Kennedy Space Center Story

Chapter 13
1991 Edition

Flight Testing The Space Shuttle

Perhaps no other mission during two decades of manned space flight was as critical to the future of the space program as the first flight of the Space Shuttle.

Columbia -- first orbiter off the production line configured for flight in space -- represented the first time in America's manned space program that NASA had undertaken an open-ended project. There was no longer just a single goal to be achieved.

The Space Shuttle was designed from the beginning as a key link in the exploration and development of the space frontier. The reusable capability it promised would allow the United States to deliver large payloads into Earth orbit, to repair spacecraft already in orbit, and, when required, bring payloads back to Earth. The Space Transportation System (STS), of which the Space Shuttle was the first major part, was expected to mature and evolve in ways hardly imagined at its beginnings.

But first the Space Shuttle had to prove itself. Columbia, the only orbiter that would be available for many months, was chosen for the complete flight test program of four missions. The three newer orbiters would fly as proven vehicles on their first launches.

Orbiter Columbia arrived at KSC from the manufacturing plant in California on March 24, 1979. It rode piggyback on a specially modified 747 jet. The 15,000-foot (4,572 meter) long Shuttle Landing Facility runway had been built to welcome an orbiter when it returned from space. But for the first two years these orbiters would descend from an altitude no higher than the back of a 747.

The next day, Columbia was towed to the new hangarlike building especially designed to handle this new breed of spaceship, the Orbiter Processing Facility.

The ensuing effort to ready Columbia for its maiden launch posed an unparalleled challenge to the KSC team. Technical difficulties had caused production delays, and there was still much work to be done on this complex new vehicle.

For protection from the burning heat of re-entry, the orbiter used a new system of reusable lightweight thermal tiles, made of ceramic-coated silica. They were superb insulators, but they were fragile and difficult to attach to the orbiter. Columbia arrived at KSC short some 8,000 of the needed 31,000 tiles. To make matters worse, new tests revealed that the bonding to the orbiter of many of the existing tiles might not withstand the stresses of flight. A decision was made to pull-test virtually all remaining tiles, with the result that most were removed, often strengthened, and reattached using improved methods.

Tile work became a major manufacturing task which had not been anticipated. The second high bay of the Orbiter Processing Facility was converted into a makeshift production shop to support the extensive tile work required on Columbia.

Meanwhile, other components for the first Space Shuttle were arriving at KSC during the summer of 1979, the beginning of a production flow that would grow into a steady stream of flight hardware. The external tank for mission (STS-1) arrived at the turning basin by barge on July 6. Four days later, the first of Columbia's three main engines arrived from the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where they had received their final flight acceptance tests. The remaining two were delivered in the weeks following.

Solid rocket motor segments produced by Thiokol Corp. began arriving by rail in mid-September, and by early December 1979, the segments were being "stacked" on a mobile launcher platform in the Vehicle Assembly Building. The assembly of the first Space Shuttle that would fly in space had begun.

By the time Columbia arrived at KSC in 1979, the nation's spaceport was a different place from what it had been in the days of Apollo. The NASA/contractor workforce was more streamlined, trimmed to about half the size it reached during the peak of the Apollo Program. Richard G. Smith, a 19-year space program veteran who had served as deputy director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and NASA deputy associate administrator for space transportation systems at NASA Headquarters, became KSC's third Center director. He succeeded Lee Scherer, who retired from NASA after assuming the job four years earlier on the retirement of Kurt Debus.

The dawning of the Shuttle era also saw a new industry team working at KSC. Rockwell International, manufacturer of the orbiters, was responsible for completing the work on Columbia and performing systems checks. Martin Marietta built the external tanks at NASA facilities in Michoud, La., then did finishing work and helped launch them at KSC. United Space Boosters assembled the two solid rocket boosters. They also were responsible for recovering the spent casings after they parachuted into the ocean off Cape Canaveral, and refurbishing all but the propellant segments for another launch.

On Nov. 24, 1980, Columbia emerged from 20 months in the Orbiter Processing Facility. The orbiter was towed on its own wheels over to the VAB, initiating a round-the-clock launch processing schedule aimed at achieving the first flight by the end of March 1981.

During the next few days technicians mated the orbiter with its external tank and solid rocket boosters, already assembled on a mobile launcher platform in High Bay 3. And at 8 a.m. on Dec. 29, about 16 million pounds (7.3 million kilograms) of Space Shuttle, platform and crawler-transporter inched out the giant doors and rolled slowly toward Pad A. By that evening Columbia rested on its launch pad pedestals, bathed in floodlights and poised for its first journey into space.

