Episode 159: STS-80 - Space Jam (ORFEUS/WSF/Jammed Hatch)
Table of Contents
On STS-80 we’ve got free-flying payloads, troublesome EVAs, a bunch of rats, and a reentry to remember. Strap in for the longest flight of the entire shuttle program! Don’t worry, we’ll step outside for a breath of fresh vacuum.. or not.
Episode Audio #
Thanks to Tom Jones for taking the time to snap this photo of the pesky screw that we’ll get to know near the end of the episode. Go check out his website and his excellent books at AstronautTomJones.com.
Musgrave Interview #
If you want to hear more about the unusual reentry straight from Story Musgrave, look no further!
NOTE: This transcript was made by me just copying and pasting the script that I read to make the podcast. I often tweak the phrasing on the fly and then forget to update the script, so this is not guaranteed to align perfectly with the episode audio, but it should be pretty close. Also, since these are really only intended to be read by myself, I might use some funky punctuation to help remind myself how I want a sentence to flow, so don’t look to these as a grammar reference. If you notice any egregious transcription errors or notes to myself that I neglected to remove, feel free to let me know and I’ll fix it.
Hello, and welcome to The Space Above Us. Episode 159, Space Shuttle flight 80, STS-80: Space Jam
Last time, we joined John Blaha as he embarked on a four month long stay on the Russian space station Mir. Blaha’s mission encountered some friction in the form of a cluttered and darkened space station, a disconnect between his ground crew and what his actual day to day job required, and a persistent yearning to be reunited with his wife Brenda. Long duration spaceflight presents a multifaceted challenge where few things are easy and nothing can be taken for granted. But Blaha persisted and successfully completed his science objectives, while also doing all he could to pass his personal lessons learned on to those who would float in his footsteps. And that, after all, was what the Shuttle-Mir program was all about.
Today, we’ll come a little short of four months in space, but we will be setting new records. In fact, the record we’ll set this time will stand the test of time since STS-80 turned out to be the longest shuttle flight of the entire 135 mission program. During the nearly 18 days Space Shuttle Columbia is in orbit, we’ll see a little bit of everything the shuttle has to offer. We’ve got satellite deployments, rendezvous and prox ops, satellite captures, middeck science, student experiments in the payload bay, and there are even a couple of spacewalks on the docket.
With such a long mission ahead of us, we should probably get things rolling right away. So let’s meet our crew who will be going the distance.
Commanding the flight was Ken Cockrell, better known by his nickname ‘Taco’. When we last saw Taco he was the Pilot on STS-69, shepherding the Wake Shield Facility to orbit for its second mission. If he’s feeling nostalgic all he needs to do is look out the aft windows on this flight because the Wake Shield Facility will be joining us once again.
Joining Cockrell up front was today’s Pilot, Kent Rominger. When we last saw Rominger he was breathing a sigh of relief after his first flight, STS-73, finally got off the ground on its seventh attempt. The flight went on to successfully carry the US Microgravity Laboratory for its second time in space, but I’m sure Rominger is hoping that today’s flight has an easier time getting off the pad.
Moving back on the flight deck we find Mission Specialist 1, Story Musgrave. With this mission, Musgrave becomes the only person to fly on all five space-worthy orbiters. Of course, we know Musgrave from the earliest days of the shuttle program, and quite a ways before that. We’ll have more to say about Musgrave’s remarkable career later, but for now we’ll say that we last saw him on STS-61, the first Hubble Servicing mission, and this is his sixth and final flight. As is typical for Mission Specialist 1, he’ll ride to orbit sitting behind the Pilot on the flight deck, but will move down to the middeck for reentry.. probably.
Sitting right in the middle of the flight deck was the mission’s flight engineer, Mission Specialist 2 Tom Jones. When we last saw Jones it was on STS-68, the Space Radar Laboratory 2 mission, flying only five months after the Space Radar Laboratory 1 mission. Today the only radar in sight is the rendezvous radar on this, his third of four flights.
