Challenger: Setback and Recovery
On Sept. 29, 1988, at 11:37 a.m., the Space Shuttle Discovery proudly lifted off Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center. In outward appearance, the launch of mission STS-26 looked the same as many before it. The orbiter with its distinctive black and white banding, the cigar-shaped external tank and the twin solid rocket boosters-all seemed no different than 25 other Shuttles which had lifted off from Launch Complex 39.
But if one listened closely to the cheering crowd on hand to witness the launch it immediately became clear that this was no ordinary mission. Journalists watching the ascent maneuvers on television at the KSC News Center were especially vocal when the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) separated from the orbiter and external tank a little over two minutes into the flight. "What a beautiful sight!" one yelled. "Go, U.S.A., go!"
A close-up inspection would have revealed that the solids powering Discovery were a redesign of their predecessors, and had never flown before. The orbiter itself had undergone more than 200 modifications since the last Shuttle mission. Even the pad from which STS-26 was launched had new features and equipment.
The flight of Discovery symbolized the historic resumption of the American manned space flight program. Nearly three years before, on the bitter cold morning of Jan. 28, 1986, the Shuttle Challenger had blasted off on mission 51-L from the same pad as STS-26. But what seemingly began as another near-routine flight ended a brief 73 seconds later when the spaceship and her crew of seven were lost in a massive structural breakup. It was the most profound setback the U.S. manned space flight program had ever suffered, and a national tragedy. What happened between the Challenger accident, and the return to flight 32 months later with the launch of Discovery, is a story of painstaking re-examination and recovery.
Challenger was the third orbiter NASA ordered from Rockwell International and the second to fly into space. It was originally built as a structural test article and then modified for operational flight OV-99, as Challenger was designated, became the workhorse of NASA's four-orbiter fleet, completing nine missions from April 1983 to January 1986.
A number of "firsts" were achieved on Challenger flights: the first night launch and landing of the Shuttle program (STS-8), first landing of the Shuttle at Kennedy Space Center (STS-41B), first space walk of the Shuttle program (STS-6), the first American woman in space (STS-7), first flight of an African-American (STS-8) and first in-orbit satellite capture and repair operation (STS-41C).
STS 51-L was also going to be a historic first: the first teacher in space. Payload Specialist S. Christa McAuliffe was a New Hampshire schoolteacher chosen from thousands of applicants. She was scheduled to teach a class from space once the Shuttle achieved low Earth orbit.
Mission commander was Francis R. Scobee; Michael J. Smith was the pilot. Gregory B. Jarvis was the second payload specialist, and there were three mission specialists: Ronald E. McNair, Judith A. Resnik and Ellison S. Onizuka. Smith, McAuliffe and Jarvis were on their first Shuttle flight. Primary payload for the mission was a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS). Challenger had carried aloft the first TDRS spacecraft on her maiden voyage three years earlier.
STS 51-L blasted off from the pad at 11:38 a.m., six days later than planned and two hours late on the rescheduled day. Later photographic reviews of the launch showed that at less than a second after ignition, a puff of smoke spurted from the area of the aft field joint on the right solid rocket booster. The presidentially appointed task force which investigated the loss concluded that it was the failure of this joint which culminated in the breakup of the vehicle some 73 seconds later.
Less than an hour after the accident, the most intense search and recovery operation ever undertaken at sea was already under way. The search for Challenger debris lasted seven months, and involved a combined operation of the United States Coast Guard, Air Force, Navy and NASA, as well as private vessels working for the government. Altogether 16 surface vessels, a submarine, four remotely operated vehicles and two manned submersibles, five aircraft and seven helicopters were used.
From depths exceeding 1,200 feet (366 meters) and covering an area greater than 486 square nautical miles (1,668 square kilometers), the salvage teams extracted 118 tons (107 metric tons) of Challenger debris. NASA ranked location and recovery of the suspect right solid rocket booster and the orbiter crew compartment as the top priorities.
