Forty years ago: STS-6 conducts the first Shuttle spacewalk

April 7, 1983: Story Musgrave (left) tests the dynamics of his tether while Don Peterson moves along the handrails along Challenger’s port side. It was the first spacewalk of the Shuttle program, the first in a lineage of EVAs leading to those from today’s Space Station.


Here we are riding a very clean new Shuttle; only a few minor problems with Challenger now entering her the fifth flight day on mission STS-6.  Today we, the four-person crew of P.J. Weitz, Bo Bobko, Story Musgrave and Don Peterson, come out of the chute running — because its EVA day, America’s first spacewalk since Skylab in February 1974.  We’re Story Musgrave, lead spacewalker, EV #1, and Don Peterson, EV #2.   We’re going to attempt the spacewalk that was postponed on STS-5.  It’s gonna be a challenge as the spacewalk was a late addition to our flight with little time for training.  No worry — Story has been a lead astronaut on EVA since the Skylab days.  All the preparations go on or ahead of schedule. 

The new Shuttle suits come in two pieces, an upper torso that we shimmy into, then pull up our pants, so to speak, the lower leg section, the two lock together at a metal waist ring.  The suits and backpacks providing oxygen, electricity, cooling and communications, weigh 250 lbs. on Earth.  Each costs $2.5 million. 

As is this the first Shuttle spacewalk, we evaluate everything — and and from the start find a few surprises.  For example, we’re suppose to be able to don the suits ourselves.  But we discover we need held from Bo Bobko to close the waist ring.  

Once suited and in the tight confines of cylindrical airlock at the back of the middeck, we begin with . . . sleep.  We must breath pure oxygen for 3.5 hours of to purge our blood stream of nitrogen.  Going straight from the oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere of the Shuttle at 14.7 psi to pure oxygen at the reduced pressure used in the suits, 4.3 psi, could cause what divers call the bends, nitrogen bubbling in our blood.   It’s been a hectic mission checking out all the systems on the new Shuttle, so, lulled by the flow of pure oxygen through our helmets, we both fall asleep for more than two hours.

Here’s the plan:   We will attach our thin tethers to slide wires that run on along the hinge lines of the big payload bay doors, which of course are now wide open.  That’s a length of 60 ft, each of us taking one side, testing how easy it is to maneuver along the handrails that stud the longerons.  We’ll then test handholds at the rear bulkhead of bay, taking a look at the loose insulation on the starboard Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pod at the Shuttles tail.  We’ll evaluate the lighting in the “pool” of the payload bay as we return to the front.  At a big toolbox at the forward starboard corner, we’ll evaluate tools such as wrenches and foot restraints that will be used in the repair of the disabled Solar Max satellite on a mission in early 1984.  

Then we’ll make our way to the back again.  We’ll work at the big doughnut-shaped tilt table that held the TDRS satellite we deployed on the first day.  Spanning the width of the bay, t must be tilted down for the doors to close, and will simulate doing so manually, with a winch and rope, should the electric drive motors fail.

Returning to the forward bulkhead, we’ll evaluate handholds and a manual crank that could close the payload bay doors should their drive motors fail.  And continue more tool evaluations.

Every move is planned, mapped, just like the Apollo moonwalks were.  Except we’re exploring the Shuttle’s potential for work outside the cabin.  We’re planned to be outside 3.5 hrs.

At 4:15 p.m. EST, it’s time to move out.  We depressurize the airlock.  EV #1 will be first out.

“OK, here comes the hatch.”

“Pull it in?”

Story swings the hatch loose and rotates it down.  We have to jostle for position in the tight confines of the airlock.  We were positioned head to head.  Perhaps that’s not the best starting orientation in the airlock.  We’re learning.

.  “I’m going to rotate around.”  Story eases himself through the hatch head first, grabs a handrail above it.  “It’s bright out here,” he says.  A minute later, we follow.  It’s 4:30 p.m.

Story hooks to the slide wire and heads down the starboard side.  At first he moves tentatively, then with more confidence.  At the aft end, he pulls himself up to a remote TV camera in the corner and gives a wave.  “This is a little deeper pool than I’m used to working in,” he says, referring to the Weightless Environment Training Facility (WETF) pool in Houston.

Similarly, we move down the port slide wire.  Reaching the aft bulkhead, we climb up and take a peek at the loose blankets.  As Mission Control says, it should present no problem on reentry.

We move out along the port side, heading to the front again, making more evaluations on the way. “OK, now I’m going to see what the safety wire would do to me if I ever get loose.”  Story lets go of the handholds along the bay’s side, checks the dynamics of reeling himself in.  Our 50-ft. tethers are on reels.  Like a high wire performer, Story hovers midway in the bay and evaluates the pull strength of the reel.  

We return to the hatch area.  It’s called spacewalking, but our legs float above us.  It’s more of hand walking, handhold to handhold.  We move to the toolbox in the front starboard corner.  At a work station by it, we evaluate taking out and handling various tools.  Locked in foot restraints, we test our ability to bend and reach.  And then it’s time to move out again.

We stop at the IUS tilt table and spend a good slice of time back here, making a series of evaluations of our ability to move about the payload bay.  We turn our attention to the simulation of lowering the tilt table using a rope we run from the aft bulkhead to the tilt table.   The ropes pulley is worked manually by a ratchet handle, like a car jack, to tighten the rope.  That’s our job while Story works elsewhere on the rig.  We decide not to use foot restraints, holding ourselves with one hand on the housing structure while we pump the handle up and down.  Our legs are flailing up and down like a swimmer.  An alarm sounds — a leak in our suit.  Story rushes over.  This could be dangerous.  And we’re out of communications range.  It continues a few minutes, then stops.  All seems well. So we continue with our task as if nothing had happened, and never tell Houston a word about it.

When after the spacewalk, looking at the data we’ve recorded, Mission Control sees the leak, they are upset.  Too late!   Only a couple years later will the cause be determined.  Our kicking motion rotated the suits waist joint and the seal broke.  When we stopped, the seal popped into place.  It was just a freak occurrence.

When we come back into communications range, we’ve moved on to a different problem.  Story radios, “We’re hung up real bad on getting the winch to winch out.  With tension on it [the line], we cannot get it to ratchet out, and we cannot get it to reel out.” 

Nothing seems to work to free the taught line running from the tilt table to the aft bulkhead.  Story says, “The good possibility is that if I can get some slack at the roller up above, I’ll get it off that way.”   He pulls himself up the rope to the top of aft bulkhead like a sailor in a ship’s rigging.  We’re moving with confidence now.  A second later, he reports, “OK, I got it.  I yanked it off the roller.”

After finishing up here, we move back forward to the toolbox in the forward corner.  By placing several tools in a bag, we evaluate carrying objects with large masses.  We evaluate the handholds on the forward bulkhead, swimming up to the twin windows that overlook the payload bay from the flight deck.  Hello in there!   And we test the crank system for closing the payload bay doors.

We request a short extension in the spacewalk.  Houston gives it to us.  When we finish all our evaluations, we must be careful to make sure everything is put away and buttoned it up.

“OK, guys, what do we have left to do out here?  The bay looks clean.”

“I think we’re done, Story.”

And, feet first, through the hatch we go.  It’s 8 p.m. EST.  We’ve been outside more than four hours.   We’ve opened the door through which generations of spacewalkers will pass.  

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