And making the ride to orbit all by herself down on the middeck, Mission Specialist 3 Tammy Jernigan. When we last saw Jernigan she was helping to operate the groundbreaking ultraviolet observatory ASTRO-2, placed in Endeavour’s payload bay for STS-67. Today we’ll also be taking some UV observations, but using a free-flying payload and without crew involvement, but Jernigan was looking forward to two EVAs later in the mission with MS2 Tom Jones joining her. This is her fourth of five flights.
STS-80 hit a couple of snags on the way to the launchpad and based on the previous couple of flights I’m betting you can guess what those snags were. Here’s a hint, they’re about 150 feet tall, 12 feet wide, and weighed around 600 tons. Yep, it’s the SRBs. Two flights ago on STS-78, after a successful ascent the SRBs were recovered and an alarming discovery was made. The o-rings in all six field joints had heavy soot and signs of blow-by. Thanks to changes in the joint’s design made after the Challenger accident, the crew wasn’t in as much danger as it may seem, but this wasn’t great. The issue was traced back to a change in adhesives and cleaning fluids used on the SRBs. In order to be on the safe side, STS-79 had its SRBs replaced with another set and switched back to the old process. And that’s our first delay. The SRBs that STS-79 took were originally slated for STS-80.
Next, when STS-79 launched, there was another alarming discovery waiting for engineers inspecting the recovered boosters. The ablative coating that protects the throat of the SRB nozzle had deep grooves, digging further into the coating than had ever been seen before. STS-80 was delayed again while this new issue was investigated. It turns out that the issue was caused by small ripples that were introduced when building the protective coating, which was constructed using numerous criss-crossing layers. The small imperfection resulted in more punishing conditions right on that imperfection, which then further exacerbated the problem. This is an analogy that won’t mean much to most of you, but it reminds me of a flat-spotted tire in Formula 1. Just like how on the next lock-up the flat spot tends to end up back on the bottom and gets worse, the nozzle imperfection seems to have sort of caught the hot gas, which then further stressed the material, which then further grew the imperfection, which then further stressed the material, and so on.
Eventually it was determined that while this was a pretty freaky incident, even with the worst expected ripples of the ablative coating the nozzle should be safe, so they were good to go. Well, almost. The folks in the weather office were predicting high winds for the scheduled lift-off time, resulting in another scrub. A bummer for the crew, but it turns out that the weather people were right, so it just saved them from a few uncomfortable hours on their backs.
On November 19th, 1996, Columbia was ready to try again, and the five person crew strapped into their seats. The countdown proceeded smoothly for the most part, but hit a small bump at the T-31 second mark.
Thanks to Tom Jones’ presence on this flight, and his excellent book Sky Walking, we get a glimpse into what the atmosphere was like in the crew cabin as the seconds ticked by. In the final minutes of the countdown, as the engines and various control surfaces were moved around, the cockpit lightly rocked and vibrated. Presumably teasing the astronaut who was about to be the first to fly on the shuttle six times, Commander Taco reminded Mission Specialist Story Musgrave that this was just a lightweight shaking and that the real shaking will come in a minute or two. Musgrave could only chuckle and say “Yeah, I know.” Jones quipped that he thought the vibrations were caused by the fourteen rats that were in their experiment enclosure on the middeck.
About a minute before the scheduled liftoff, Cockrell commented that he’s glad crews no longer had to wear hear monitors during the launch. Musgrave said if he had been wearing a heart monitor the ground likely would have aborted the launch.
At the T-31 second mark an unexpected hold of a couple of minutes was added in order to investigate elevated hydrogen levels in an aft compartment. A little hydrogen was to be expected since it’s just about impossible to prevent it from leaking entirely, but it was critically important to keep it under acceptable levels for reasons related to not wanting the entire back half of the orbiter to explode.
Once it became clear that the hydrogen levels were a little higher than normal but steadily within limits, the countdown could continue. I can only imagine the mental whiplash that comes from being 31 seconds from launching into space, suddenly having to wait for a few minutes, and then just as suddenly being right back into the countdown at the 31 second mark again.
On November 19th, 1996, at 2:55 and 47 seconds PM Eastern Time, Columbia roared off of the launchpad for the 21st time, soaring through an uneventful ascent. As Jones put it in his book, the G’s were heavy, but the mood was light.