After extensively searching for floating debris, the salvage teams used sonar to map and identify debris beneath the ocean's surface. Of the more than 870 sonar contacts made, about 700 were actually investigated. Through this meticulous process, searchers recovered the right SRB section showing where burn-through of the joint had occurred, as well as much of the orbiter compartment housing Challenger's crew. Almost half of the orbiter and 90 percent of the boosters were brought to the surface. The 215,000 pounds (97,524 kilograms) of debris were eventually placed in deactivated Minuteman missile facilities at Complexes 31 and 32 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Within hours of the accident, NASA began forming an interim task force to investigate its cause. This team, comprised of top management officials from Kennedy Space Center and other NASA locations, became the 51-L Interim Mishap Review Board. Jesse Moore, then NASA associate administrator for space flight, was named chairman. Three locations, one at KSC and two at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, were designated storage and reconstruction areas for salvaged Challenger debris. Experts from the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates aircraft accidents, were called in to examine the physical wreckage as part of the effort to determine what had happened, and why.
The day after the accident, processing of the other three orbiters-Discovery, Atlantis and Columbia-was suspended, and mission planning placed on hold. Jesse Moore ordered that no new Shuttle-related contracts be signed. A photo team presented the investigation board with the first photographic indication of an anomaly, at or near the field joint between the aft and aft center segments of the right SRB.
On Feb. 3, President Ronald Reagan signed an executive order creating the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. Former Se of State William P. Rogers was named chairman, and former astronaut Neil Armstrong vice chairman. The 13-member panel was to report back to the President with days. Its mandate: to establish the probable cause or causes of the mishap, and to develop recommendations for corrective or other action based on its findings.
To support the commission, acting NASA Administrator William Graham replaced the 51-L interim panel with the STS 51-L Data and Design Analysis Task Force. The task force was then realigned to better address the commission's broad scope. Later the same month, Shuttle astronaut and Navy Adm. Richard Truly succeeded Jesse Moore as associate administrator for space flight-Moore had been named director of Johnson Space Center in early January. Truly also assumed chairmanship of the task force, and named as vice chairman James R. Thompson, deputy director for technical operations at the Princeton University Plasma Physics Laboratory and a former senior manager at Marshall Space. Flight Center.
Commission members visited Kennedy for briefings, and later held a full-scale hearing at the nearby visitors center.
On June 6, exactly 120 days after it was officially created, the Rogers commission submitted its final report to President Reagan. The Challenger mishap was "an accident rooted in history," the panel concluded, dating all the way back to an inadequate joint design which neither NASA nor solid rocket motor contractor Morton Thiokol had recognized as having a serious potential for failure. Primary cause of the explosion was leakage of hot gases past the seals in the field joint between the two lower segments of the right SRB. The commission found that this failure was the result of a "faulty design unacceptably sensitive to a number of factors." These factors included the effects of temperature, reuse, processing, and the joint's reaction to dynamic loading. The panel made nine recommendations on safely returning the Space Shuttle to flight:
I. Change the faulty solid rocket motor joint and seal design.
II. Review Shuttle management structure, placing more authority with the program manager. Increase the use of astronauts in management positions. Establish a Space Transportation System Safety Advisory Panel.
Ill. Review critical Shuttle parts and systems-those which, if they failed, could result in loss of the vehicle and/or life.
IV. Create a semi-independent safety, reliability and quality assurance directorate within the agency, reporting directly to the NASA administrator.
V. Improve communications.
VI. Take steps to improve landing safety.
VII. Try to implement a crew escape system usable during controlled gliding flight, and seek to increase the range of flight conditions under which an emergency runway landing could be conducted.
VIII. Establish a Shuttle flight rate consistent with available resources; avoid relying on a single launch vehicle system.
IX. Improve maintenance safeguards.
Well before the Rogers commission presented its final report to the president, NASA was already conducting its own vigorous assessment of the Shuttle program. A week after the accident, a top-to-bottom review began. "We not only went back into the solid rocket booster-solid rocket motor," said Richard Kohrs, deputy director of the National Space Transportation System (NSTS) program at Johnson Space Center in Houston, "we went back and looked at all of the elements of the Shuttle and said, 'What design improvements, what changes should we make-hardware or software-to improve margin or to improve safety?"'
