A quarter-century ago today, on 19 November 1997, a shuttle mission with a difference rose from historic Pad 39B at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC). It was the first launch from the 39B complex since January and on STS-87 Columbia would spend 16 days in orbit, deploy and retrieve the Spartan-201 solar physics satellite, conduct scientific research and support a pair of spacewalks.
And although STS-87 proved bittersweet—following the failed deployment of Spartan, spacewalkers were required to manually retrieve it—the mission broke new ground in several key areas. It marked the first time that a Japanese citizen had performed an Extravehicular Activity (EVA) and during Columbia’s ascent to space it saw the first roll to a heads-up orientation to enable better communications through ground stations.
The six-member crew, led by Commander Kevin Kregel, had trained for STS-87 for almost a year. Kregel, together with Pilot Steve Lindsey—a future chief of the Astronaut Office—and Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, Winston Scott and Takao Doi were named to the mission in November 1996, with Ukrainian Payload Specialist Leonid Kadenyuk joining them in May 1997.
Primary payload was the fourth U.S. Microgravity Payload (USMP-4), a trio of materials processing and fluid physics investigations, affixed to a truss structure in the shuttle’s payload bay. And Spartan-201 would be deployed via Columbia’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm for two days of observations of the Sun’s corona.
Scott and Doi were tasked with a spacewalk to rehearse International Space Station (ISS) construction methods, whilst Chawla—who would lose her life in the STS-107 tragedy—became the first woman of Indian descent to fly in space and Kadenyuk became the first ethnic representative of an independent Ukraine to reach orbit. As circumstances transpired, Scott and Doi made a pair of EVAs, totaling 12 hours and 42 minutes.
Preparations for STS-87’s launch ran exceptionally smoothly and the scheduled T-0 at 2:46 p.m. EST—right at the start of a 2.5-hour “window”—allowed the crew to awaken at gentlemen’s hours. As they suited-up in the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building, Kregel proudly displayed a cap belonging to his son’s soccer team.
The astronauts then headed out to Pad 39B, whose ten-month down-time had seen it receive new elevators, improved electrical cabling and other enhancements. “We have a lot of new paint out there,” quipped shuttle operations manager Bob Sieck. “It’s our goal to burn off some of that paint…with an on-time launch.”
Despite an iffy, 60-percent likelihood of good weather, Columbia rose from Earth exactly on time at 2:46 p.m. EST. Powered uphill by her three main engines and twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), the opening minutes of STS-87 appeared visually indistinct from any other shuttle mission.
“And liftoff of Space Shuttle Columbia,” gushed KSC launch announcer George Diller, “on a mission combining science and the practical applications of space.” STS-87 was the eighth and last shuttle mission of 1997, closing out a remarkable year which had seen three visits to Russia’s Mir space station, a uniquely twice-flown Spacelab mission and long-awaited upgrades to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).
Never again would the shuttle fly so many times in a single calendar year. As shrinking workforce budgets, the calamitous loss of Columbia herself in February 2003 and a delayed ISS manifest took their toll, the fleet would support no more than six flights annually for the rest of its career.
Two minutes after liftoff, Columbia shed her SRBs and continued to orbit under the impulse of her main engines. Then, at six minutes into the STS-87 ascent, something never tried before took place.
Over a 20-second period, the shuttle’s on-board General Purpose Computers (GPCs) steered the vehicle 180 degrees to the left, transitioning Kregel’s crew from a “heads-down” to a “heads-up” orientation. The exercise allowed NASA to communicate with shuttle crews via the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) up to 2.5 minutes sooner than normal, eliminating the need for the Bermuda ground station.
Columbia’s GPCs pulled off the maneuver effortlessly and the shuttle rolled at five degrees per second. This created a minimal 15-second dropout in radio communications with Mission Control.
“In the roll, we transitioned from ground station telemetry to TDRS telemetry,” explained Launch Integration Manager and former shuttle commander Don McMonagle. “We’re very satisfied that the unique aspect of this ascent trajectory went as planned.”
The maneuver, which was to be used on future low-inclination shuttle flights, allowed Columbia’s cockpit antennas to lock onto the overhead TDRS. At the time it occurred, the shuttle was 300 miles (480 kilometers) downrange of KSC and racing to orbit at an altitude of 68 miles (110 kilometers).
As such, the manuever was out of range of long-distance tracking cameras and went unseen. But it proved a great success.
“Nice roll,” radioed Capcom Scott “Doc” Horowitz from Mission Control.
“Copy and concur,” replied Kregel.
Interestingly, the entire maneuver was GPC-commanded and the crew had no idea if they would roll to the left or right, until it actually happened. That decision was made in real time, based upon incoming velocity and orientation data.
At the time, Columbia was traveling at more than 8,200 mph (13,200 km/h), outside the “sensible” atmosphere, where aerodynamic loads on the vehicle did not pose a substantial risk. Before launch, Kregel called it “an E-ticket ride”.
“We had to do a fair amount of analysis to ensure that we weren’t doing anything dumb,” STS-87 Flight Director Wayne Hale later recalled. “One thing we didn’t want to perturb was the [Return to Launch Site] abort mode.
“That is a fairly intricate maneuver, it’s been analyzed to death and we spent a lot of money making sure it would work if we ever had to do that and it is based on a heads-down trajectory,” continued Mr. Hale. “We picked a time that was after Negative Return.”
The analysis revealed that even if Columbia suffered an electrical system failure or two main engines out, the shuttle would remain controllable. From the pilot’s seat, Lindsey found that the roll gave him a jaw-dropping first view of Earth.
“We’re nose-high, so all you can see is blue, blue, blue…and then black,” Lindsey said later. “But about six minutes into the flight, we do a roll to heads-up. During that, the roll to heads-up is really the first time you get to see the Earth from space.
“I will never forget that first roll,” he continued. “It rolled my way, so I could see the Earth coming up and seeing the Earth from space for the first time was very memorable. Things like your hometown are very memorable, but just seeing the beauty of the Earth and that it’s actually round—like they say in the geography books—that’s something I won’t ever, ever forget.”