The first order of business was to prepare for the deployment of our first major payload of the flight, SPAS-ORFEUS. SPAS, of course, is the German-made free-flying experiment platform that we’ve ushered into orbit and back a number of times now. And in fact, we’ve also seen an earlier version of the ORFEUS payload that SPAS will be carrying. ORFEUS, which is a groan-inducing acronym for Orbiting and Retrievable Far and Extreme Ultraviolet Spectrograph is the latest in a long line of space payloads that are examining the ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Since ultraviolet light is mostly absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere, UV observations from the ground are severely limited. So instead, we’ll drop it off in space for a couple of weeks of science and come pick it up when it’s time to head home.
The main payload was a one meter wide telescope which could direct incoming light into one of two spectrographs, switching back and forth as needed. One spectrograph was for Far Ultraviolet and one for Extreme Ultraviolet, which are just fun names for different parts of the UV spectrum. The spectrographs would break down the light, essentially sorting it by frequency and looking for spikes and gaps in the types of light being collected. By studying these spikes and gaps it was possible to learn a great deal about the atmospheres of stars, swirling disks of material around stars called accretion disks, the aftermath of supernovas, and more. Thanks to a secondary payload, the Interstellar Medium Absorption Profile Spectrograph, or IMAPS, data would also be gathered about the material drifting in the vast spaces between the stars. Also flying on ORFEUS-SPAS was another batch of material samples to see how they held up in low earth orbit, and some software and GPS tests for the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle. That last one caught my eye because while we’ll eventually see five ATVs transfer cargo to the ISS, that won’t be for another eleven years. Gotta start space projects early.
Eight hours and 15 minutes into the mission, after a slight delay for some additional checks, Mission Specialist Tammy Jernigan released ORFEUS-SPAS and it begin its mission. Once it was deployed, the pilot crew backed Columbia away and performed a series of burns that resulted in the free-flying payload trailing the shuttle by around 90 kilometers.
For the next two days, the crew worked on middeck experiments, adjusted the shuttle’s orbit relative to SPAS-ORFEUS, and made sure that their extravehicular mobility units were in good shape for the EVAs scheduled for the back half of the mission.
On flight day four, it was time for the return of another familiar payload, the Wake Shield Facility. We previously discussed the WSF on episode 134 for STS-60, and episode 146 for STS-69, so I’ll spare you some of the details, but I think a quick refresher is in order.
The goal of the WSF was to create thin films of semiconductor material with extremely high purity. To that, it would use a technique known as epitaxy, literally building up the thin film atom by atom. You can kind of think of this as being akin to using spray paint to apply an even coat of paint to a surface. The trouble with epitaxy is that down on an atomic scale there is a ton of other material bouncing around. If you were to try this in a normal factory, the stream of atoms would run into a bunch of big stuff like dust and pollen, but it would also run into molecules of nitrogen and oxygen from the air. The result would be a thin film that’s not very pure, and pure semiconductors are what computers crave.
To solve this, you can try doing your epitaxy in a vacuum chamber, but even the best vacuum chamber on earth is still going to have a little bit of air bouncing around in there. So while it might be an improvement, it doesn’t completely solve the problem. You could try doing your epitaxy in low earth orbit, but there’s still enough air there to cause a problem. You could go even higher and do it in deep space, but what vehicle are you going to use to get it there? And perhaps more importantly, how will you get it back? Instead, the Wake Shield Facility does just what it says: it’s a facility to acts like a shield and creates a wake behind it. By facing this big 3.6 meter circle into the direction of travel, the leeward side will find itself in a sort of molecular shadow. An ultra-vacuum.
Before actually deploying the WSF, the crew had to clean it. Mission Specialist Tom Jones took the controls of the Canadarm, grappled the WSF, and raised it up out of its support equipment before hanging it over the side of the payload bay, facing the rear of the disc into the direction of travel. This exposed it to the relative onrush of atomic oxygen, which scoured the surface, and after a couple of hours made it perfectly clean. Next, it was moved so the clean side faced away from the direction of travel for a few last minute checks and then it was ready to go.