Less than two months after the accident, Associate Administrator for Space Flight Truly issued a memorandum defining a comprehensive strategy and major actions required for safe resumption of Shuttle flights. Many of the requirements anticipated the Rogers commission's final report, including a complete assessment of the Shuttle decision-making process and redesign of the solid rocket booster joints.
NASA formally responded to the Rogers report on July 14, well within a presidentially stipulated 30-day deadline.
The agency was able to state that it had already initiated actions anticipating most of the nine recommendations:
I. Per Truly's March memo, the Marshall Space Flight Center was directed to form a solid rocket motor design team. Per the Rogers report, the National Research Council (NRC) established an independent oversight panel to follow the team's work.
II. In May, NASA's administrator commissioned former Apollo Program Director Gen. Sam Phillips to spearhead the review of NASA's management structure. While Phillips had broad authority to look at any and all aspects of NASA management, including relationships between the field centers and headquarters, NASA also wanted a closer look at Shuttle program management-also a concern of the Rogers commission. In June, the agency asked Shuttle veteran Capt. Robert L. Crippen to assess the NSTS program director's role, "to assure that the position has the authority commensurate with its responsibilities," and to "specify the relationship between the program organization and the field center organizations." Recommendations of the Crippen and Phillips studies would be coordinated.
III. In early March, NASA began reviewing Space Shuttle "Failure modes and Effects Analyses" (FMEAs), "Critical Items (components) Lists" (CILs), and hazard analyses. These are tools used to document what can go wrong with critical Shuttle hardware and the impact of a failure, and to insure that the criticality of the hardware is properly reflected in program documentation. Again, a separate and independent NRC panel would oversee this work.
IV. In early July, NASA formed a new top-level directorate to oversee safety operations. One task of the Safety, Reliability, Maintainability and Quality Assurance organization was to make sure NASA had enough people to ensure safety functions were adequately carried out.
V. Crippen was also charged with developing plans and policies to improve communication within NASA, and to standardize procedures for imposing and removing launch and other operational constraints.
VI. NASA established a Landing Safety Team to review And implement the commission's findings on Shuttle landing safety. The agency indicated it had initiated, some time prior to the accident, runway surface tests 'and landing aid requirement reviews. It had also planned previously to install advanced landing aids at the Shuttle landing facilities, and expected an improved interim brake system to be ready in 1987. Funding was already approved for an even better carbon brake system.
VII. Crew escape and launch abort studies were initiated in April, to be completed by October, with an implementation decision in December.
VIII. In March, NASA began a two-pronged study of Shuttle flight rate capability. Capabilities and constraints governing Shuttle processing flow at Kennedy were one focal point, and the impact of crew training and software delivery/certification on flight rates the other.
IX. A Maintenance Safeguard Team was created to implement the commission's recommendation and was assigned the task of developing a maintenance plan to "ensure that uniform maintenance requirements are imposed on all elements of the Space Shuttle program."
The self-examination of its policies and procedures which NASA carried out was thorough and rigorous. Every aspect of the Shuttle program was scrutinized, from the paperwork defining requirements of the Shuttle system, to the Shuttle hardware, to the pads from where that hardware is launched.
Numerous modifications were made:
While many of the changes were made in response to the Rogers commission recommendations and the accident, others such as pad and many orbiter and engine modifications, were planned earlier. NASA simply took advantage of the stand-down in launch activity to implement them. The comprehensive reviews conducted after the accident also generated changes. For example, only about a third of the booster modifications were Challenger-driven.
Redesign, test and certification of the Shuttle solid rocket motor joints began in earnest less than a month after the accident. The Solid Rocket Motor (SRM) joint redesign team was headed up by Marshall Space Flight Center's John Thomas. Other Marshall officials were on the team, as were representatives from other NASA centers and government agencies, and from solid rocket motor prime contractor Morton Thiokol.
By October 1986, the team had taken the requirements for the redesigned SRM and developed the engineering improvements. Changes were made in the segment joints, and in the case-to-nozzle joints; the nozzle; propellant grain shape; ignition system; and ground support equipment. The testing program to verify the SRM redesign and certify it was extensive, including laboratory and component tests, subscale tests, full-scale simulation tests and full-scale static test firings. "All in all, the testing of the SRM redesign was a substantially greater effort than was conducted of the original design in preparation for STS-1," said Gerald Smith, SRB project manager.
Workers at KSC contributed to the redesign effort in late 1987 when they conducted a stacking exercise with the Assembly Test Article. Two pieces of the redesigned booster were assembled and disassembled to validate revised assembly and checkout procedures.
Well before Challenger, NASA had begun a program to improve the reusable Space Shuttle main engines (SSMEs). These powerful, complex engines undergo tremendous dynamic loads during a Shuttle launch, and NASA wanted to increase their safety margins and improve durability.
NASA mounted an aggressive ground test program beginning in December 1986, to certify the improvements made to the SSME. In the 12-month period that followed, 151 tests and 52,363 seconds of operation were carried out at the Stennis Space Flight Center in Mississippi-the equivalent of 100 Shuttle flights. SSMEs were fired for longer periods of time than ever before-up to 1,040 seconds, more than twice the average time during actual flight. A third test stand was constructed at Stennis to support the program, which is continuing.
From her outer thermal protective layers to the computers that guide her, the orbiter also underwent an overhaul. Again, many of the changes were already under way or anticipated before the accident-like the landing gear upgrades. Others resulted from the FMEA/CIL reviews, such as the modification to the 17-inch disconnect valves linking the external tank to the orbiter. Unintended closure of these valves would mean no propellant flow to the engines-a catastrophe. NASA added a latch mechanism to insure that the disconnect valves remain open during the thrust phase. A KSC team garnered kudos for developing the computer software to operate the delicate valve-latch system.
The addition of a crew escape system to the orbiter was recommended by the Rogers commission. Various NASA centers, the U.S. Navy, and industry escape experts participated in studies to select the best system for use during controlled gliding flight when a runway is unavailable. The system selected adds about 650 pounds (295 kilograms) to the orbiter weight. Besides installation of a pole assembly, down which each crew member would slide to clear the wing, modifications were made to allow the orbiter crew hatch to be opened. To protect a Shuttle crew member from the harsh upper atmospheric conditions at which an escape might occur, a new launch entry suit was designed. Its partial pressure, anti-exposure characteristics would protect the wearer at or below 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) altitude.
While the system can only be used in limited situations, it "provides a very real capability that we're glad to have," said astronaut Rick Hauck, who commanded the first Shuttle to fly after Challenger. NASA also is looking into a system which can be used earlier in flight.
While it is easy to think of the recovery from the Challenger accident as one of hardware changes and testing, a massive reassessment of related paperwork was also conducted, starting with the documentation of what Shuttle hardware is supposed to do, to the Launch Commit Criteria defining countdown operating limits.
KSC conducted its own reviews of Shuttle processing paperwork, from a simple instruction sheet detailing how a single bolt should be installed, to the massive volumes detailing procedure for a launch countdown. Shuttle design centers and their contractor counterparts joined in the effort to insure that all instruction sheets used at KSC were thorough and accurate. Additional criteria were added to the Launch Commit Criteria pertaining to high-energy systems like the main engines, as well as more stringent weather criteria.
The Challenger accident marked a watershed in the history of NASA launch policy. Clearly, it was not in the nation's interest to continue toward reliance exclusively on a four-orbiter Shuttle fleet now reduced to three. The Rogers commission had warned that "such reliance on a single launch capability should be avoided in the future," and NASA agreed in its response: "NASA strongly supports a mixed fleet to satisfy launch requirements and actions to revitalize the United States expendable launch vehicle capabilities."
Both the Shuttle and expendable launch vehicles got a boost in August 1986. President Reagan announced his support for the construction of an orbiter to replace Challenger. At the same time, the White House announced that the Shuttle would no longer compete to launch commercial satellites. Given the accumulating backlog of satellites following the halt in Shuttle launches, the U.S. providers of commercial expendable launch services suddenly had a much better chance of competing for customers. The elimination of the Shuttle as a competitor paved the way for a new era in unmanned launching. Rather than supplying boosters to the government on a contractual basis, American companies would build their own boosters and launch them as well.
Commercial ELV suppliers received further encouragement the following year. In May 1987, NASA Administrator James Fletcher announced a mixed fleet concept employing both the Shuttle and unmanned launchers. The first manifest issued after the Challenger accident implemented this policy. The mixed fleet concept put redundancy back into the United States space program, reserving the Shuttle for those missions requiring its unique capabilities.
