• U.S.

The Magic Is Back!

17 minute read
Leon Jaroff

For the more than 1 million Americans who crowded the beaches and causeways around the Kennedy Space Center last week, and for millions of other Americans clustered around TV sets, the tension was palpable. As the countdown clock flashed out the number of seconds until lift-off, the eyes of an entire nation focused on Launch Pad 39-B and the gleaming white shuttle Discovery, flanked by its two solid rocket boosters and clinging to the side of the giant, rust- colored external fuel tank. In the minds of many, however, another vision intruded: the hellish yellow-orange burst in the middle of a Y-shaped cloud that 32 months earlier had marked the destruction of the shuttle Challenger.

Finally, spectators joined in for the last 15 seconds of countdown, the engines ignited and the shuttle rose majestically from the pad, carrying its crew of five veteran astronauts. Over the space center’s loudspeakers came the triumphant announcement: “Americans return to space, as Discovery clears the tower.” But the cheers were muted as the crowd — many with clenched fists, gritted teeth and teary eyes — nervously watched the spacecraft rise on its pillar of flame, then begin its roll out over the Atlantic. Again the visions of Challenger arose. Now the loudspeakers carried the voice of Mission Control in Houston, which took over from the Kennedy controllers seven seconds into the flight. “Go at throttle up,” Houston called at around the 70-second mark, and more than a few stomachs knotted. That was the last command heard by the crew of Challenger, which exploded seconds later. “I was saying ‘Please, please’ as Discovery passed the 73-second mark,” says Psam Ordener, wife of a Houston space engineer.

Discovery commander Rick Hauck promptly answered with a laconic “Roger go,” bringing a smattering of applause and cheers that grew into a chorus near the two-minute mark, when the spacecraft successfully jettisoned its two spent solid rocket boosters. But experienced space observers did not relax until Discovery shut down its three main engines 6 1/2 minutes later, shucked off its external fuel tank, then slipped safely into orbit about 180 miles above the earth a half hour later. Declared elated space engineer John Kaltenbach: “This was the one that had to fly. It looks damn good. Oh, it just feels so good!”

The nation’s collective sigh of relief could have launched a thousand shuttles. President Reagan opened an awards ceremony in the White House Rose Garden with the dramatic announcement, “America is back in space.” Admitted < Reagan: “I think I had my fingers crossed like everybody else.” In St. Charles, Mo., just after completing a campaign speech, George Bush got word about Discovery and hurriedly retook the stage. “I thought you might be interested,” he told the crowd. “The shuttle is launched successfully, and America is back in space. We’re back! America is back!” The crowd roared its approval. Declared Michael Dukakis, campaigning in New Jersey: “We’re very proud of the astronauts.”

Six hours later, Americans had more good news from space as they watched the televised deployment from Discovery’s cargo bay of the $100 million Tracking and Data Relay Satellite. And so, on the first day of its scheduled four-day mission, the five-man Discovery crew achieved one of its major goals — sending TDRS toward its designated orbit — and seemed well on its way toward the other: a successful test flight of the newly refurbished shuttle. Discovery’s leap into space seemed at last to have given the nation, as well as NASA, a long-needed catharsis, purging it of the lingering horror of the Challenger disaster, restoring the battered pride of Americans in their technological prowess and providing new impetus to a languishing space program.

Despite all the euphoria, some tough questions remained, not only about the future of the shuttle program but also about where the Discovery mission would lead the country’s space program in the years ahead. Since the Challenger tragedy, America’s lead over the Soviets has slipped, ambitious plans for scientific experiments in space have stalled, and commercial and military payloads have for the most part been grounded. Declared J.R. Thompson, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama: “One good launch doesn’t make a space program, but it’s a damn good start!”

It certainly was. As the shuttle eased into orbit, mission commander Hauck felt only delight at the immediate tasks at hand. “We’re looking forward to the next four days,” he said. “We have a lot to do, and we’re going to have a lot of fun doing it.” Several hours later, astronauts Mike Lounge and David Hilmers, manipulating controls in the cabin, raised and tilted the TDRS package in the cargo bay, and activated springs that pushed it out of the open doors into space. After Hauck and pilot Dick Covey had maneuvered the shuttle to a safe 45 miles away, the TDRS rocket ignited, sending the satellite farther away from earth. Later that night, the TDRS rocket’s second stage precisely nudged the satellite into a geosynchronous orbit, where it hovered 22,250 miles above the Pacific Ocean.

There, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, it unfolded two huge solar panels and two large umbrella-like antennas. Together with its sister satellite, TDRS-1 (already in orbit over the Atlantic), the new TDRS will give NASA the ability to communicate through a single ground installation with dozens of U.S. civil and military satellites.

While the other astronauts continued to check out Discovery’s systems, Pinky Nelson began the first of eleven science experiments: growing crystals, which form more precisely in zero gravity, of specialized proteins such as gamma interferon and an enzyme found in the AIDS virus. By studying the crystals, scientists at the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography at the University of Alabama-Birmingham hope to learn more about the structure of the proteins, which may enable researchers to create new disease-fighting drugs. Other experiments scheduled during the mission included the production and study of crystalline organic thin films, evaluation of an onboard infrared communications system and the production in four space furnaces of special metallic alloys.

What may have been the biggest surprise of the mission’s first three days was a bracing wake-up call recorded by comedian Robin Williams, patterned after the tag line of his movie Good Morning, Vietnam. At 5:30 a.m. Friday, the astronauts heard blaring from a cabin loudspeaker: “Gooooood Morning, Discovery! Rise and shine. Time to start doing that shuttle shuffle. Hey! Here’s a little song coming from the billions of us to the five of you.”

For a few hours during the Thursday-morning countdown, however, the shuttle shuffle appeared destined for a scrub. All week NASA technicians had isolated small glitches, from a tiny gas leak on a main engine to a slight scratch on a thruster rocket. Finally they seemed confident that only bad weather might postpone the shuttle’s launch. Although launch day dawned bright and sunny, meteorologists warned that the high-altitude winds in the shuttle’s flight path, normally unruly in the Cape Canaveral region during late September, had uncharacteristically died down. The problem: Discovery’s computers had been programmed to maneuver the craft through strong, buffeting winds. “Imagine yourself leaning way forward into a stiff wind,” explained Thomas Utsman, director of shuttle management and operations. “But suddenly and unexpectedly, the wind stops, and you fall flat on your face.”

That in effect is what NASA feared might happen to the shuttle unless its computers were reprogrammed, a task they figured would delay the launch by at least a day. Taking no chances, NASA pushed back the launch time, while meteorologists continuously monitored the winds with weather balloons. Before long, the winds did shift and pick up a little, but they were still outside NASA’s criteria for a launch. After a detailed analysis, the mission- management team agreed that the shuttle was not endangered. Astronaut Robert Crippen, charged with making the final go or no-go decision, had no qualms about waiving the wind restriction. Less than an hour after Discovery finally lifted off, an hour and 38 minutes late, clouds moved in, and a bit later heavy rainstorms pelted the cape.

To most of the millions who witnessed Discovery’s lift-off, the spacecraft on the launchpad looked little different from its ill-fated predecessor, Challenger. But the similarity was only skin deep. Responding to the recommendations of the Rogers commission, the 13-member panel appointed by the White House to investigate the causes of the Challenger tragedy, NASA spent $2.4 billion redesigning and replacing crucial components of its shuttle fleet. Over the past two years, the space agency has made more than 400 changes in the winged orbiter — including a much touted new escape system — the solid rocket boosters, the orbiter’s three liquid-fuel engines and the huge external fuel tank. What is more, each of the modifications or changes was laboriously reviewed by the Discovery astronauts. “NASA went far beyond our recommendations and fixed all that we wanted,” says Robert B. Hotz, a member of the Rogers commission. “There was a whole series of potential accidents waiting to happen. I’m pleased with what NASA has done so far.”

Of all the changes, none was more carefully scrutinized than the redesign of what proved to be Challenger’s fatal flaw: the joint between segments of the solid-fuel rocket booster. Zeroing in on the booster joints, which are sealed by rubber O rings that are supposed to prevent leaks of superhot gas from the burning fuel, a team composed of outside experts as well as specialists from NASA and Morton Thiokol, manufacturer of the rocket, evolved a design that eventually withstood five full-scale, two-minute stationary firing tests at Thiokol’s Utah proving grounds.

