different direction.”
As STS-52 ticked down to launch, it did so against the backdrop of 50 previous shuttle flights, one of which—tragic Mission 51L on 28 January 1986—had failed to reach its destination. That half-century of missions had seen the deployment of over 50 satellites for communications and astronomy, reconnaissance and intelligence and science and technology. Payloads had been retrieved and brought back to Earth or re-boosted back into orbit.
Spacewalkers had made 16 spacewalks to effect repairs, maintenance and practice construction methods for a future space station. And scientists had labored on nine Spacelab flights devoted to life and microgravity sciences, fluid physics and astrophysics.
As STS-52 headed into a clear Florida sky, 30 years ago, today, Wetherbee and his crew were beginning the second half-century of shuttle operations. During that second half-century of flights—which lasted through the fall of 2000—the shuttle would reach yet greater heights of achievement.
Between October 1992 and October 2000, four shuttles supported nine dockings with Russia’s Mir space station, launched 27 major payloads—including the Chandra X-ray Observatory—and lifted the initial modules of the International Space Station (ISS) to orbit. NASA’s scientific showpiece, the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope, was dramatically brought back from the brink of disaster by shuttle spacewalkers and a semi-permanent presence of U.S. astronauts in space was established.
But more importantly, perhaps, the second half-century of shuttle flights also saw more men and women granted the opportunity to see the Home Planet from orbit. And for STS-52 astronaut Lacy Veach, who would die from cancer less than three years later, the sight of Earth in all its grandeur was worth the trip. “You can never believe the beauty of Island Earth,” he once remarked, “until you see it in its entirety from space.”