The actual deploy ended up being a little more exciting for the crew than planned. Once Jones released the free-flying payload and backed the arm away, it was expected that it would quickly fire its low powered nitrogen gas thrusters and begin to safely drift away from Columbia. Instead, the WSF team on the ground apparently saw some potentially troubling signs with its attitude control system and wanted to wait to make sure it was working before firing the thrusters.
It is tempting to imagine that a payload that is not firing its thrusters would simply just sit where it was dropped off, but we know that that’s not the case. From the point of view of the crew, the WSF was released more or less right above the payload bay. But at the time, the payload bay was pointed at kind of a weird angle, partly down towards the Earth and partly to the side. The result was that the moment the WSF was released, it was in a slightly lower orbit with a slightly different inclination. And as we’ve seen numerous times now, objects in low earth orbit will exhibit different relative motion depending on what the geometry of the situation is. The upshot of all this is that from the point of view of the crew looking through the aft windows, the WSF began to creep forward, down, and a little to their right.
As Jones describes in Sky Walking, it was a pretty tense moment watching this two ton disc of metal growing inexorably closer. Of course, the pilot crew could have blipped their thrusters at any point to move away, but that would have endangered the payload. In order to ensure a clean environment, the crew had actually disabled Columbia’s attitude control thrusters several hours earlier. If they were to fire them now then they’d introduce thruster exhaust into the local environment, perhaps ruining the experiment. But with the ground aware of the situation and the pilot crew ready to make a quick escape, everyone sat tight and just watched. And after a closer call than planned, the WSF safely drifted away. Columbia eventually moved 37 kilometers ahead of the WSF as it began its multi-day free-flying mission.
One aspect of both of these systems that’s worth mentioning is that they were both performed under the watchful eye of the Orbiter Space Vision System, or OSVS, which we’ve seen on previous flights. This is yet another system being tested in anticipation of the ISS. It was expected that future crews might have to move large and massive payloads with poor visibility, or maybe no direct visibility at all. In order to assist with situational awareness and depth perception, payloads were covered with black and white circles of known dimensions and locations, and camera footage was fed into a computer. Since the computer knew where the circles were in relation to each other, it could determine with a surprising degree of accuracy exactly where the payload was and how it was moving. It’s basically like those motion capture suits that actors in movies and video games use, but much bigger, much slower, and with even higher budgets.
One thing that you may have noticed about the deployment of these two free-flying payloads which will be picked up later is.. we’re flying two free-flying payloads that we need to pick up later.. at the same time! This is no small feat, and just off the top of my head I’m pretty sure that this is a completely unique situation in the history of human spaceflight. We’ve deployed multiple payloads before, and we’ve retrieved multiple payloads before, but we’ve never had two free-flying payloads going at the same time, only to recover them later. But now we’ve got Columbia leading the way, with the WSF trailing it by 37 kilometers, and ORFEUS another 46 kilometers further back. It’s a pretty impressive accomplishment.
But as can be expected from such a tricky operation, there were some minor problems. ORFEUS used cold gas thrusters to control its attitude, that is, to change which way it’s pointing without moving side to side. But since this is the real world where things are built out of actual metal and assembled by humans the thrusters weren’t perfectly aligned, which is pretty typical. The result was that each time it turned to look at a new target, it changed its orbit juuust a tiny amount. After a little bit of this, it began to slowly gain ground on the WSF. To prevent this from becoming a bigger problem, mission controllers decided to temporarily suspend science operations for ORFEUS, and placed it into an attitude with lower drag, which would keep the air from slowing it down quite as much. Sort of counter-intuitively, by allowing it to punch through the air better, the rate at which ORFEUS caught up to WSF would be slowed. That’s because when the air slowed the telescope down, it would end up in a slightly lower orbit, which would allow it to catch up to the Wake Shield Facility. By lowering the drag, it stayed slightly higher, and the relative rate slowed down. To make up for the lost time, ORFEUS would get some extra time at the end of the mission.