– Still, gnawing doubts remained. Despite exhaustive ground testing of the new and modified shuttle parts, none had been tried in the harsh environment of a launch, or in orbit or re-entry. Moreover, some of them are among the more than 1,500 “criticality 1” parts — that is, items without backup whose failure could end the mission, perhaps catastrophically.

NASA took steps to improve the astronauts’ chances of survival should such a mishap occur. For the first time since the summer of 1982, the crew left the launch pad ensconced in bulky space suits, each partly pressurized and equipped with an oxygen tank, a parachute and an inflatable raft. In addition, a new emergency escape system was designed to give the astronauts a chance to leave the orbiter quickly in the event of a “benign disaster” after the boosters had fallen away. In such a crisis, the crew would jettison the huge external fuel tank and stabilize the winged orbiter into a downward glide. Then, when the craft descended to an altitude of about 30,000 ft., the astronauts would set off explosive bolts, blowing a newly installed hatch off the ship, and extend the 12-ft. telescoping escape pole, which is positioned to guide them away from the orbiter’s wing and tail. One by one, each would slip a ring attached to his suit around the pole and would slide off into the thin air, deploy his parachute and drop into the ocean, where his radio transmitter would lead rescuers to him. The escape procedure would work, of course, only under circumstances that leave the vehicle intact and under control.

Right up to the moment of Discovery’s launch, the space agency displayed caution — and in the view of some critics, excessive caution — in preparing to resume shuttle flights. Time and again during the past year, as problems cropped up during tests of new and redesigned shuttle equipment, officials pushed back Discovery’s launch date, from February to August, finally settling on Sept. 29. Even during the final stages of the countdown, mission manager Crippen polled top weather advisers individually before waiving the restriction about the winds aloft.

NASA’s new manner was in marked contrast to its bold, often arrogant and occasionally careless approach in pre-Challenger days. NASA initially promoted the shuttle as a routine “space truck,” an efficient, economical transport vehicle capable of lofting any payload — commercial, scientific or military — into orbit. Washington succumbed to that pitch, allowing NASA to decree ! that expendable rockets such as the Delta, Atlas and Titan be phased out in favor of the shuttle.

But behind NASA’s confident facade, reality was beginning to set in. Beset by technical problems and delayed launches, the agency reduced its estimate of annual launches from 60 to 40, then to 24, but was unable to attain even that. Given the shuttle program’s tremendous overhead and fewer flights, the cost for each launch rose from a promised $10 million to as high as $300 million. In a frantic effort to accelerate its schedule, NASA began to cut corners. Officials at the Marshall Space Flight Center responsible for certifying the launchworthiness of the external tank, the boosters and the main engines of each shuttle began issuing more and more waivers on questionable “criticality” items like the O rings that had shown signs of erosion and charring on earlier flights. In fact Challenger was flown with at least four procedural waivers.

The Challenger explosion confirmed what some critics had been saying from the outset: the U.S. had grievously miscalculated in putting all its space eggs into the shuttle basket. The Pentagon, long suspicious of the shuttle’s reliability, wrangled appropriations from Congress to build eleven Titan 34-D rockets for military missions. The nation’s scientists, for their part, despaired as the eagerly awaited shuttle launch of the Hubble space telescope, which could revolutionize astronomy by extending our view to the edges of the universe, fell years behind schedule. Crucial deadlines were missed for shuttle launches of the planetary probes Magellan, designed to map the surface of Venus, Galileo, to survey Jupiter and its moons, and Ulysses, to conduct solar studies from a polar orbit around the sun.

As a result of its difficulties, NASA has lost potential commercial clients to the European Space Agency, which will put payloads into orbit aboard unmanned Ariane rockets at bargain prices (cost: about $40 million per payload). Even more galling was last month’s decision by the Reagan Administration to allow China to launch two U.S. communications satellites, a move that stunned the fledgling U.S. commercial rocket industry. “That hurt, and hurt hard,” says an executive of one U.S. firm. “We wanted those birds.”

