July’s Monthly History Milestone: 30th Anniversary of STS-4
Thirty years ago this month, on America’s 206th birthday, astronauts T.K. Mattingly and Hank Hartsfield returned from Earth orbit, landing safely on Runway 22, a concrete strip at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Among the dignitaries waiting for the crew were President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan. Years later Mattingly remembered that NASA had marketed the mission so heavily that the crew had “to land on the Fourth of July, no matter what day we took off. Even if it was the fifth, we were going to land on the Fourth,” he joked. “That meant, if you didn’t do any of your test mission, that’s okay, as long as you just land on the Fourth, because the president is going to be there.”
STS-4, the final flight of the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) program, did in fact complete 92 percent of its test objectives. The OFT program consisted of four two-man crews for the first four missions of the shuttle program. Each flight crew conducted a series of assessments and tests on the vehicle’s hardware. The test program verified the accuracy of tests conducted on the ground in wind tunnels and simulations and also provided engineers with a greater understanding of shuttle heating and loads during launch and landing. STS-4 provided important data on Columbia’s thermal performance, the reaction control system and the Remote Manipulator System, or robot arm.
NASA was on the cusp of a new age. As Columbia’s crew prepared for the final orbital test in the spring of 1982, visible changes were underway, especially in crew training. At a May news conference Hartsfield explained, “Our preparation for STS-4 has been emphasizing perhaps a little different nature,” than those of the first three flights. “That is, we’re trying to prepare ourselves to move into the ops era. We’ve spent a great deal of our training in replanting our procedures, weeding out some of the contingency things that you worry about on early flights.” For instance, he said, “We’ve been worrying more about how to adapt our procedures and streamlining them for operations.”
STS-4 represented the space agency’s first step toward using the vehicle as a microgravity space factory, specifically to determine the viability of producing pharmaceuticals in orbit. The Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System (CFES), a device built by McDonnell Douglas in partnership with the Ortho Pharmaceuticals division of Johnson & Johnson, flew on the shuttle’s middeck where Hartsfield operated the experiment. The flight proved the concept and later Charlie Walker, a member of the McDonnell Douglas team, became the first industrial payload specialist to fly onboard the space shuttle on Hartsfield’s second flight, STS-41D.
The program’s fourth flight also featured the first Department of Defense payload, which resulted in changes to NASA’s open access policy. No secure communication line had yet been established for the mission so the crew devised a system of communicating with the ground so that classified information would not be leaked.
“We had the checklist divided up in sections that we just had letter names like Bravo Charlie, Tab Charlie, Tab Bravo that they could call out,” Hartsfield explained. “When we talked to Sunnvale, to Blue Cube out there, military control, they said, ‘Do Tab Charlie,’ or something. That way it was just unclassified.”
The shuttle’s final test flight opened a new era in human spaceflight. Reagan equated the landing with “the historical equivalent to the driving of the golden spike, which completed the first transcontinental railroad.” The space shuttle was now operational, and the program turned its attention to utilizing the resources and capabilities to be found in low Earth orbit. The next flight, STS-5, featured—for the first time—two mission specialists and the successful deploy of two commercial communications satellites from the Orbiter's payload bay, moving NASA’s space shuttle into the business of spaceflight as a space freighter or truck.
For more information on this significant flight, read some selected oral history interview excerpts available on the JSC History Portal:http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/special_events/STS-4.htm