STS-5: A second Shuttle inaugural

Fifty years ago, Nov. 11: Columbia deploys its first communications satellite, SBS-3, just hours after launch on the first operational Shuttle mission.



STS-1 claims the honor of being the inaugural flight of the Space Transportation System, commonly known as the Space Shuttle.  Yet 19 months later, we, the crew of the fifth flight, STS-5, are about to make a second inaugural flight.  Our flight marks the first operation mission of the Shuttle, as important a milestone as the first flight.  That is, if we can live up to our motto, “We deliver.”  That refers to our primary cargo, two commercial communications satellites.  We are Vance D. Brand, commander (and veteran of the Apollo-Soyuz mission); Robert F. Overmyer, pilot; Joseph P. Allen, mission specialist; and William B.  Lenoir, mission specialist.

We’re set to launch on Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, 1982..  In that we’re not the first.  Gemini 12 also launched on Veterans’ Day back in 1966.  And we’re not the lead story in the news — as Soviet radio announces the death of Leonid Brezhnev on the 10th.

We have two countdowns today, the first towards launch, and then a second to the historic first satellite deployment.   The lead up to launch goes smoothly, not a single serious glitch in the entire processing period of just 75 work days.  It’s a perfect morning, too, for a launch, with clear skies.  

Just a glance as we walk out to the transfer van dramatically demonstrates the difference in our flight.  There are more of us, the first four-person crew in history, with the addition of two of a new breed of astronaut, mission specialist, charged with the operation of payloads.  And we’re not wearing pressure suits, just lightweight blue flight suits.  Before entering the Shuttle, we donned helmets equipped to deliver oxygen in an emergency.

We’re aboard Columba, strapped in, three of us up on the flight deck, the two pilots, and seated behind them, a mission specialist, serving as flight engineer.  His eyes would be especially helpful during a launch emergency.  One mission specialist is relegated down in the middeck, nothing to do, nothing to see but the row of lockers in front of him.

At 7:19 A.M. (EST) we become the first Shuttle not only only on the appointed day but at the planned time.  Well, actually we were late, missing launch time by a 68-thousands of a second.  I think we can live with that.  The 8-min. ride to orbit on the Solids and Main Engines delivers us to a perfect orbit, despite a slight under-performance by the twin Solid Rocket Boosters fighting a headwind.  We’re still learning about the how this hardware behaves.  Two burns of the twin Orbital Maneuvering Engines, the first coming just 10.5 min. after launch and the second 34 min. later, put us in a circular orbit at 184 mi. altitude.  We’re right where we want to be.

Six-and-a-half hours after launch, we begin our second countdown:  A 90-min. run to the deployment of the first satellite tucked at the back of the 60-ft.-long cargo bay.  That would be SBS-3, for Satellite Business Systems, a consortium Aetna Life & Casualty, Comsat General and IBM.  As its name implies, it’ll carry domestic business communications   The other satellite, out of sight behind SBS, is Anik (meaning “brother”) C3, owned by Telesat Canada.  It will join a constellation of five that carry domestic Canadian communications, this one to serve northern Canada.  

The pair  look identical, both built by Hughes Aircraft.  Drum shaped, they are 7 ft. wide and 14.6-ft. long with the solid-rocket stages that will lift them from low earth orbit, called Payload Assist Modules (PAMs).  They satellites each weigh 1,300 lbs., 7,000 lbs. with the PAM boosters.  They an expand to a length of about 22 ft. when antennas are deployed.  The two-stage PAMs will fire their first stage 45 min. after deployment, putting the satellite on course for geostationary orbit 22,500 mi. up, where it will appear to hover over one spot on the ground.

These are our first big paying customers, with SBS paying something like $8 million and Telesat Canada about $9 million for the launch of their satellites.  The fees are actual bargain prices, set for the first three years of Shuttle commercial operations in order to attract customers.  Someday, the Shuttle, according to the government mandate, will become the sole launcher of all U.S. satellites.  All other boosters will be phased out. 

