June has always been a significant month in the annals of space exploration. In June 1963, the world’s first female space traveler—Soviet factory worker and amateur parachutist Valentina Tereshkova—boarded a tiny Vostok capsule and was boosted on a three-day Earth-circling mission. Then, in June 1983, U.S. physicist Dr. Sally Ride flew shuttle Challenger, becoming the first American woman in space.
In June 1991, three women flew into space together for the first time and 30 years ago this week, astronauts Janice Voss and Nancy Sherlock (now Currie-Gregg) boarded shuttle Endeavour for an ambitious mission of science, technology, satellite retrieval and spacewalking. In doing so, STS-57 became the first spaceflight to include a pair of women from civilian (Voss an electrical engineer) and military (Sherlock a U.S. Army helicopter pilot) backgrounds.
The core objectives of STS-57 were the recovery of the European Retrievable Carrier (EURECA)—a free-flying satellite launched in August 1992 by a previous shuttle crew—and supporting a group of research experiments inside a new commercial laboratory, called “Spacehab”. The latter would go on to fly several dedicated scientific missions on the shuttle, as well as pulling double duty as a logistics facility for resupplying Russia’s Mir orbital outpost in 1996-1998 and the International Space Station (ISS) in 1999-2007.
In February 1992, Voss and veteran astronaut David Low were assigned to the STS-57 crew, followed a few weeks later by Sherlock and Jeff Wisoff, together with flight-seasoned Commander Ron Grabe and Pilot Brian Duffy. At the time of his assignment, Duffy was in quarantine in the crew quarters at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, only days away from launching into space on his first shuttle mission, so getting named to a second flight so early was a pleasant surprise.
“Gee, I sure hope I like this,” Duffy wondered, “because I just signed up for two of them!”
Originally scheduled to fly late in April 1993, delays to the shuttle manifest earlier that spring—triggered by a dramatic on-the-pad abort of Columbia in March and a hurried reordering of a pair of back-to-back missions in April—pushed STS-57 into the first week of June, and eventually the 20th. And that happened to be Duffy’s 40th birthday.
Grabe hoped to send his friend over the hill in style with an on-time launch, but it was not to be. Weather conditions at the shuttle’s emergency landing sites were all outside mandated limits and, after holding the countdown at T-5 minutes, the “launch window” eventually ran out of time and the attempt was scrubbed.
Conditions improved next morning and having shooed an unauthorized aircraft out of the launch danger zone, Endeavour roared aloft from KSC’s historic Pad 39B at 9:07 a.m. EDT on 21 June 1993. “The bear jumps off your chest,” recalled Wisoff in an interview for the Smithsonian, “and you can see your seatbelts float upward, which is kinda cool.”
Three days into the flight, after a series of complex maneuvers, the shuttle accomplished a picture-perfect rendezvous with EURECA and Low captured the boxy satellite with the Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanized arm. However, although EURECA’s solar arrays folded away as they should, its two antennas—which were meant to automatically retract and latch—failed to do so.
A four-hour spacewalk by Low and Wisoff to rehearse Space Station assembly tasks was already planned for 25 June and it was decided to send the astronauts outside to manually close the antennas. They completed this task without great difficulty and pressed ahead with a series of station-related chores, evaluating the movement of large masses at the end of the RMS.
Interestingly, this was the first shuttle Extravehicular Activity (EVA) to take place on a mission with a pressurized lab in the payload bay. As a result, the connecting tunnel between Endeavour’s cabin and the Spacehab had to be closed.
Although no pressure loss was recorded, this closure may have induced an event which scared the daylights out of Grabe, Duffy, Sherlock and Voss on the shuttle’s flight deck. During the EVA, Endeavour’s belly was pointed toward the Sun, in order to simulate the deep cold of space which spacewalkers would experience during Space Station construction or repairs of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).
“All of a sudden,” remembered Duffy in an interview for the NASA Oral History Project, “it was as if somebody took the orbiter and hit it with a bulldozer.” The whole vehicle shook and the four wide-eyed astronauts grew very quiet. There did not appear to be any damage to the shuttle and Mission Control saw nothing amiss in their data.
The most likely explanation was that residual forces had built up on the ground in the struts holding Spacehab in the payload bay and these had released in space and created a resonant “ringing” through the ship. Outside, Low and Wisoff saw and felt nothing. “They didn’t have a clue,” said Duffy, “but if they’d looked inside at that time, they would have seen eight big eyes!”
Scheduled to run for seven days, STS-57 had already been extended by 24 hours, due to the crew’s economical use of on-board consumables, but unsatisfactory weather conditions at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at KSC forced a further two days of delays. Eventually, on the morning of 1 July, Grabe and Duffy guided Endeavour smoothly back to Earth, touching down at the Florida Spaceport at 8:52 a.m. EDT, after a ten-day mission.
The long flight—and the even longer wait to land—cemented friendships. And it afforded the astronauts some free time to watch the Home Planet.
“Nancy and I were on the flight deck, one night,” said Duffy, “when we were waiting to go bed, basically hanging out, and she and I were upstairs, turned all the lights out on the flight deck and the two of us just sat there and floated in the window and watched the Earth going by in the dark. It was pretty neat.”
By this stage, so late in the flight, and already two days overdue on landing, Endeavour had well and truly run out of all of her camera film. But it hardly mattered. “We just got to look and just enjoy it,” said Duffy. “It was really cool.”