From a management perspective, NASA underwent several changes. James Fletcher, who was on hand for the inception of the Shuttle program in the 1970s, returned as administrator. Leadership of the Shuttle program was centralized at NASA Headquarters in Washington, addressing a Rogers commission concern that the NSTS program manager -- previously located at Johnson Space Center in Houston -- was being bypassed. Every level of Shuttle management was examined.
A new director headed up the recovery effort at Kennedy Space Center. On July 31, 1986, Center Director Richard G. Smith retired after 35 years of government service and seven years at the KSC helm. Smith won high praise from the NASA administrator and from his colleagues for his outstanding service to the space agency.
With the cause of the Challenger accident identified and NASA on track to the changes necessary to resume Shuttle flights, Smith saw an appropriate juncture to depart. "My leaving now will allow a new director to come on board and establish himself prior to resuming our Shuttle launch schedule," Smith explained.
Succeeding Smith was Lt. Gen. Forrest S. McCartney, former commander of the Space Division, Air Force Systems Command, Los Angeles, Calif. McCartney changed some of the KSC organizational structure to match the overall agency restructuring. An additional role was assigned to the KSC deputy director, Thomas E. Utsman: director of Space Transportation System management and operations. McCartney wanted to create a single focal point within KSC Shuttle management as a liaison with NASA Headquarters program officials.
McCartney also elevated the positions of the launch and engineering directors to lessen the burden of daily administrative work. To provide stronger, independent safety oversight, McCartney established the Safety, Reliability and Quality Assurance Directorate (SR&QA), from elements formerly part of each operational directorate.
In November 1986, NASA Deputy Administrator Dale Myers announced the new management and operations structure for the National Space Transportation System. Capt. Robert Crippen, veteran of four Shuttle flights, was named deputy director of National Space Transportation System Operations, one of two top-ranking positions created to strengthen Shuttle program management. Stationed at Kennedy Space Center, Crippen had the responsibility of managing the final launch decision process, beginning with the presentation of the Flight Readiness Review approximately two weeks prior to launch, and extending through the final go/no go for launch during the countdown.
"I don't think we're doing anything totally revolutionary from the way we were doing it before," Crippen said of the revamped management structure. "The primary thing that we've done is to make sure that it is much more crisply defined, and that the roles and responsibilities, of each of the individuals within it are very well defined."
Other changes were occurring at KSC. In October 1986, for the first time since the Challenger accident, an orbiter was rolled out to the pad. Atlantis remained on Pad B until mid-November to allow checkout of about $3.3 million worth of modifications designed to help shield the vehicle from harsh weather.
In addition, about 140 facility and equipment modifications were instituted at Launch Complex 39. At Pad B, the Apollo-era crew escape system design was upgraded and expanded to accommodate a Shuttle-size crew, plus other workers who might be on the service structure. Changes were also made in the Vehicle Assembly Building where the main Shuttle elements are assembled, on the mobile launcher platform upon which the assembly process takes place, and at the KSC Shuttle Landing Facility.
Despite such activities at the Center, employment dropped following the loss of Challenger. By the beginning of October 1986, the KSC work force had fallen from 16,000 employees to 13,700. Some of the decline was accomplished through normal attrition, some through layoffs resulting from the stand-down in Shuttle processing activities.
NASA decided to treat the STS-26 mission as if it were Discovery's first. Before the power-up could occur, many of the orbiter's major systems and components were removed and sent back to the supplier for rebuilding or modification. They were then reinstalled and checked out during flight processing. Workers also outfitted Discovery's bay to accept its primary payload: the third Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS).
The following year, early on the morning of July 4, America's Independence Day celebration got off to a historic start when the fully assembled Shuttle was rolled out of the VAB on its painstakingly slow journey to Pad B. Amidst a blaze of spotlights and waving American and NASA flags, Center Director Gen. McCartney presented STS-26 crew member Dave Hilmers with an autograph book bearing nearly every KSC employee's signature. In accepting the book Discovery's crew would carry into space, Hilmers told the crowd: "It is those of you who have written your names into this book who have made this splendid, magnificent sight that we behold tonight possible. But tonight, you haven't given this book or this Shuttle just to the five members of our crew. Indeed, you've given it to all Americans. It's the mark of a great nation ... that it can rise again from adversity, and with Discovery, rise again we shall."
Hilmers and his fellow STS-26 crew members had known of their assignment since January 1987. All were veterans of previous Shuttle flights. Crew commander was Frederick "Rick" Hauck (Capt., USN), who piloted mission STS-7 in June 1983 and commanded mission STS 51-A in November 1984. Richard "Dick" Covey (Col., USAF), who piloted mission 51-I in August 1985, would pilot STS-26. The three mission specialists were John "Mike" Lounge, who flew with Covey on 51-I; David C. Hilmers (Col., USMC), a mission specialist for 51-J, a classified Department of Defense flight in October 1985; and George "Pinky" Nelson, a mission specialist on STS 41-C in April 1984, Challenger's fourth flight, and on STS 61-C -- the flight before the accident.
The long preparation period gave the crew greater freedom to participate in the modification and review process. "We've had an opportunity to get very involved in the development of the changes to Discovery," Hauck said at a preflight briefing. "We've participated in many of the management reviews. We've worked with the flight controllers and flight directors and flight designers to make sure that we've got a mission that is one we can execute and one that we're comfortable with."
There was also time to remember Challenger. "If I can speak for the whole crew," Hilmers said at the same briefing, "we believe the Challenger accident was a great tragedy to our nation. It was a great tragedy to each of us personally. On the one hand, we can't forget what happened, because if we do, then we're prone to make the same types of mistakes that we made in the past.
"But on the other hand, we can't dwell on what happened in the past, or we'll never look forward to the future. In the same way, when we're on the launch pad, we'll be thinking about them. We'll have them in our minds, but I think our thoughts will be looking more forward and upward than they are into the past."
The targeted launch day was sometime in late September. Because of the two-year launch hiatus, and the extensive facility and hardware modifications, the prelaunch schedule at KSC was a grueling one. Three major prelaunch tests at the pad were conducted: the Wet Countdown Demonstration Test, which demonstrated the performance of the main propulsion loading system; the spectacular Flight Readiness Firing of the three main engines; and the Countdown Demonstration Test, a dress rehearsal for launch in which the flight crew participated.
With the three key tests accomplished and test data coming out clean, KSC workers continued to prepare for launch. Associate Administrator for Space Flight Truly flew down from NASA Headquarters in Washington to chair the Flight Readiness Review Sept. 13-14. During this top-level meeting at KSC's Operations and Checkout Building, NASA managers certified -- and backed up the certification with data -- that all was in readiness to proceed with a launch.
When NASA announced that Discovery would be launched sometime within a three-hour window the morning of Sept. 29, the long and sometimes lonely struggle to recover from the aftermath of the Challenger accident approached a happy resolution. On Sept. 26, an exuberant flight crew zoomed into KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility in their T-38 aircraft and pronounced that they were ready to go. Commander Hauck succinctly stated: "The bird is ready and we're ready. We're excited and we cannot wait to fly." The STS-26 launch countdown clock was already ticking. Hotel rooms in towns near the Center filled up rapidly, and trailer homes sprouted up along the excellent vantage points on the Indian River shoreline. An estimated 250,000 people came to watch the resumption of U.S. manned space flight. The media and contractor public relations crowd -- about 2,500 -- was the second-largest in history topped only by the first Shuttle flight in April 1981.
The launch window for STS-26 extended from 9:59 a.m. to 12:29 p.m. In the preceding hours, KSC and its environs were astir with constant activity as the countdown proceeded. The KSC News Center remained open all night. Media representatives afraid to leave the center for fear of missing the launch tried to sleep in their cars. Helicopters buzzed in and out of the landing pad near the Vehicle Assembly Building, and fixed wing aircraft could be heard periodically passing over. Workers arriving in the dusky predawn hours passed expectant onlookers gazing toward Discovery, regally poised in the distance on the brightly lit Launch Pad B.