Belatedly aware of the folly of total dependence on manned launch vehicles to deploy spacecraft, the U.S. has been forced to play a catch-up game. Since January 1986, the Soviets have launched scores of satellites, sent two / scientific probes to Mars, and ferried a stream of cosmonauts between the earth and the space station Mir — all with the aid of antiquated but tried- and-true expendable rockets. In the process, they have pushed far ahead of the U.S. in knowledge of the effects of extended space flight on humans.

With the shuttle back in space, the U.S. may begin to reduce the Soviet advantage. In addition to one more flight this year, NASA has scheduled seven for 1989, ten for 1990, nine for 1991 and 13 for 1992. For the time being, the Pentagon remains partly dependent on the shuttle. Its high-resolution “keyhole” photo-reconnaissance satellite, which will be used in part to monitor Soviet compliance with nuclear-arms-reduction treaties, will be aboard the next shuttle. Scientists too have been granted accommodations — aboard the Atlantis in April 1989, the next opportunity to launch the Magellan mission, and the following October for the Galileo probe. The Hubble telescope may finally get off the ground in February 1990, and Ulysses in October of that year.

Despite the excitement about Discovery’s mission, and the talk of the U.S. space program getting back on track, some caution flags were raised last week. “It was an impressive and important first step,” says John Logsdon, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “But many of the problems that have been there are still there.” Those problems are legion. For starters, the shuttle’s complexity and NASA’s heightened concern for safety lead many experts to doubt the agency’s ability to hold to even its relatively modest schedule of 18 more flights between now and the end of 1990. Richard Truly, the agency’s space-flight director, concedes that improvements can be made. “You can’t have too much safety in a program,” he says. “But you can have procedures that don’t contribute to it.” And he vows to fix those.

By far the most serious stumbling block to a smooth shuttle operation is the simple fact that the U.S. space program, and thus the purpose of the shuttle itself, is still ill defined and adrift. Unless a strong consensus emerges for clear national priorities in space, the situation is unlikely to change. With the completion of the Discovery mission, NASA will doubtless argue that the shuttle is of crucial importance in building the proposed space station scheduled for the mid-1990s. Just last week the U.S. signed an agreement with eleven Western nations to undertake jointly the construction of the manned | outpost, which would require 20 shuttle flights. Both presidential candidates support the ambitious plans for the station. But neither has yet explained how he would justify its estimated $30 billion cost or said precisely how he thinks it should be used.

Others are just as vague. Should the station be a research and manufacturing facility for performing microgravity experiments and making substances not possible on earth? An assembly platform for the large craft needed to carry humans to Mars? A combination of both? In fact, a station is not needed for former astronaut Sally Ride’s “Mission to Planet Earth,” a proposal to study the earth’s environment and atmosphere from satellites. And some argue that it may not even be needed for another major space project: a permanent manned base on the moon.

What is needed, says Logsdon, is “a purposeful, well-funded, coherent program. That, I think the country wants, and that is waiting for the next President to shape — early in his Administration.” NASA adviser Alan Ladwig agrees and urges “a national commitment to space. It’s up to the White House and Congress to lead. It’s not NASA’s job anymore.”

At week’s end NASA’s immediate job was clearly delineated: to complete Discovery’s mission and bring it safely back to earth. Aboard the spacecraft, the astronauts attended to a few glitches, including a nagging problem in the craft’s cooling system and a balky antenna on a communications instrument, which they managed to retract. They worked on science experiments, played tapes of classical and pop music and shot pictures of Pacific thunderstorms, of a lava flow in Ethiopia and of coastal erosion wreaked by Hurricane Gilbert in Yucatan.

On Sunday the astronauts were expected to conduct an in-flight televised news conference, announce plans for a memorial to the Challenger astronauts and complete their science experiments. Then, if all went well, they were to stow their gear and make other preparations for an early Monday-afternoon landing at California’s Edwards Air Force Base. Discovery’s dramatic mission will be over. But an even more pressing mission — returning America to space with a meaningful and long-range program — is just beginning.

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