Forty years ago: The third Shuttle launch

March 22, 1982: The Shuttle’s big external tank sports a new color.


Now this is a pleasant way to start our launch day — March 22, 1982 — we sleep in an extra hour.  That’s because a thermocouple in a ground support equipment gave an erroneous high temperature reading on a fueling system.  It took a hour to bypass the failed sensor, and liftoff has been pushed from 10 a.m. EDT to 11 a.m.    An hour late, but we’re still aiming to do what has yet to occur in the Shuttle program — launch on the planned day.

All is ready for our mission — to greatly extend the flight experience of the Shuttle, on this third flight of the Space Transportation System (STS), as the Shuttle program is called.  The program is already maturing.  Work in the Orbiter Processing Facility, the Shuttle’s hangar, was cut from 104 days for STS-2 to 69 days for us.  

STS-3 is the third of just four test flights, all aboard Columba, all with just a two-person crew.  We’ll be moving the needle on the Shuttle program way forward.  Our goal — seven days in orbit, more than doubling the total time accumulated in space by the first two flights.  We’ll pick up on tests of the Remote Manipulator System (RMS) robot arm not completed when STS-2 was shortened and extend them, for the first time lifting a payload with the arm.  We’ll carry out critical thermal tests, really the prime objective of the mission.  We’ve also got a suite of experiments to operate under the payload title of Office of Space Sciences (OSS) -1.  While STS-2 tested instruments to view the earth, ours, on a pallet in the cargo bay, will look the other way, towards the sun and the physics of the space plasma around the Shuttle.  The experiments serve as pathfinders for the extensive ones to come on operational missions.

The only recent change to plans involves the end of the flight.  Heavy rains at Edwards Air Force Base in California have turned the “dry” lakebed runways to mud.  As the test program is not ready for a landing on a concrete runway, our primary landing site was switched four days ago to White Sands, New Mexico.

The count is going very smoothly, despite that one hiccup in ground equipment.  Even the weather is cooperating, cloud cover that once threatened the launch is breaking up.  We board the shuttle shortly after 8 a.m., and once hooked into the communications loops, radio, “Looks like we’ve got a great day.”

Coming out of the planned 10-min. hold at the T – minus 9 min. mark — that’s when it becomes really real.  Launch Director George Page gives his final good wishes, says he’s sorry about the one-hour delay.  The steps come fast now.  The ground launch sequencer takes control the count.  Four minutes to launch, and the spaceplane’s aero-surfaces, meaning the elevons and speed brake, move through a programmed sequence to verify they are ready.  A minute later, the three main engines gimbal (swivel) to check that they are ready to steer the Shuttle on ascent.

Now down to T – minus 2 min. 40 sec.  The “beanie cap,” the gaseous oxygen vent hood, atop the External Tank, retracts.  Our tank is sporting new colors.  For the first two missions, it was painted white.  Engineers determined that the paint is not needed for its thermal properties.  So our tank is bare, showing the rust orange color of its foam insulation, saving the 540-lb. weight of the paint.

We clear the caution and warning panel.  No unexpected errors.

The count drains to a major milestone at T – 25 sec.  Control of the launch switches to the onboard computers.  The computers hand over perfectly.

Feel Columbia come to life.  At T – minus 6.6 sec. the three engines, in staggered sequence ignite.  Built up thrust.  Feel the vibration.  And feel the Shuttle lean forward, reacting to their punch.   And as the stack snaps back upright, the twin Solid Rocket Motors ignite, kicking us away amid a violent metallic drumming and chest thumping vibration.  Pow — in 7 sec. we’ve cleared the launch tower.

“Roll program,” we call, as the Shuttle pirouettes for the proper heading out over the Atlantic.  Just 26 sec. after launch, the roll is complete.  We’re on our heading, punching through a thin cloud layer into the clear.   And already anticipating Max Q, the maximum air pressure on the vehicle.  The main engines throttle back to 68 percent to ease the loads.   Just 1 min. 3 sec. into the flight, we’re through Max Q, and the engines throttle back to 100 percent.

“Columbia, Houston.  You’re go at throttle up.”   Those solids are giving a relentless push.  We’ve got a tiger by the tail!

Approaching the 2 min. mark, and we receive the call,”negative seats.”  Which means we’re too high and fast to use the ejection seats, which will only be used for these test missions.  That’s nice milestone — as ejecting from a Shuttle is not a good option.

And now it’s time to get rid of those two big roman candles. The spent Solid Rocket Boosters are kicked to the side at 2 min. 6 sec., a flash of smoke and fire shoots by the windows.  The ride smooths out, as smooth as glass, with the three main engines purring along, but as we tell the ground, “That first part is a real barn burner.”

We count off the abort modes called by the ground, each call indicating our increased margin to make orbit on two engines, should an engine fail.  And later, reach safe harbor on just one engine.  A big call comes at 4 min. 12 sec. —  “Negative return.”  That means we’re beyond the range where we could return to the launch site.  Which would have been a very, very hazardous trick, basically thrusting the shuttle around in mid-flight.   At about that time, we report, “I have a number 3 APU oil temp. light.”  One of the three Auxiliary Power Units that power our hydraulic systems is running hot.

Houston says, “We’ll take a look at it.”  

It’s still operating, and with the redundancy built into this ship, we could run fine even with it shutdown.  Indeed, 7 min. 30 sec., into the launch, with about a minute of powered flight left, Houston calls, “We recommend you secure APU number 3.”  And we shut it down, no impact on the flight.  Just let it cool off.

MECO.  Main Engine Cutoff, on time, 8 min. 34 sec. since launch.  Welcome to space — but not yet quite orbit.   We jettison our big orange friend, the External Tank.  Maneuver away, and prepare for the first of two burns of the smaller Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines in Columbia’s tail.  That burn comes just 10 min. 34 sec. after launch.   And a half hour later, a second burn sets us in a circular orbit of 130 nautical miles, where we’ll stay — we hope — for the next week.

Time to get down to work.  But don’t move too quickly.  We’re both feeling a bit queasy.  I wouldn’t want to use the term for it, space sick.  Let’s just say we’re feeling about 50-50.  Don’t want to make any sudden movements.

At the end of the first orbit, we open up the big payload bay doors, which swing to the side to reveal a spectacular view of California.  Stunning.  But we don’t have much time for sightseeing.

We set up for our first thermal test, placing Columbia’s tail into the sun for 10 solid hours.  Such tests will help map the boundaries for operating the Shuttle before areas become too hot or cold.  Sections soaked in the sun are expected to reach temperatures of 200 degrees (F).  Those in darkness are expected to chill to minus 200 degrees (F).

Four hours into the flight, we make a first in the program — for the first time, data that is not of an engineering nature is transmitted from the Shuttle directly to scientists on the ground.  We send down measurements of the contamination surrounding the Shuttle, the outgassing from the vehicle that could affect delicate instruments on future flights. 

Twelve hours after launch, we, Jack Lousma and Gordo Fullerton, will enter our first sleep period.  But you know, I bet we take part of that time to stay up and gaze at the earth.

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