Columbia still had a few hurdles to overcome before that journey could begin. NASA had never before launched a new manned space vehicle with a crew aboard on its first flight, but that was to be Columbia's mission. Program managers decided to add a new test to the checkout and launch procedures, one designed to raise confidence in the complex, state of the art orbiter main engines. They were to be fired on the pad for 20 seconds, another first in any NASA manned program.

On Feb. 20, 1981, the engines roared to life at the end of a 72-hour countdown demonstration test that served as a launch rehearsal. They shut down as planned. After reviewing the data, program officials declared the firing a success.

The final major test still between Columbia and its first voyage into orbit was a "dry" countdown demonstration test -- a full-dress rehearsal for the astronauts and the launch team. The test went as planned, but a tragic accident claimed the lives of two Rockwell technicians when they entered Columbia's aft engine compartment while it was still being purged with gaseous nitrogen.

KSC was stunned by the tragedy. But preparations for the launch continued, and April 10 was set as a firm launch date.

The moment that KSC had been anticipating for a decade was rapidly approaching.

NASA had selected veteran astronaut John Young -- who had flown aboard two Gemini and two Apollo missions -- as commander for the first Space Shuttle flight. Astronaut Robert Crippen, who had not yet flown in space, was named pilot. There would be no real payload. Instead, Columbia was fitted out with an extensive development instrumentation package, designed to measure its performance and the stresses and strains encountered.

The STS-1 crew had practiced extensively on flight simulators at Johnson Space Center, and had made many landings with a Gulfstrearn jet modified to have the handling and landing characteristics of an orbiter. They landed this plane many times at both KSC and the extra-long runways at Edwards AFB in California, the primary landing site. They were as ready and experienced as any activity short of flying a Space Shuttle could make them.

The weather was perfect on Friday morning, April 10. The crew entered Columbia at a little after 4 a.m., ready for a planned 6:50 liftoff. An estimated 80,000 guests crowded the main thoroughfares on the Center, the NASA Causeway and Kennedy Parkway. More than a hundred busloads of VIPs had gathered at the NASA guest site. More than 2,700 members of the news media were working at the KSC News Center; many had been there for days. And off the Center, hundreds of thousands of people lined the roads and beaches surrounding KSC, anxiously waiting to witness the historic event.

Excitement was reaching a fever pitch at T minus 9 minutes, when the countdown came out of its last planned hold. And then a major problem emerged. The backup computer on Columbia was not properly synchronizing with the four operating flight computers. They could not exchange data.

Liftoff was rescheduled for 10:20 a.m., while the problem was investigated. But then bad news came over the loudspeakers; the launch would have to be postponed.

Computer experts isolated the problem Friday night, and on Saturday the countdown resumed. Liftoff was rescheduled for 7 a.m. Sunday, April 12. But the weather was now doubtful. The launch team decided to proceed, and to make a decision on weather when that became necessary.

By Saturday night the weather looked good. The countdown proceeded toward liftoff without a hitch. Once again the guests and spectators crowded into KSC, and gathered at good viewing spots around the Center. And this time they were not disappointed. At a fraction after 7 a.m., the orbiter main engines roared to life, followed seconds later by a giant cloud of flame from the two solid rocket boosters. Columbia lifted majestically off the pad and arched out over the Atlantic, heading into the golden dawn and a new age in space for the United States and the world.

* * * * * *

At 10 a.m. EST on Nov. 12, 1981, Columbia lifted off Pad A a second time. It had been a long seven months between flights, far longer than NASA liked. Still, the time spent in the Orbiter Processing Facility had been shortened from 610 days for STS-1 to 103 days. Columbia had required still more tile replacement and repair, and some launch pad modifications were needed to cushion the overpressure wave that followed the ignition of the solid rocket boosters.

STS-2 also had a payload, in addition to the development flight instrumentation which had been carried on STS-1. The package of scientific instruments was called OSTA-1, for the former NASA Office of Space and Terrestrial Applications. The space application areas under investigation were remote sensing of land resources, environmental quality, ocean conditions and meteorological phenomena.

The largest instrument in the package, a side-looking radar called the Shuttle Imaging Radar-A (SIR-A), provided one of the serendipitous dividends for which the space program is famous. While operating over a remote area of Egypt, one of the driest deserts in the world, this radar penetrated the loose sand to a depth of up to 6.6 feet (two meters). Hidden beneath the loose, flowing sands were ancient watercourses, riverbanks, dried streambeds, etc., as they must have looked hundreds of thousands of years in the past.