While Columbia was leading the WSF and ORFEUS parade, one member of the crew hit a significant milestone. Story Musgrave passed 1000 hours of flight time on the space shuttle, and as I mentioned earlier, at the end of the shuttle program, Musgrave remained the only person to have flown on all five space-worthy orbiters. In recognition of his achievement, the crew presented Musgrave with a patch that read “master of space”. Perhaps not wanting this remarkable accomplishment to go to his head, elsewhere in the mission the crew gave the 61 year old’s head some special attention. As seen in the post-flight presentation, they demonstrated their combination hair trimmer and vacuum cleaner by passing it over his completely bald head for the camera, with Tammy Jernigan following it up with a polish, as if Musgrave’s head were a bowling ball. Master of space indeed.
After three days flying on its own, the WSF successfully completed its last semiconductor thin film, and Columbia dropped back to pick it up. The pilot crew expertly nudged the orbiter up next to the WSF, causing it to appear to gently lower down towards the payload bay. Mission Specialist Jones used the RMS to reach out and snag the payload, ending just over three days of free flight. In his book, he talked about the high stress of a moment that to a causal viewer can seem so routine. The RMS developed a slight oscillation, visible from the end effector camera as it moved towards the grapple fixture. Jones talks about how it occurred to him just how many people were counting on him to do his job and do it well at this moment. But he did indeed do his job and do it well, and after half an hour of moving the WSF around on the end of the robot arm for the benefit of the Orbiter Space Vision System, he placed it safely in its berthing equipment in the payload bay.
While the folks who came up with the WSF had big visions of a more advanced epitaxy facility based at the ISS, routinely flying off to create high purity semiconductors, this ended up being the last flight of the Wake Shield Facility, and as of this writing there hasn’t been a followup. Maybe someday.
After a few more days, it was time for another highlight of the mission: the first EVA. After suiting up, Mission Specialists Tammy Jernigan and Tom Jones would be heading out into the payload bay for the first of two demanding spacewalks dedicated to testing techniques for ISS construction and operations. One particularly important task on the schedule was to simulate the replacement of an ISS battery. The simulated battery was contained in a standardized package called the Orbital Replacement Unit, or ORU, which was designed to make it easier for spacewalking astronauts to replace. Even with the ORU simplifying things though, the battery was still large and had considerable mass, requiring some tools for the EVA crew to move it around. You can kind of imagine it as an even heavier washing machine. With that in mind, they would be testing a new crane system which would help the crew move items of up to 270 kilograms, or 600 pounds, up to 5 meters, or around 15 feet. Jernigan and Jones would also be trying out a portable work platform, and some different types of tethers for both themselves and their equipment.
Especially compared to something like Hubble Servicing, it would be sort of easy to sum that all up as Jernigan and Jones just testing out a couple of pieces of equipment and moving some stuff around the payload bay and this is no big deal, but that would be really selling the EVA crew short. For one thing, this spacewalk represented month after month after month of exhausting, painful, and sometimes dangerous underwater simulation training for the crews. It’s also important to remember that each one of these spacewalks and each one of these tests provided precious new data on exactly how equipment and procedures performed in real world conditions. There simply had not been all that many spacewalks, ever, so each new one was a really big deal. To put it in perspective, this would be the 149th EVA in history, the 72nd for the United States, and only the 34th for the space shuttle program. 34th! And in fact, despite this being Columbia’s 21st flight to space, this was going to be the first spacewalk from the venerable old orbiter.
I say all that to really drive home the feeling of dread and disappointment that must have washed over the crew when Tammy Jernigan rotated the airlock hatch handle, only to discover that after 30 degrees, the handle came to a sudden stop. The hatch wouldn’t open. Eventually, she conceded defeat and asked Jones to give a try, and the two swapped places. Jones tried a new approach, pushing on the handle with his boot while he braced himself against the ceiling of the airlock, but Houston told him to knock it off. The only thing worse than the door not opening at all would be the door opening and then failing to close later. In such a scenario there would be no choice but to immediately close the payload bay doors and reenter with Jernigan and Jones in the airlock.. and ORFEUS wondering where everybody went.
