NASA Shuttle Specific Sections > Shuttle History - Pre-RTF

Columbia STS-28 – Called Back to Duty

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Mission Specialist Mark Neil Brown, Major USAF, was born November 18, 1951, in Valparaiso, Indiana. He’s six feet tall and weighs 180 pounds. Brown received a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from Purdue University in 1973 and a Master of Science degree in Astronautical Engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1980. He received his pilot wings at Laughlin AFB in 1974 and was assigned to the 87th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Sawyer AFB, Michigan. In 1979 Brown was transferred to the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Paterson AFB, Ohio. He has been employed at Johnson Space Center since 1980 and was assigned as an engineer in the flight activities section. Brown participated in the development of contingency procedures for use aboard the shuttle. Brown was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in May 1984 and was assigned to mission 61-N in November 1985. He was involved in the post-Challenger SRB redesign efforts while waiting for this flight, now called STS-28.

(Countdown, August 1989 - edited)


Counting heads aboard the shuttle… 

NASA and the Air Force had put their heads together in order to study the effects of space radiation. Unknown to the public at the time, a human skull filled with radiation detectors was sent up aboard Columbia STS-28. The story was broken much later by Aviation Week – in early 1990, when the so-called “phantom head” went up again aboard Atlantis STS-36. It was located on the right-hand side of the middeck near the foot of an astronaut’s sleeping bag.

The skull weighed about 11 pounds and was the most accurate way of determining the amount of radiation which penetrated the head. It had been donated by an anonymous person who gave their body to science, and the person’s identification remained unknown. Due to the size of the skull, it was believed to be a female’s. Information gathered from the phantom head was to give researchers a better idea of how to plan missions involving the Space Station and longer visits to the Moon or Mars.

The $1,500 skull had been sliced into sections an inch thick, so medical researchers at Johnson Space Center could install more than 100 radiation detectors. Then it had been reassembled and covered with plastic that was affected by radiation much like human skin. On each of the two missions, STS-28 and later STS-36, the skull was to be carried subsequently into higher orbits to gain more information about space radiation. STS-28 went up to a 57-degree-inclination orbit, while during STS-36 Atlantis would reach a 62-degree inclination. At a higher inclination, astronauts become exposed to more radiation. Radiation levels also change with altitude as well as inclination to the equator – so the skull was to make its third flight on Discovery STS-31, the Hubble deployment mission, which would take it to a shuttle record altitude of 330 nautical miles. (Countdown, April 1990 – edited)

The usual rumors

When the Washington Post revealed the cargo of the first “secret” military shuttle flight in 1985, then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger termed it offering “aid and comfort to the enemy.” The fourth military flight is about to take off – perhaps as soon as August 7 or 8 – and speculation as to its cargo runs just as high as ever. The military must be resigned to it, for no one is paying much attention, let alone charging treason.

STS-28, the 30th flight of the shuttle and eighth of Columbia, will occur at about 7:45 a.m. EDT. The launch window extends two and a half hours. The shuttle will be placed in a high-inclination orbit, inclined 57 degrees to the equator. The flight will deploy a Lacrosse satellite, a duplication of the one orbited by STS-27 in December, according to speculation by some sources. Two of the $500-million satellites – which use a large, 100-foot radar antenna to probe the U.S.S.R. for missile treaty violations – were built- Yet the trade publication Aviation Week, in a mysterious article in June, lists the exact weight of the satellite as 20,600 lbs. The article did not state the name or purpose of the secret satellite, but the weight would only be about half that of a Lacrosse radar satellite. The weight also would be less than that of a $500-million Keyhole KH-12 imaging spy satellite – another rumored cargo.

No matter what it is, the satellite will be deployed on orbit five, about six hours after launch, according to Aviation Week. A second small satellite, weighing 275 lbs., will be spring ejected on orbit 18 about 26 hours into the mission, the publication says. Eight other experiments aboard the flight are said to include a contamination monitor, radiation monitor and a low-altitude heavy ion detector. As on previous open shuttle flights, thruster burns by Columbia will be observed by the Air Force optical tracking site at Maui, Hawaii, as part of Strategic Defense Initiative efforts to develop means of identifying rocket plumes.

STS-28, as with previous military missions, will probably fly a four-day flight. An exact landing time will not be announced until 24 hours before the event. No matter the time, the landing site cannot be kept secret – as with all present shuttle flights, it will occur at Edwards Air Force Base. No matter the mission, the flight of Columbia will go down as a rarity. The military is rapidly halting use of the shuttle. STS-28 will enter the books as one of only a handful of “secret” shuttle missions. (Countdown, August 1989)

And this time they got it all totally wrong…

Even the experienced space experts got it totally wrong this time and so the real nature of Columbia’s payload remained a secret. Several weeks after mission STS-28, because everybody thought it was a reconnaissance satellite, observers on the ground were speculating if something had gone wrong when they watched the satellite flash in regular intervals – suggesting it had spun out of control:

A top-secret spy satellite carried into space aboard the shuttle Columbia in August malfunctioned shortly after it was released from the space plane and may be tumbling in orbit, an aerospace magazine reported. Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine reported in its Oct. 9, 1989 issue that sources said "the problems with the reconnaissance spacecraft have been corrected." A second intelligence community source agreed that the payload is functioning normally, the magazine said.

But the health of the costly satellite, reportedly an advanced imaging reconnaissance spy craft, remains uncertain because of reports from amateur astronomers and others that indicate the spacecraft is tumbling in space. Time-exposure photographs of the satellite taken from the ground for Aviation Week show a periodic brightening and dimming that is "characteristic of a payload rotating out of control and reflecting the sun as it tumbles," the magazine said. Astronomers in seven countries have been observing the apparent tumbling motion since mid-August, according to Aviation Week. Columbia, with five astronauts on board, was launched Aug. 8 on a classified military mission. The goal of the flight was the deployment of the reconnaissance satellite, but, as usual with such missions, neither NASA nor the Air Force would comment on the nature of the payload or its health. (Deseret News, Oct. 7, 1989)

The unusual behavior of the “reconnaissance” satellite actually was absolutely normal for a spin-stabilized communications platform. And indeed it was later revealed that Columbia had launched the first Satellite Data System SDS-2 communications relay satellite into a high-inclination orbit, which allowed it to cover the Polar Regions. SDS-2 was based on the cylindrical Leasat/Syncom-design – measuring 14 feet in diameter and 9.5 feet in length, weighing 5,150 pounds when fully fueled. The satellite was equipped with two 15-foot-diameter dish antennas, one 6.6-foot-diameter dish, and two smaller antennas for different uplink and downlink functions. SDS-2 was also said to have featured an infrared sensor for the detection of ballistic missile launches.


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