STS-5: (Almost) a spacewalk

Forty-years ago: Bill Lenoir suited up with no place to go.



Today, November 15, 1982, after a day’s delay, is the day — it’s spacewalk time for STS-5.  After the deployment of our primary cargo, two communications satellites on the first two flight days we began early preparation for the extra-vehicular activity (EVA), the formal name for a spacewalk.  As we unstowed equipment on November 13, one of our mission specialist spacewalkers, William Lenoir, suffered bouts of spacesickness.  Including vomiting, which was reported to the world.  And yes, we don’t like it when the details are instantly public (which will lead to changes to keep medical details private).   Lenoir quickly felt much improved, but NASA decided out of caution to postpone the spacewalk a day.

Up at 1 a.m. (EST) on the 15th, we’re feeling fine.  Two hours later, we begin preparing for the EVA.  Lenoir and Joe Allen enter the cylindrical airlock at the rear of the middeck and don the two-piece spacesuits consisting of a hard upper torso and soft lower half.  They check out the systems, and prepare to begin a 3.5-hr. “pre-breath” of pure oxygen to rid their bodies of nitrogen that could, at the lower suit pressure, cause what divers call “the bends.”

And that’s when things start going wrong.  We switch on the fans in the suit’s backpacks to circular air through the suits.  Allen’s fan comes up to speed, begins running to fast, making a noise that sounded like a motorboat.  And quits.  So we try cycling it off and back on.  It come to life, but trips off.  At 4:35 a.m., we report the problem to Houston, and say, “We’re looking for some ideas.”

We’re told to check for moisture in the suit.  During ground tests, perspiration in the suit caused similar failures.  We look, but our suits are dry as a bone.  We continue trying, but the fan comes up to speed but then the rate decay.  And after maybe 5 min., the fan fails.  Becoming hot, Allen removes his suit.

We’re told to proceed with Lenoir’s pre-breath of pure oxygen at 4.3 lbs. per square inch (as opposed to the normal cabin atmosphere of mixed oxygen/nitrogen at 14.7 lbs. per square inch).  Lenoir suggests to Houston that he go out for a short solo walk.  Allen adds, “He’s well trained and ought to go do it.”

Capcom Roy Bridges gives a curt, “Your suggestion is noted.”   No way is Mission Control going to risk an astronaut alone out there.  The most they will allow is for Lenoir to crack the outer hatch open.  He replies, “Don’t like it.”  

But quickly we’re dealing with another problem.  This time with Lenoir’s suit.  The pressure in the suit rises, but stops short at 3.6 lbs. per square inch, shy by less than a pound of the desired level.  There’s a problem with the regulator in his backpack.  The pressure is actually adequate, but at 6:48 a.m. Mission Control announces even the hatch opening has been canceled.  They’re not going to allow it until the problem is understood.  

We’re NASA — we don’t give up.  Maybe we can trace the problems, fix them or work around them.  At least understand them.  If we can gain the confidence for some sort of spacewalk, the mission would be extended a day to allow for it (as we’re scheduled to land tomorrow).  So Lenoir takes Allen’s suit into the airlock, reduced the pressure to 9 lbs. per square inch, hoping the fan will work at the lower pressure.  He reports, “Basically the fan behaved the same.  We cycled it three times.”   He also checks out his regulator — the reduced pressure doesn’t alleviate its problem, either.

Capcom Roy Bridges calls, “We’re fresh out of ideas down here.”   There will be no spacewalk.  All that’s left is to pack up and come home in the morning. 


On November 16, we will fire the twin OMS engines at 8:30 a.m EST and reach the fringes of the atmosphere 27 min. later at an altitude of 400,000 ft.  “It’s looking good.”

It’ll be quite a show outside, much different than reentering on Apollo where you face backwards, looking back through a cone of fire, as our commander Vance Brand knows, a veteran of Apollo-Soyuz.  Descending in darkness, we will watch rust-colored glow brighten to yellow, and then at Mach 20, white shockwaves roll off the nose.  

During the hour-long descent, we will perform the several test maneuvers while making the S-shaped roll reversals we use to bleed off speed.  Most of test maneuvers will be guided by computer, showing our growing confidence in the system and the software.  We’re targeted for Edwards Air Force Base, California.  We’d hope to land in a crosswind to evaluate the Shuttle’s ability to handle side winds.  For that we’ll want the wide lakebed runway, but it is wet.  So we’ll come down on the 15,000-ft.-long concrete runway, just after sunrise crests the mountains.  Our wheels will touch so softly, our pilot Bob Overmyer, can’t feel it, calling, “Are we down yet now?  Are we on the ground?”

On the ground and rolling, and performing a braking test, punching in maximum braking.  Only after that, near the end of rollout, the left inboard wheel of the main landing gear will lock and skid the final 37 ft.  We will come to a stop after a flight of 5 days. 2 hrs. 15 min. 29 sec., and the tire will go flat.  The cause will be traced to movement of the axel against the brake assembly.

Call it a warning that, operational or not, we still had much to learn about operating the Shuttle system.

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