In order to get a better look at what was going on, the crew did a pretty clever little maneuver. They partially repressurized the airlock back to just under 4 psi and then dumped it through the external vent all at once. The result was that the external thermal cover was blown down, exposing the hatch so the cameras on the RMS could get a good look. The view from the RMS was pretty much the same as the view from inside. The handle turned 30 degrees and then came to a definitive stop. The metal linkages that control the latches could be seen moving with the handle movement, but not enough to open the latches.
After about two hours of trying, the crew gave up and repressurized the airlock before heading back inside.
While the crew tried to enjoy the rest of their Thanksgiving Day, which by the way was the third in space for Story Musgrave, the prospect of having the spacewalks canceled entirely hung over them. Each member of the crew eventually tried their hand at opening the airlock hatch, and each found that the handle wouldn’t budge. At first this kind of freaked me out since this meant that they were attempting to turn the handle without spacesuits, in a pressurized airlock. Even if the hatch required more than a full 360 degrees from the handle, the idea of even coming close to opening the door seemed pretty scary. But in an email responding to some of my questions, Tom Jones reminded me that there was zero risk of the door opening even if they did manage to fully turn the handle: the hatch opened inwards. At about 100 centimeters, or 40 inches, in diameter, that meant that even with the reduced cabin pressure of 10.4 psi pressing on it, it was if a mid-sized delivery truck was parked on the hatch. So there was no risk of accidentally opening it.
The next day, while folks on the ground continued to scramble to try to determine the cause of the jam and what a potential fix might be, the crew summoned up the mental fortitude to endure what I’m sure was the absolute last thing they wanted to do at that very moment: some live video press conferences with news organizations on the ground. It’s only natural that the media wanted to focus on the unexpected drama with the EVA. When things go wrong, it’s interesting and people want to know more. I’m certainly guilty myself of ignoring a successful middeck experiment in favor of a flashy failure. But I’m sure that didn’t make all the questions about the hatch and the prospect of two canceled EVAs any easier to get through.
But while the call from CNN and others probably wasn’t much fun, another call a little later certainly was. Live from the Russian space station Mir, John Blaha was delighted to be speaking with his friends and colleagues. In fact, this wasn’t even the first time that Blaha and Musgrave were in space at the same time. They had flown together even years earlier on STS-33, also on Thanksgiving. So they were once again in space at the same time, but this time they were a little further apart. Blaha had a fun time checking in with the STS-80 crew and letting his Russian crewmates hop on the microphone. But since STS-80 didn’t have its own ham radio, they were communicating indirectly through the ground, and after only a few minutes the pass was over. Oh well, we’ll be seeing plenty of John Blaha in just a little bit.
The next day, November 30th, the newspaper the Toledo Blade published a headline on page three that you can blame for the eye-rolling pun in the title of this episode. It read: NASA deals with Space Jam. In a bizarre coincidence, the film Space Jam, starring the unlikely duo of Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny, had come out just two weeks before the airlock hatch refused to budge. Bad luck for the astronauts, great luck for newspaper headlines.
When the crew woke up, since it was a single shift mission, the ground continued in their tradition of playing music with some special relevance or inside joke, though I gotta say this one was pretty cruel. The crew were awakened to the Doors classic “Break on Through to the Other Side”, rekindling the hope that the ground had found the solution to the problem and that Jernigan and Jones would get to experience their first spacewalk after all. But nope, right after the music, CAPCOM confirmed what they had been dreading. The spacewalks were canceled. Jones said that even in weightlessness, Tammy Jernigan’s shoulders seemed to sag.
While being a major bummer for the crew, this was also a pretty significant risk. There’s a reason that every shuttle flight carried EMUs and even crews that didn’t plan to head outside went through training for certain contingency repairs. Just as one example, what if the payload bay doors failed to close and needed to be manually winched shut?
Continuing with my theme of bothering important people with silly questions, I reached out to shuttle flight director and program manager Wayne Hale to ask if it was possible to do a sort of anti-EVA. Could Cockrell, Rominger, and Musgrave have stuffed themselves into the airlock, leaving Jernigan and Jones to depressurize the cabin and then exit using the side hatch? I suspected that this was a ridiculous idea, and Hale quickly confirmed it. He said that depressing the avionics, water tanks, pantry, galley, and waste management system would pretty much kill the orbiter. Fun idea, but not practical in the real world.
