A tale of two Shuttles (part one)


January 16, 2003: Columbia is launched on the STS-107 mission.


Two Space Shuttles both sit on Launch Pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center, separated by 20 years.  It’s January 16, 1983, and Challenger, awaiting it maiden flight, is being prepared for a second test firing of its Main Engines.   It’s January 16, 2003, launch day for Challenger’s predecessor, Columbia, making its second flight following a major overhaul and upgrade.   


Moved to the launch pad on November 20, 1982, Challenger’s STS-6 mission carried an original launch date of January 20, but it isn’t going anywhere for awhile.  As will occur with all new Shuttles, Challenger underwent a Flight Readiness Firing (FRF) on December 18.  The three Main Engines fired for 20 sec. while firmly bolted to the pad.  A small hydrogen leak was detected after the FRF, small but twice the limits.  For awhile, it wasn’t certain if the leak was in an engine or ground equipment.  As the situation was evaluated, the launch date slipped to January 28, then no earlier than February 1.  Still uncertain as to what was causing the leak, management decided on January 7 that a second FRF is needed to trace the problem.  The launch team this day is working toward a firing on January 25.


Twenty years later, a countdown toward a real launch proceeds without problem.  Not that the flight hasn’t been delayed repeatedly from an original target of November 2000.  Scheduling slips for a variety of missions kept pushing the mission, STS-107, further down the schedule.  As a catch-all science flight with a variety of investigations into microgravity, it wasn’t a high priority.  Finally it received a firm date of July 19, 2002.

That is, until hydrogen fuel problems hit the Shuttle fleet, not so different than happened in 1982.  Cracks were discovered in Atlantis’s hydrogen fuel line.  Then similar cracks were found in the other Shuttles.  Correcting the problem pushed STS-107 until January 2003.

Finally the day has come for:

— Rick Husband, mission Commander.

— William C. McCool, Pilot.

— Michael P. Anderson, Mission Specialist and payload commander for the flight.

— Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist, serving also as flight engineer.

— David M. Brown, Mission Specialist.

— Laurel Clark, Mission Specialist.

— Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist and the first Israeli astronaut. 

Their mission is all science, more than 80 investigations in multiple disciplines from life sciences to materials processing.  It’s the kind of flight the Shuttle has flown since Spacelab 1 in 1983.  But this will be the last of it’s kind, a bridge to research on the Space Station still under construction.  Spacelab, a costly laboratory module carried in the payload bay, was phased out in the mid-1990s.  STS-107’s crew will conduct its research in a commercial Spacehab “double” module, twice the size of the original design developed by Spacehab, Inc.  The pressurized double module is carried in the payload bay as was the more sophisticated Spacelab.  Columbia is equipped with an “Extended Duration Orbiter” kit of extra consumables that allow it to stay in orbit for 16 days, with landing set for February 1.

The crew departs for the pad at 7:30 a.m. EST, aiming for a launch at 10:39 a.m.  Husband, at 7:53 a.m., is the first to enter the crew cabin.   The last, Chawla, crawls through the hatch at 8:45 a.m.  At 9:17 a.m., the hatch is closed, sealing in the crew of STS-107.

Weather for launch is excellent, 65 degrees (F), calm winds at the surface, scattered clouds at 4,000 ft., visibility 7 mi.

The fuel lines hold tight this day, and hydrogen flows into the main engines.  We have Main Engine Start.  The twin Solid Rocket Boosters ignite.  Liftoff, liftoff of Columbia and STS-107 on time at 10:39 a.m.  And we’ve cleared the tower.

Columbia slices into Max Q, the region of maximum air pressure on the vehicle, 57 sec. after launch, at an altitude of 32,000.  At this moment, wind shear strikes the Shuttle, invisible and revealed only by the way the engines swivel to compensate.  Yet everything appears “nominal,” and 2 min. 7 sec. after launch, the solid rockets separate.  Columbia pushes on for orbit on the power of its main engines.  To the earthbound observer, everything is perfect.   MECO, Main Engine Cutoff, comes as planned, 8.5 min. after launch.  Then a 2-min. burn of the smaller Orbital Maneuvering Engines at 11:20 a.m. places Columbia in it’s desired 175-mi.-high orbit.

Ten minutes late, the crew begins configuring systems for orbital operations.  The payload bay doors are opened at 12:36 p.m., and the first science experiments quickly begin.

This is Day One.

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