Forty years ago, STS-3: The wave off

The Shuttle lifts a payload for the first time, the Plasma Diagnosis Package, during the STS-3 flight. On March 29, 1982, Columbia was scheduled to land after a week in space.


Welcome aboard STS-3, the Shuttle’s third flight and first of 1982.  We’re working through a blur of days aboard Columbia, more like a camping trip, as the Shuttle in this test era is not fully outfitted.  For example, the galley is not install, so we prepare our meals on portable food warmers.   

Running Columbia with just a crew of two, we’re always chasing test objectives.  And we had to start slow, fighting off the effects of motion sickness for a day or two.   Not that we let it keep us down.  And as always in a test program, the unexpected crops up.  

Our attention that first morning lay outside the cockpit windows — crooking our necks for a look at the Shuttle nose . . . and seeing black spaces where white tiles should be.

Unlimbering the Remote Manipulator Arm (RMS), our 50-ft.-long robot arm, we use the camera at its “elbow” to look out over the nose.  “There’s a whole tile gone and pieces — triangular corners of several tile fell out also.”

Eventually we count at least 37 tiles gone or with pieces gone.  These are white-tiles which protect top surfaces that don’t receive the brunt of reentry heating.  Mission Control tells us, “None of those missing tiles seem to be in particularly bad areas.  We don’t anticipate any thermal problems from the ones you saw.”

The key phrase is, “from the ones you saw.”  We have no idea if any of the critical black tiles on the underside are missing.  Nothing to do but to erase the thought from our minds and carry on with the mission.

Another problem appears on that first full day in space, March 23, this one impossible to erase from our minds — or our noses.  Columbia’s space toilet, which works (in theory!) using air currents in place of gravity, falters right from the start.  It made for, as we say, a colorful time whenever we used it. Quickly we are dealing with more failures than just the space toilet.  Three outside TV cameras fail, including the “wrist” camera on the robot arm, a vital tool in grappling and berthing payloads.  And we plan to do that for the first time in the program.  Houston delays this major test of the RMS robot arm a day until Flight Day 4, just to give us time to fully recover from motion sickness before undertaking the demanding tasks.

The Office of Space Science (OSS)-1 pallet in the payload bay, consists of multiple experiments including a suite of instruments to monitor the space environment of orbit and measure contamination outgassing from the Shuttle.  Two of its packages can be snared and lifted to “sniff” the area around Columbia.   We’ll use them to test the arm’s payload ability and stability under loads.  The Plasma Diagnostics Package has a mass of 350 lbs.  The Induced Environmental Contamination Monitor checks in at 850 lbs.  Alas, without that wrist camera we don’t have a sufficient view of the contamination monitor to safely maneuver it.   Luckily, we do have a good enough view of the smaller diagnostic package.

We only have 2 in. of clearance to lift the Plasma Diagnostic Package out if the OSS-1 pallet.   Move in with the cylindrical “end effector” which has wires that tighten on a pin-like grapple fixture on the package.  Once secured, release the hold-down latches and lift it straight up.  A piece of cake — we do it in less time than in simulations.   We wave it above the cargo bay like a magic wand, taking measurements.   And berthing the pallet proves as easy, takes just 5 min.  Capcom Sally Ride radios, “In record time!”

“Well, Sally, the first time you do that has to be a record.  . . . I’ve had no surprises.  If there are any surprises at all, they have been pleasant.  I am very impressed with this piece of machinery.”  

“My compliments to the Canadians.”  The arm was built by Canada as their contribution to the Shuttle program. 

Flight day five brings another round of trouble, this one concerning our primary communications link, the S-band system.  It happened durning our sleep period when switching from high to low mode on one of two redundant links.   The ground tells us, “For your information, it looks to us like we may have lost downlink from transponder #2.”  Then we lose transponder #1 in both the low and high downlink transmission modes.   This is serious, as we’re down to one link, transponder #2’s high-rate link.  While backup means of communicating are possible, we need that primary link — and so may have to cut the flight short.

We can’t stop to worry over it — the flight plan is relentless.  In the morning we run a second series of detailed tests of the robot arm.   During the flight, we tested the arm in multiple modes, auto and manual.  And for the first time in the program, we have experiments in Shuttle’s middeck, the level below the cockpit, most of which just require periodic monitoring.  These are early tests of systems that one day may fly operationally on the Shuttle, such as the Electrophoresis (a method of separating substances by their electrical charge) Equipment Verification Test and the Monodisperse Latex Reactor, a materials processing experiment. 

In the afternoon, we troubleshoot the communications system.  Cautiously, as we don’t want to do anything that might blow our remaining one.  Commands such as “power amplifier operate — to one; mode — stay in high, transponder #2” flow back and forth.  We fail at this point to revive the system.  Even so, the word is passed to us, we won’t be coming in a day early.  High winds are forecast for the primary landing site, White Sands, New Mexico.  “Because of bad weather, we’ll head for landing Monday [March 29] as planned,” the Capcom relays.  Late in the mission, we will recover one of the links.

Throughout the flight, we have been running thermal tests.  Just how much heat and cold can Columbia take?  We started on Day One with the tail pointed toward the sun for 10 hours.  Then we flipped it and kept the nose in the sun for 80 hrs., which cold-soaked our Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines in the tail.  At the end, we test fired the engines — they work; the cold did not affect them.  We did see the effects of prolonged cold on the big payload bay doors, which warped, preventing them from closing.  A bit of sunlight cured that.  In our final big thermal test, we kept the top of the vehicle toward the sun for 26 hrs.

On the evening of March 27, as we begin to wrap up major operations, Houston tells us, “We have done 100 percent of the activities we had scheduled.”

We tell them, “We’re going to make it more than 100 percent.”  

We close everything down on the morning of March 29, aiming for a landing at 2:27 p.m. (EST).  We’re in our suits, in the cockpit a hour and a half before landing, approaching the time of the deorbit burn.  We’re primed and ready to return.  Three hours before landing time, the weather is good, as it is 90 percent of the time at White Sands. Alas, high winds whip up, driving the white gypsum sand, as fine as talcum, into what will become the worst sandstorm in 25 years.

John Young, flying the Shuttle Training Aircraft over White Sands, can barely see the runways. The site is experiencing sustained winds of 35 mph.  And gusts to 55 mph.  John reports, “Sorry guys, we’re just not going to be able to do it today.”

Sorry?   We’re not story.   We’ll try again tomorrow — which means we have the rest of today with not a single thing on the flight plan, a pure luxury after a week of chasing the timeline.  We can relax and gaze at the earth all we want.    Who could ask for more?

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