The ground cooked up some pretty wild contingency plans that involved the EVA crew basically sawing through the hatch, but it thankfully never came to that.
With the EVAs canceled, the crew settled in to wrap up the flight. There were a number of secondary payloads on board, some of which required crew interaction, and some didn’t. Back in the payload bay were some Get Away Special canisters carrying student experiments investigating everything from heat transfer between copper tubes, particle detection, how a particular chemical was absorbed in shrimp, surface tension, popcorn, mosquito eggs, and you guessed it, crystals. Down on the middeck were the fourteen rats I mentioned earlier, who were helping scientists study the effects of a high or low calcium diet on blood pressure. Among other things, this research would help better take care of pregnant women, who have to pay special attention to their blood pressure and calcium intake. And the CMIX-5 experiment mixed several fluids in weightlessness in an effort to develop a natural pesticide. See? I told you this flight had a bit of everything.
The mission was extended by a day in order to give ORFEUS some extra time to make up for the observations lost earlier in the mission when it had to assume a low-drag attitude. But it made the most with its extra time, fully completing all of its objectives. On flight day 15, Columbia returned to the telescope, with Commander Cockrell giving Pilot Rominger the chance to fly the rendezvous up until the final 100 feet. Once the orbiter had completed its final approach, Jernigan used the robot arm controls at the back of the flight deck to snag the telescope and safely deposit it back in the payload bay.
When the time came to pack up and head home, the weather in Florida did what the weather in Florida does and made things complicated. The flight was originally scheduled to land on December 5th, but in an effort to give ORFEUS more observation time, an extra day was added to the mission, moving the landing to the 6th. But then as the day approached, the weather in Florida looked iffy enough that the Mission Management Team changed their minds and said to prepare to come home on the 5th after all. The crew duly suited up for reentry only to learn that the weather in Florida was unacceptable, and even the weather at Edwards wasn’t great. The next day they suited up again, and ran into a similar situation. So instead of returning to the planned duration, two days were added due to weather issues.
As often happens when these missions are extended due to weather, the crew had a much lower workload, with all major payloads and experiments already taken care of earlier in the flight. In what I consider to be one of the ultimate perks of the job for an astronaut, the crew were largely free to enjoy the beautiful view of the Earth below and the stars above. Jones wrote about taking a moment to float up to the forward windows on the flight deck, sprawled out sideways across their full width, with his belly facing the windows, and watching the sights go by. At night, he could see the lights of cities slipping past below, and above he saw more stars, shining more brilliantly, than he’d ever seen on the ground. With the Milky Way spilling out above him, and an occasional meteor lighting up the sky below, it sounds like one heck of a way to wrap up a mission.
The only thing left was to get through reentry, and just like everything else on this mission, it’s a reentry to remember. Story Musgrave apparently decided that the view from the middeck, with its single small side window, was inadequate. Perhaps having already decided to retire, and therefore free of the threat of losing future flights, or perhaps just being Story Musgrave, as the rest of the crew strapped into their seats, Musgrave remained at the back of the flight deck. What happened next is captured in Jones’ book as well as an interview with Musgrave conducted by aerospace journalist Charles Atkeison.
As the shuttle first encounters the thickening atmosphere and becomes enveloped in a bright pink sheath of glowing plasma, the deceleration forces are minute. Musgrave was free to look through the overhead windows and enjoy the view no human had ever seen except through glimpses in a handheld mirror. Since the shuttle belly-flops into the atmosphere at a 40 degree pitch, when Musgrave looked out the overhead windows he was essentially looking back up through the hole that the orbiter just punched through the air. He could see interesting phenomenon like the plasma disappearing when attitude control thrusters fired, only to reappear soon after. During the s-band turns he could see different colored plasma on either side of the tail, which he thought might suggest different type of molecules on either side of the tail, which is not something he had expected. Throughout this, he held a small camera up to the window to capture the spectacular view. Though I am sad to report that after searching the depths of the internet for quite a while looking for this video, it doesn’t seem to be available anywhere. Maybe it’s time I make another visit to the NASA history office.
