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40 Years Ago: One Month to the Launch of STS-1, the First Space Shuttle Mission

In March 1981, following the successful Flight Readiness Firing (FRF) of Columbia’s main engines, NASA managers remained optimistic about launching the space shuttle on its first flight in April. Significant work remained at Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC), such as inspection and testing of all the shuttle components after the FRF, including reverifying the main engines after the test and completing repairs of insulation on the external tank. The STS-1 prime crew of Commander John W. Young and Pilot Robert L. Crippen and their backups Joe H. Engle and Richard H. Truly continued mission simulations with teams at the Mission Control Center (MCC) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. A final countdown rehearsal was planned for later in March.

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Three views of technicians at Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center working to repair damaged insulation on the external tank resulting from a test in January 1981 that loaded the tank with super-cold liquid hydrogen.

After the successful FRF on Feb. 20, engineers at KSC retested all systems on the space shuttle orbiter Columbia, its external tank (ET), solid rocket boosters (SRBs), and ground systems. Engineers inspected the three main engines and found them to be in good condition, requiring only minor repairs such as rewelding two pinhole leaks and inspecting a valve. Workers at NASA’s National Space Testing Laboratories in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, completed acceptance testing on a space shuttle main engine and shipped it to KSC as a spare for Columbia’s first mission. On March 9, workers at Launch Pad 39A began a two-week effort to repair debonded insulation on the external tank (ET). The three areas of debonding resulted from a test in January during which engineers pumped super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen into the ET in preparation for the FRF. Following the repairs, engineers planned to conduct two additional tanking tests to ensure the debonding did not recur prior to clearing the ET for Columbia’s first launch. Managers planned a final countdown demonstration rehearsal, including all elements of the mission, and a flight readiness review for late March to clear the vehicle for its first launch. The astronauts continued simulations of various aspects of their mission, in particular ascent and entry, together with flight controller teams in JSC’s MCC led by Flight Directors Neil B. Hutchinson, Charles R. “Chuck” Lewis, and Donald R. Puddy.

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Left: STS-1 Pilot Robert L. Crippen testing the new suit for conducting spacewalks. Middle: STS-1 backup Pilot Richard H. Truly beginning a spacewalk training exercise in the Weightless Environment Training Facility (WETF) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Right: Truly during spacewalk training in the WETF.

Although the mission plan for STS-1 did not include a spacewalk, in case of a problem such as the payload bay doors not closing on command at the end of the mission, Crippen and his backup Truly, trained to perform such a contingency spacewalk using a new spacesuit developed for the space shuttle program. The new suit, composed of three parts – a rigid upper torso, a lower torso including the legs, and a helmet – featured several improvements over the previous suit used during Apollo and Skylab. Unlike the earlier suits that were custom-made for each astronaut, the shuttle suits came in predetermined sizes to accommodate the larger range of astronauts, including women, who would be using them. The newer suits also offered more flexibility than their predecessors. Young and Crippen tested their suits in a vacuum chamber at JSC in early March, and finding them satisfactory, workers shipped them to KSC, where they were installed inside Columbia’s airlock.

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Left: During a visit to Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Vice President George H.W. Bush, center, flanked by STS-1 astronauts Robert L. Crippen and John W. Young, receives a model of the space shuttle from acting NASA Administrator Alan M. Lovelace, as his wife Barbara looks on. Middle: In the White Room, Vice President Bush, center, prepares to board space shuttle Columbia, assisted by NASA astronaut Frederick D. Gregory. Right: Vice President Bush, left, sits in Columbia’s commander’s
seat, with Young and Crippen.

Vice President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara paid a visit to KSC on March 17. Following a morning jog with Young and Crippen, the Vice President and Mrs. Bush toured Launch Pad 39A, where Columbia sat awaiting its first launch. Accompanied by Young and Crippen, Bush, a naval aviator during World War II, climbed aboard the orbiter. He sat in the commander’s seat and noted afterward that being on his back with the orbiter in the vertical orientation, “for the first 30 seconds I was a little dizzy lying there with the blood rushing to my head.” Bush accepted a model of the space shuttle from acting NASA Administrator Alan M. Lovelace and addressed workers in the Launch Control Center, praising them for their hard work preparing Columbia for its first launch.

To be continued…

Significant world events in March 1981:

March 2 – Howard Stern begins broadcasting on WWDC radio in Washington, D.C.

March 6 – Walter Cronkite signs off as anchor on the CBS Evening News after 19 years

March 9 – Dan Rather becomes the new anchor on the CBS Evening News, serving for 24 years

March 10 – Kim Carnes releases her single Bette Davis Eyes

March 12 – The Soviet Union launches Vladimir Kovalenok and Viktor Savinykh as the final long-duration crew to the Salyut-6 space station

March 22 – Soviets launch Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Jugderdemidiyn Gurragcha from Mongolia on an eight-day visiting mission to Salyut-6 as part of the Interkosmos program

March 22 – U.S. raises first-class postage from 15 cents to 18 cents

March 24 – Nightline with Ted Koppel premieres on ABC

March 30 – President Ronald W. Reagan survives an assassination attempt; three others are wounded