The morning of launch, the flight crew was awakened 25 minutes earlier than in the past to allow time to don their new -- and bulky -- launch entry suits. Unusually light upper winds delayed liftoff, but at 11:37 a.m., Discovery roared off the pad and put the American manned space program firmly back on track
Discovery's mission was a conservative one, lasting only four days. I think we all would have liked to have spent more days in space," Hauck commented before the mission, "but it's appropriate that after being thrown from the horse, we trot before we gallop." The TDRS spacecraft was deployed about six hours into the flight. The remainder of the mission was devoted to the 11 middeck experiments, taking remote photos of the Earth and determining how long it took to don the launch entry suits in the low-gravity environment. The crew also held a memorial service to honor the Challenger crew.
Only minor problems -- among them a faulty television camera and a malfunctioning cooling system -- marred the flight. After logging nearly 65 orbits around the Ear Discovery and her crew touched down at Edwards AFB in a picture-perfect landing 12:37 p.m., Oct. 3. "That's a great end to a new beginning," commented astronaut Blaine Hammond from Houston. A tumultuous welcome from more than 400,000 well-wishers, including Vice President George Bush, awaited a jubilant crew.
Looking as good or better than any previously flown orbiter, Discovery returned to KSC Oct. 8 atop the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. More good news came from the redesigned solid rocket booster's performance: No signs of gas leakage in the joint areas were detected.
"As a crew, we were tickled pink at Discovery's performance," Pilot Dick Covey said after the mission. "That's a real credit to the crews at KSC who got it ready for flight." On Oct. 25, a grateful Discovery crew returned to the center to say thanks in person. They were regaled en route with an old-fashioned parade, a tradition dormant since the space program's earlier days.
Even as the celebration of STS-26 was under way, KSC was busy preparing for another launch. STS-27 had none of the fanfare which surrounded Discovery's historic flight. An all-military crew was named to carry out this classified mission for the Department of Defense. Robert L. Gibson (Cmdr., USN) was mission commander; Guy S. Gardner (Lt. Col., USAF), pilot; Richard M. Mullane (Col., USAF), William M. Shepherd (Cmdr., USN), and Jerry L. Ross (Lt. Col., USAF), mission specialists.
Atlantis lifted off at 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 2 into a clear blue sky. Because it was a classified mission, very little detail was provided about the flight. The orbiter touched down at 6:36 p.m., Dec. 6, after four days and nine hours in space.
The diverse capability of the Shuttle program was once again demonstrated in May the following year, when an orbiter carried aloft for the first time a planetary explorer spacecraft. The successful deployment of the Magellan Venus radar mapper by Atlantis on STS-30 marked the resumption of U.S. planetary exploration. Subsequent Shuttle missions will carry additional scientific spacecraft as the United States renews its exploration of the solar system.
By the end of August, all three orbiters had flown at least once. The return to flight was completed Aug. 21 when Columbia, the oldest orbiter in the Shuttle fleet, returned to KSC's Shuttle Landing Facility from Edwards Air Force Base. Columbia's launch Aug. 8 on a five-day mission for the Department of Defense marked the first time it had flown since January 1986.
Center Director Forrest McCartney praised the KSC employees who had worked long and hard to safely return the Shuttle to space. "The success of your effort has rekindled the spirit of a grateful nation and renewed the desire of Americans everywhere to continue to push back the frontiers of space. As we at Kennedy move forward into a new era of exploration, each milestone, each task accomplished will strengthen and reinvigorate the unwavering pride and commitment that is our heritage," he wrote in an open letter to KSC workers.
As the final decade of the twentieth century unfolds, the Shuttle will continue to play a vital role in the U.S. space program. In 1989, President George Bush proclaimed the long-term goal of returning Americans to the moon and after that, moving onward to Mars. NASA will play a major role in creating the blueprint for the two missions. A giant first step in the return journey could occur when the Space Station Freedom becomes fully manned and operational. The Shuttle will be the primary vehicle for carrying parts of the station into space, where they will be assembled. In 1991, the existing orbiter fleet was joined by Endeavour, Challenger's replacement. When Endeavour flies for the first time in 1992, NASA will have a full complement of working Space Shuttles leading the way toward turning present-day dreams into a future reality.
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