A couple hours after launch, we open the twin payload bay doors, exposing our two satellites, Telesat Canada’s Anik at the rear of the bay, it’s clamshell (“Pac Man”) sunshield closed over it.  It’ll be deployed tomorrow.  SBS in front of it, its sunshield already open, ready for the deploy sequence.  The satellite sits on a turntable, just like a phonograph record.  We initiate the satellite spin up, starting the 90 min. countdown to deployment, and call to Mission Control, “OK, the port restraint is out.  Here comes the spin.” 

“We see it down here,” the Capcom, Mike Mulane, replies, observing on the TV we’re sending down.

“OK, Mike, we’re at 52, coming down, 51 rpm.”  That’s a perfect spin.  We can easily see the spin by the rotation of the gold-mylar dish antenna stowed at its top.

“Roger, we copy.  You guys look good.”

We checkout the health of all the systems.  We’ve trained hard for any contingency.  Coming up on 7 hr. 20 min. into the flight, 39 min. to deploy.  We maneuver to deployment attitude, perpendicular to the Earth with the payload bay pointing opposite our direction of travel.   

Five minutes to deploy — initiate terminal sequence.  Everything looking good.

Three minutes to deploy — our onboard computer sends a command to start the PAM timers and configure it’s telemetry system.

“Columbia, Houston, everyone down here is go for deploy.”

“So is everyone up here.”

Ninety seconds to go — we throw switches to arm the PAM’s motor.   Twenty-five seconds to go — we send commands preventing stray signals from sending false commands to the PAM.  

Precisely at 7 hrs. 58 min. and 35 sec. into the flight — the clamps release, springs push the SBS stack away.  And there she goes, straight and true, rising straight up the line of the Shuttle’s vertical tail.  We watch it spin away against the horizon of the earth, can track it a long way.

“We still have that beautiful satellite in sight, traveling just below.”

Capcom Mike Mulane says, “We’ve got a lot of happy people down here.  You guys did good work.”

” OK, Mike, we deliver.  We got SBS off on time.” 

About 15 min. after deployment we make an 8-sec. separation burn to keep well clear of the satellite.  It’s PAM burn goes off perfectly.

The next day, we plan to do it all over again.  In the morning, Mission Control will tell us, “It’s going to be awfully hard for you guys to top yesterday.”  But, on our 22nd orbit, over the Pacific southeast of Hawaii, we will do just that, in mirror image of SBS, deploy Canada’s Anik.  “We’re two for two,” we will call, and for a second time proclaim, “We deliver.”

In all, we carried 32,000 lbs. of payload into orbit, 5,000 lbs. more than STS-4.  Of that, 17,300 lbs. will come back with us.  We’re a short flight, just five days.  In that time, we aim to deliver even more than just the two satellites, as major as they are.  

We aren’t a test flight, yet we are, with about fifty test objects objectives, such as continuing the evaluation of the thermal properties of the Shuttle begun on four test flights.   And after our primary mission is achieved, we plan to perform the first spacewalk from a Shuttle, the first U.S. spacewalk since Feb. 3, 1974 near the end of the final Skylab flight.  Our two mission specialists will don the new Shuttle EVA suits built by Hamilton Standard.  The suits, which come in standard sizes rather than the custom-fitted suits of Apollo, are designed to have increased flexibility and touch in the fingers than the old suits.  Our spacewalkers will spend 3 hrs. 25 min. in the payload bay, testing the suits mobility and the tools intended for the repair of the crippled Solar Maximum Mission satellite in 1984.  

We’ll be widening the Shuttle experiencing right through landing, performing test maneuvers throughout descent.  And we aim to make the first landing in a crosswind to check how the Shuttle handles it, and on rollout, perform a maximum braking test.  

There’s still a lot to look forward to, and we’re really looking forward to that spacewalk.

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