Forty years ago: Twice upon a time

Nov. 12, 1981: The Shuttle Columbia makes its historic return to space

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Can you feel it? — today, November 12, 1981, is the day. It feels real.  We’re going to make history — take Columbia into space for the second time on a five-day test flight.  Today, sunny with just a touch of mist over the Indian and Banana Rivers.  

After the first flight in April, NASA had hoped to turn the Shuttle around for a flight in September.  But the intensive task took longer than hoped, with about a thousand tiles requiring replacement, as well as installation of two new fuel cells and other components.  A launch of October 9 was squashed when, on September 23, while pumping propellant into the nose tanks for the forward Reaction Control System jets, nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer spilled onto heat protection tiles.  It acted as a solvent, forcing the replacement of  380 tiles.

Eight days ago, November 4, looked like the day, especially after cloud cover moved out of the area.  We, a crew of two, went through the launch morning rituals, aiming for a 7:30 a.m. (EST) launch.  All ran smoothly until the built-in hold at T-minus 9 min.  It was extended due to a couple low pressure readings which were determined to be no problem.  The count had to be recycled to T-minus 20 min.  This time we got down to T-minus 31 seconds.  Readings showed the oil pressures in two of the three Auxiliary Power Units, hydrazine-fueled turbines that power the Shuttle’s hydraulic systems, were high.  The launch was scrubbed.  

The high pressures were traced to “gunk-like” contamination in the $25-worth of lubricating oil.  And yesterday, November 11, yet another problem arose — a fault in Columbia’s data processing unit.  It was traced to a black-box multiplexer/demultiplexer.  A replacement is rushed from California, where the Shuttles are built by Rockwell International.   Installing it delayed our liftoff time from 7:30 to 10:00 a.m.   And the count is proceeding smoothly.

In the cargo bay, we’re carrying the first actual payload for the Shuttle, a U-shaped pallet of five experiments for the Office of Space and Terrestrial Applications (OSTA).  A prototype Shuttle Imaging Radar (SIR) – A, with its distinctive rectangular antenna, will see through clouds to make photograph-like images of the Earth’s surface.  A complimentary experiment, the Shuttle Multispectral Infrared Radiometer, seeks to determine the best spectral bands for identification of rock types.  The Feature Identification and Location Experiment (FILE) will test a sensor that can identify between clouds, ocean, and land, automatically ignoring unwanted target types.  Measurement of Air Pollution from Satellites (MAPS) uses a radiometer to measure the carbon dioxide in the middle troposphere.  The Ocean Color Experiment will test a sensor to distinguish areas of high algae concentration in the ocean. 

Our main work for the mission focuses on another new item, the Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) robotic arm stretching along the port (left) sill of the payload bay.  The length of two telephone poles — 50 ft. — it will lift and retrieve payloads on future missions.  Weighing just 990 lbs., it can handle payloads with a mass of 65,000 lbs.  On our flight it will lift . . . nothing.  We won’t even grapple a target, simply test how the arm on it own operates in its several modes.   

The count ticks smoothly through it’s final two hours, as in the cockpit, strapped in our ejection seats, wearing our bulky orange suits, we occupy ourselves monitoring systems.  And suddenly arrive at the last planned 10-min. hold, one last chance to take breath, at T-minus 9 min.  And the hold is extended to clear a few minor items, such as the readiness of range safety.  “Let’s take our time,” Launch Director George Page tells his team.  “It’s been a hard one.  Watch all your data.  But we’re going to do it right.”

To us he says, “We’re going to give you a good one.”

And at 10:01 a.m., after a wait of just 10 additional minutes, the count resumes.  Two minutes later, we see the “white room” crew access arm retract.  

“You are go for APU prestart.”   

“In work.”  We ready the Auxiliary Power Units.

“APU prestart complete.”

At T-minus 5 min., those big Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) are armed.  And we’re go for APU start.  We have APU start — and today they look good.  

T-minus 4 min.  Profile check of the aerosurfaces — elevons and speed brakes automatically moved to make sure they’re ready.

T-minus 3 min. 15 sec.  Engine gimbal check.  The three liquid-fueled Main Engines at Columbia’s base swivel to ensure they can steer the stack.

At T-minus 2 min. 55 sec., we go on internal power generated by our three fuel cells.   And clear the caution and warning system.  At 2 min. 5 sec., the Main Engines lock in start position.

Time going fast now.  Just a half minute to launch — handoff:  our onboard computers take control of the launch.

We have a go for Main Engine Start.  At T-minus 7 sec., the three engines are started in a staggered sequence.  They must achieve 90 percent thrust in just 4 sec.

