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Columbia STS-28 – Called Back to Duty

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In his January 2006 interview for the JSC Oral History Project Columbia Pilot Dick Richards explained some of the challenges associated with flying a classified mission: “Keeping it classified and not getting into trouble, yeah. We had some weird stuff we had to do as far as what we could tell our wife, what we couldn’t. Some of it’s pretty complicated. I usually approach those things, ‘Well I’ll do what makes sense.’ But when I got into it, this thing was so classified that we had to do things that were, in my mind, crazy. But I knew I had to do them, so it was just a question of remembering and trying to do that. That was the hardest thing, was to make sure that you didn’t inadvertently have a security leak or a security breakdown there that you could not only jeopardize your mission and your payload, but also yourself personally.”

According to Ben Evans (“Space Shuttle Columbia,” 2005) Mission Specialist Dave Leestma described preparations for this top-secret mission as unusual and very cloak-and-dagger in nature: “Sometimes you had to disguise where you were going! You’d file a flight plan in a T-38 from one place and go somewhere else, to try to not leave a trail for where you were going or what you were doing, who was sponsor of this payload or what its capabilities were or what it was going to do. You had to be careful all the time of what you were saying.”

Hail Columbia – again!

“I flew on Columbia a long time ago and it was a great machine. It’ll be a great machine again.”

STS-28 Commander Brewster Shaw

As Columbia sits perched on her launch pad like a sharp-beaked bird of prey poised for a secret military mission, no one could guess that she once was a feeble dodo bird marked for extinction. Columbia, the first orbiting shuttle, is about to do something unusual for her – flying in space. In the ten years since she was completed, she has spent about seven in the hangar, out of the normal flight flow, and only three on the flight line. She has made only one flight in the past five and a half years.

Columbia’s relegation to the hangar can be attributed to its seniority, as NASA taxed itself to bring the oldest orbiter onto par with its younger siblings, and to the delays and modifications caused by the Challenger accident. However, Columbia’s reputation as a hangar queen was first earned a decade ago when she was the newest orbiter in a fleet of one. When Columbia rode into Kennedy Space Center atop her 747 carrier aircraft on March 24, 1979, the space plane appeared like a molting bird, with bare patches speckling its tiled surface. About 7,000 of over 31,000 ceramic heat protection tiles remained to be bonded to the bird’s skin. Despite this task, launch was scheduled for November 9 of the same year.

That soon changed as structural analysis revealed a flaw in NASA’s thinking about the tiles. Early analysis had considered the tiles, which range from one to six square inches, as a mere covering for the shuttle’s aluminum skin and grouped large portions of the tiles together for stress predictions. In reality, each tile had to be considered as its own separate structure – and when the loads were calculated, the glue-like bonding holding them in place was determined not to be strong enough. Each tile had to be individually pull tested.

Columbia remained a mottled hangar queen at the Kennedy Space Center as testing and analysis revealed that an increasing number of tiles needed “densification.” In densification, the tile was removed and a stronger skin layer impregnated on its underside, providing two-to-three times the bonding strength. Columbia sat in the hangar for a year and a half as the modification work painstakingly inched along its surface. Finally on December 29, 1980, Columbia was rolled to the pad. The first shuttle launch occurred at 7 a.m. EDT on April 12, 1981. Although Columbia’s crew – John Young and Robert Crippen – enjoyed their moment in the spotlight, the new star of the manned space program was the orbiter itself, greeted by cheers of “Hail, Columbia.” With the shuttle, the names of the orbiters would be remembered longer than the names of the astronauts.

NASA had hoped to launch next on September 30, 1981, but the orbiter required replacement of 1,000 tiles. Then on September 23, the first of the unfortunate string of problems occurred. During fueling of the shuttle’s attitude control thruster tanks, nitrogen tetroxide spilled onto the thermal protection tiles, loosening 380 of them. The tiles had to be rebounded to the craft and again the flight was delayed. Contamination of lubricating oil in the hydraulic power system caused a further delay as a launch attempt on November 4, 1981, ground to a halt at the T-31 second point. Finally, on November 12, seven months from its first launch, Columbia rose to become the first used spacecraft to fly in space.

Columbia’s most-active period was underway. She flew two more increasingly complex test flights, the final one launching on the Fourth of July, 1982. Then the orbiter made the first “operational” shuttle flight in November of the same year, deploying two communications satellites. – Never again would an orbiter fly five straight missions. When Columbia returned from that flight on November 16, she began a year-long period of modification in preparation for the first flight of Spacelab, the European-built laboratory carried in the shuttle’s payload bay. Columbia’s main engines were replaced with three new ones (2011, 2018 and 2019), capable of operating at 104 percent thrust. Columbia’s elevon ablators were replaced with High-temperature Reusable Surface Insulation tiles. The wings and mid-fuselage received added thermal protection by the densification of HRSI tiles on their surfaces. The complete aft flight deck distribution panel was redesigned to relocate existing wiring and connectors to be compatible with the Standard Mixed Cargo Harness. Other modifications included installation of the cabin air system to provide oxygen flow for a seven-member crew.