As the reentry continued, the happy crew joked among themselves. When the shuttle’s computers indicated that they had calculated a path to the landing site, Commander Cockrell jokingly wondered aloud “How does it do that?” while Pilot Rominger followed up with “How do it know??”
Eventually, as the light show faded and as standing upright in up to 2 G’s after 18 days in space and while wearing an 80 pound pressure suit that was not attached to its cooling system became more and more of a challenge, Musgrave sat on the floor of the flight deck, facing backwards and leaning against the seats of the others.
After the successful landing, he decided that it didn’t make a lot of sense to carry all of his heavy gear back downstairs, especially since as he put it, “I wasn’t feeling too good.” So he took off his helmet, gloves, parachute, and survival gear, and just dumped it all on the flight deck floor before heading down the ladder and hooking into the cooling system at his seat. When the unnamed astronaut leading the ground crews opened the hatch, Story, who was alone on the middeck, greeted him and then climbed out. The ground guy then went up the ladder to help the rest of the crew, only to discover a whole bunch of Musgrave’s equipment just lying around on the ground. Puzzled, he asked Taco.. why in the world would Story carry all his stuff upstairs just to dump it on the ground and go back downstairs??
And with that appropriately colorful story, we send off one of the more remarkable astronauts to ever fly with NASA. First selected as one of the Scientist-Astronauts of Astronaut Group Six in 1967 at the height of the Apollo era, Story had to wait 16 years before he finally had his chance to fly, finally achieving orbit on STS-6 and performing the first ever shuttle era EVA. After that he flew on STS-51F, the first flight of the Instrument Pointing System, the classified STS-33, and the not classified but still military STS-44. Next, he lead the most ambitious spacewalks to date on STS-61, the first Hubble servicing mission. And now here, with STS-80, after 53 total days in space, he moves on to other challenges. It’s been a privilege, Story.
We also send off STS-80, which at 17 days, 15 hours, 53 minutes, and 19 seconds set the new endurance record for the shuttle, and one that would never be broken. The mission had successfully achieved all of its primary objectives, and most of its secondary objectives.. except for one: the canceled EVAs due to the stuck hatch. And I’m sure you’ve been dying to know what happened.
Jones writes how as he strapped in for reentry, he and Tammy Jernigan shared one fear. It apparently wasn’t the fact that they were about to whizz through the upper atmosphere inside of an artificial meteor. It was.. what if they land, the ground crews try to open the hatch, and it just opens normally? But it turned out there was nothing to worry about. Upon investigation, it was clear that there was absolutely nothing the crew could have done to fix the situation. Hidden in the inner guts of the hatch was a set of gears. And stuck between those gears, bringing everything to a grinding halt, was a small screw. The screw had apparently worked itself loose thanks to the vibrations of the vehicle, and then aimlessly floated around inside until encountering the gears. Once there, it got stuck in some sticky lubricant, and waited for its chance to ruin the day for Tammy Jernigan and Tom Jones. Jones wrote in his book how he still had his half of the screw. After the flight, ground crews had cut the screw in half and presented the two pieces to the astronauts, nicely framed with a photo of the two of them and some details about the mission.
Since I apparently felt bold enough to ask someone about one of the worst moments in their life, I emailed Dr. Jones, who was kind enough to send me a photo of the screw, which I will include with the episode announcement tweet and the show notes page which definitely will someday exist. Among the other mission details, photos and the screw itself, the frame contains a dictionary definition: “screw: verb. To deprive of something due: cheat.” It’s always the smallest thing that’ll get you.. Don’t worry, both Tammy Jernigan and Tom Jones will get their EVAs eventually, it’ll just take a little longer than expected.
Thanks again to Tom Jones for sending that photo along and for answering some of my questions. You can learn more about him and his writing by heading over to astronaut-Tom-Jones.com.
Next time.. the STS-80 crew enjoyed a nice chat with John Blaha on this flight. And while he’s clearly still his enthusiastic self, it sounded like he would appreciate a little more company. I think the only reasonable thing to do is hop aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis and oblige. Besides, Blaha’s replacement Jerry Linenger is all fired up and ready to go.
Ad Astra, catch you on the next pass.