Feel it.  And see it out the window.  The kick of the engines causes the stack to sway 25 inches.  When it snaps back vertical.  Bam.  The Twin Solid Rockets ignite and we are away with a swift kick and a ringing metallic rumble, liftoff at 10:10 a.m. (EST).  And clear the launch tower in just 6.8 sec.   You know it — those solid really shaking the stack.

“Roll program.”   The Shuttle pirouettes to put us on the proper heading.  She really swings around — spectacular.   In just 25 sec. after launch, the roll is complete.

“Columbia, Houston.  You are go at 40.”

We’re go at 40 sec.  And 8 sec. later, the three Main Engines Throttle down as we approach Max Q, the maximum air pressure pressing the vehicle.  We slice through Max Q.  Engines throttling up again.  

At 1 min. 45, at an altitude of 19 nau. mi., Houston calls, “Negative seats.”  

“Roger, negative seats.”  We can no longer use our ejection seats.

Coming up on separation of the two thundering SRBs.  Mark — 2 min. 7 sec.  With a brilliant flash and flame that startles us, they are kicked free.  “OK, it looks like we got a good SRB sep.  As smooth as glass.”

A lot smoother — and quieter — now that we’re pushing onward with just the Main Engines.  The calls come like clockwork.   Go at 3 minutes.   Four minutes —  “Columbia/Houston.  Negative return.”

We like that call — “Roger, that sounds good.”  It means we’re beyond the point of a tricky return-to-launch-site abort.

We listen for the next big milestone, coming at 5 min 40 sec.  “Columbia, Houston.  You’re press to MECO.”

MECO — Main Engine Cutoff.  This call means that if one of the Main Engines fails, we can still achieve orbit.

We pitch over to gain speed.  Look at that view downrange under a black sky.

And at 7 min., an even better call.  “Columbia/Houston.  You’re single-engine press to MECO.”  That means we can achieve orbit even if two Main Engines fail.

“Roger.  Looking good.”

G forces built to the maximum we’ll feel — 3 gs.  Houston calls, “You’re go at 8.”  And the engines throttle back to 65 percent.

Eight-and-a half minutes . . . And “MECO.”  On time.  And half a minute later, we jettison the External Tank.

Look at that the white tank is now seared and streaked in black, black at the bottom from all the heating.  It slowly tumbles away as we maneuver away.

For the first time in history, a manned spacecraft has launched into space a second time.  We’re in space, but not quite in orbit.  That takes a further two steps, burns of the two smaller — just 6,000 lbs. each — Orbital Maneuvering Systems (OMS) engines at Columbia, tail.  The OMS #1 burn comes just two minutes after the tank is jettisoned, a burn of under 2 min.  It boosts our orbit’s apogee to 157 mi.  

OMS #2 comes 41 min. after launch, another short burn that raises the low point of our orbit so that we are now in a circular orbit of 157 mi.  This will be our working orbit for five days.  And we quickly get down to it, opening the twin payload bay doors at the start of our second orbit.    

“The doors are open, the rads [heat radiator panels inside the doors] are open.  There’s no problem at all with them.”

With the doors open, we are relieved to see no tile damage, as occurred on the first flight.  A beefed up sound suppression system on the pad worked, absorbing the shock wave of ignition that rippled through the Shuttle on the first flight, causing damage.  An extra 10,000 gal. of water were added to the pad deluge system, and 30 cushions of water were placed below the solid rockets.

At the same time we open the doors, we see continued indications of a problem with fuel cell #1, one of two new modified cells installed in Columbia.  “OK, Houston.  On the spec. 8 . . . under fuel cell 1 column, we have a pH indication with a down arrow.”

Fuel cells produce electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen, with water as a byproduct.  The electrolyte is more alkaline than it should be, indicating trouble. 

“We’ll take a look at it, and have some words for you . . .”

While the exact cause of the problems isn’t obvious, they’ve determine is that a membrane between the hydrogen and oxygen could be leaking.  If oxygen and hydrogen combine, they could explode.  They have us shutdown fuel cell #1.

We ask, “Do you think we can recover the full cell later?”

“I don’t believe we can.”

And 6.5 hrs. after launch, they give us super bad news:  We’re to fly a “minimum mission.”  Mission rules dictate that with only two fuel cells operating, the mission must be cut from five days to 54 hours, the duration of the first Shuttle flight.

We’re determined to cram as much of five days of work into that time as we can.  And that means some deception.  When our sleep period approaches, we shut off systems as if preparing for night.  Then out of range of tracking, we power up again.  We’re going to stay up all night, running tests on the new RMS arm and operating experiments.   

We’ve put Houston to bed.  Let’s get at it.

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