Among the specific modifications relating to STS-9/Spacelab were the addition of an airlock and tunnel adapter to permit the crew to transfer between the pressurized orbiter crew module and the Spacelab 1 laboratory module; installation of additional crew seats on the middeck (two for payload specialists and one for a mission specialist); addition of provisions for communications, emergency oxygen, three bunk bed sleeping stations and sleeping bags and the inclusion of extra locker and storage space to accommodate a six-man crew. A galley and personal hygiene station on the middeck to serve as an eating and food storage area was also added. A new Ku-band antenna required for transmitting real-time Spacelab 1 data to Houston using the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite system was installed. Two more sets of oxygen/hydrogen tanks used by the electricity-producing fuel cells were added to the three sets normally flown. The tanks gave Columbia the capability to conduct the longest flight of the shuttle program.

After the long layoff, during which the Challenger had taken away Columbia’s spotlight by flying three near-perfect missions, the veteran Columbia made her second debut at 11:00 a.m. EST November 28, 1983, to  begin a ten-day mission that covered more than four million miles on 166 orbits. Columbia’s return to space during STS-9 took longer than even the planned record-breaking ten days. Landing was delayed for more than seven hours as vital systems began failing. First, General Purpose Computer 1 failed, followed by GPC 2. After analyzing the situation and troubleshooting the computers, it was determined that GPC 1 could not be restarted. GPC 2 was brought back online only 40 minutes after failure. If the computer problems were not bad enough, an Inertial Measurement Unit used to determine the shuttle’s location in space, broke down. Ground controllers had to bring Columbia back as soon as possible. At 3:47 p.m. PST December 8, 1983, on the last daylight opportunity for an Edwards landing, the failure-stricken Columbia touched down – just in time as GPC 2 failed again. Problems were not over yet. Shortly thereafter, a small fire between Auxiliary Power Unit 1 and 2 knocked out both units, which power the craft’s hydraulic systems.

Columbia appeared an aging fighter, apparently past its prime. At this point, the orbiter nearly was retired permanently. As a means of alleviating a parts shortage, some shuttle managers wanted to strip Columbia, virtually gutting the spacecraft. James Beggs, NASA administrator, realized that once Columbia was stripped, she probably would never fly again. He ordered the space plane maintained until a period of major modification could begin. Columbia once again was destined for a long sit in a hangar. This time, the modifications would be conducted at the Palmdale, California, assembly facility of Rockwell International, builder of the shuttle fleet. Columbia was flown to California on January 27, 1984.

The improvements included everything from structural strengthening (especially in the wings and cargo bay) to the installation of a heads-up display – standard equipment on the newer shuttles. NASA also took the down time of Columbia to install a few extra experimental instruments on the orbiter. Among the data gathering instrumentation installed on Columbia was an infrared-sensing pod designed to perform the Shuttle Infrared Leeside Temperature Sensing (SILTS) experiment designed to gather shuttle data in the orbiter’s operational environment. The pod, located atop Columbia’s vertical stabilizer, contained an infrared camera, a control and data module, a cooling system for the camera and its two viewing ports in the front end of the pod. Columbia’s nose was also remodeled to include 14 additional air data ports to provide experimenters with data collection beginning at 56 miles during reentry. Last but not least, a mass spectrometer instrument was placed in Columbia’s nose-wheel well to record atmospheric molecular data during reentry.

By all outward appearances the ship was the same black and white craft that last launched November 28, 1983, but more than 250 modifications made the old Columbia and the new Columbia about the same as O’Henry and Henry Aaron. When Columbia returned to the launch pad, she was scheduled to launch December 18, 1985. By the time the orbiter made its third debut on January 12, 1986, its reputation for remaining grounded had grown once more. A record seven delay from December 18, 1985, plagued the eldest shuttle as she waited for lift-off. STS 61-C was a record breaker in difficulty for everyone involved. When Columbia finally lifted off, the crew had experienced four launch scrubs – another record – but the fifth entry into the Queen was a charm. Columbia lifted off at 6:55 a.m. EST, in the predawn hours, offering viewers a royal spectacle of light and color unmatched by any shuttle launch to date. When Columbia landed on January 18, 1986, at 5:59 a.m. PST, no one could have guessed that she had just made her only flight for a period of over five years. The Challenger accident was only ten days away.

Following Challenger, over 200 modifications were deemed needed for the entire shuttle fleet. Discovery, the first shuttle to return to flight, gained top priority. Then in turn, Atlantis received NASA’s focus. Columbia, like a sad orphan, received little attention. She was shuffled from storage in the Vehicle Assembly Building, where little modification could be done, to the new shuttle hangar – where full processing still could not be done. As 1989 opened, some experts predicted Columbia would not fly this year. NASA resolutely focused priorities on returning all remaining orbiters to flight. In addition to 253 post-Challenger modifications, Columbia molted her skin once more, with 2,350 tiles being replace of rebounded. Tiles on parts of the upper surfaces were replaced by the more-advanced flexible blankets. Five miles of wiring were also replaced.

A month later than planned at the start of the year, Columbia is ready for her fourth debut. Instead of the insides of hangars, Columbia will taste more of orbit than in its first decade. Because her additional consumables tanks allow longer flights, a majority of the coming Spacelab flights will be conducted using Columbia. These flights will develop and test many of the experiments to be flown on the Space Station. Ironically, the oldest orbiter will have a major role to play in NASA’s Space Station drive toward the 21st Century. – It’s an orbiter with a future. (Countdown, August 1989 – edited)


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