Although it worked only where the sand covering was very dry, this surprising ability of the SIR-A radar was noted and targeted for future missions. The other instruments also performed well.

STS-2 also featured the first flight of a device certain to play a very important part in the future operation of the Space Shuttle, the Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System. This 50-foot (15.2-meter) long Canadarm, with television cameras mounted at wrist and elbow would have an important role to play on many future missions. On this mission the Canadarm was tested in all its modes, but not under heavy loads.

The second STS mission had to be curtailed due to a problem with one of the fuel cells. Although this situation was not dangerous, mission controllers conservatively decided to shorten the flight. It landed after two days and 36 orbits, touching down on the long runway at Edwards AFB. The crew of Commander Joe Engle and Pilot Richard Truly reported that overall it had been a good mission, and they had accomplished 90 percent of their objectives despite having the planned flight time cut from five days to two.

* * * * * *

KSC was working toward a projected goal of up to 24 launches a year, with an interim goal of half that figure, or a launch a month. This could only be achieved when three or more orbiters were available. In the meantime, the ability to produce externaI tanks and solid rocket booster components was slowly but steadily increasing, with the eventual aim of being able to support the maximum anticipated flight demand. But completing the flight test program and having an operational Space Shuttle available was the first priority.

STS-3 lifted off at 11 a.m. EST on March 22, 1982, with a third two-man crew, Commander Jack Lousma and Pilot Gordon Fullerton. The payload was another scientific package, the OSS-1, named after the NASA Office of Space Science. These instruments were mounted on a pallet designed for use with the Spacelab system. The mission was intended to last seven days, and not only achieved that goal but was extended by one day. The planned landing site at Edwards AFB was too wet to be used, and the backup site at Northrup Strip in New Mexico had high winds on the seventh day. The mission was stretched by 24 hours, to eight days and 129 orbits, by which time the winds had died away and a safe landing was achieved at Northrup.

In orbit Columbia was rotated and held in several different attitudes in relation to the Sun, to test heat dispersion throughout the vehicle. Between tests the vehicle was rolled to prevent excessive heat buildup in any one area. The Canadarm was also exercised again, this time with a load.

This mission also featured the first Shuttle Student Involvement Project (SSIP) to fly, in the middeck area. It was originated and developed by a high school student, with commercial sponsorship. The middeck area also had the first small experimental Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System (CFES), to produce high-value drugs at low cost, and a Monodisperse Latex Reactor. The latter could produce micron-sized particles of uniform diameter that have a wide variety of scientific and industrial uses. Both systems had the potential to provide substances that, pound for pound, would be far more valuable than gold. And the CFES had the distinction of being the first Space Shuttle payload developed by and for private business, for future commercialization and profit. It was a joint venture between McDonnell Douglas and Johnson & Johnson.

Columbia also flew more development flight instrumentation, as it would for several future missions. But by the end of this eight-day flight, the ability of the orbiter to sustain long missions had been clearly established. Its ability to land outside its normal home ground of California and Florida had been proven. One more development flight was scheduled, and if all went well, the Space Shuttle would be declared operational.

The last development flight for the Space Shuttle was also the first for the customer -- the Department of Defense. Commander Thomas Mattingly and Pilot Henry Hartsfield, both military officers on detached duty with NASA, would oversee the first "mixed" payload of military and civilian cargo.

STS-4 lifted off at 11 a.m. EDT on June 27, 1982. This was the first STS mission to be launched on time and with no delays in schedule. Columbia had remained in the Orbiter Processing Facility only 42 days. The processing routine was now becoming well-established, and experienced crews were able to do the work more quickly.

In addition to the classified Air Force payload in the cargo bay, STS-4 also carried the second CFES and Latex Reactor experiments in the middeck area. Nine small experiments were contained in the first "Getaway Special," a low-cost cargo container designed especially for economical projects to be carried in the cargo bay. These had been prepared by students at Utah State University. The crew also operated the Canadarm again, took medical measurements on themselves, and used hand-held cameras to take photographs of the cloud cover below.

The only major problem encountered was not with the orbiter. The two spent solid rocket boosters, which had been successfully recovered on all three earlier flights, were lost when their parachutes failed to deploy properly. They hit the water with such force that both sank. They were later examined by an underwater remote camera, and officials decided that recovering them was not worth the cost. The problem that had caused the parachute failure was located and corrected without a close examination.

The landing at Edwards AFB, after a mission duration of seven days, was on a concrete runway the same length as the one at KSC. President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan attended the landing and welcoming ceremonies.

Chapter 14 | Table of Contents
Find this article at: