Spaceflight Insider

Our Spaceflight Heritage: SPARTAN flies high with STS-72

The STS 72 crew of space shuttle Endeavour Winston Scott Dan Barry Brian Duffy Leroy Chiao Brent Jett Koichi Wakata NASA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

The crew of STS-72, from left-to-right, Winston Scott, Koichi Wakata (JAXA), Dan Barry, Brian Duffy, Brent Jett, and Leroy Chiao. Photo Credit: NASA

On Jan. 11, 1996, Space Shuttle Endeavour lifted off from NASA’s Launch Complex 39B at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on STS-72 – a mission, among other things, that was sent aloft to retrieve a Japanese satellite and return it to Earth.

The nearly nine-day mission was commanded by NASA astronaut Brian Duffy, a U.S. Air Force pilot who once served as Director of F-15 Tests at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Also on board were pilot Brent Jett, and mission specialists Leroy Chiao, Daniel Barry, Winston Scott, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Koichi Wakata.

Endeavour capturing the Space Flyer Unit. Photo Credit: NASA

Endeavour‘s RMS captures Japan’s Space Flyer Unit. Photo Credit: NASA

The mission’s launch was delayed for approximately 23 minutes due to communication glitches among some of the ground sites, but otherwise, the countdown to the mission’s start was mostly uneventful.

“It was a terrific mission that went pretty much as planned and it began with a spectacular night launch,” Duffy told SpaceFlight Insider. “There were a few ascent surprises, the first being that when the boosters lit they launched a bunch of water that was a part of the million gallons of water deluge up into the air and it hit my front window just as we were in the roll (about 8 sec. into the flight). I’d never heard of that happening and I wondered ‘where’d that water come from?’”

STS-72 was the first shuttle flight of 1996, the mission’s road to launch was followed by a PBS crew throughout for a documentary entitled Astronauts, hosted by Bill Nye, which aired on PBS on July 17 of the following year.

“Going through Mach 20, I started seeing little pieces of ice going past us and I was thinking, ‘we’re going Mach 20… how can anything be going faster than us?’. I think it was ice coming off the engine nozzles and being propelled forward by the base pressure of the SSME exhaust,” Duffy noted that, for him, returning home was almost as remarkable as the trip uphill. “The night landing was pretty exciting for me as it was my first time to land a space shuttle.”

The primary objective of STS-72 was to retrieve the Japanese Space Flyer Unit (SFU) after its ten months on orbit conducting biological, physics, and materials experiments. SFU had been launched on March 18, 1995, from the Tanegashima Space Center, located off the coast of Japan, on an H-II 3F rocket.

The SFU spacecraft carried an infrared telescope; a 2D array system; HVSA, a solar array which generated electricity to power the onboard experiments; a Space Plasma Diagnostic Package (SPDP) to measure the effect of speed on gravity. Also on SFU was EPEX, which conducted experiments relating to the manufacture and maintenance of fuel in space as well as MEX, which experimented with the behavior of liquid in space. Lastly, there was BIO, which took eggs into space to observe a live specimen hatching in the microgravity environment.

Wakata retrieved SFU using Endeavour’s robotic arm on flight day three. Unfortunately, the satellite’s solar arrays had not properly folded into place, and it was operating on battery power. It was decided to jettison the solar arrays in order to bring the vehicle aboard Endeavour.

Wakata would go on to become the first Japanese commander of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2014. STS-72 was Wakata’s first mission to orbit. He would go on to fly three more times into space – twice on a shuttle and once on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Space Shuttle Endeavour launches on Jan. 11, 1996 on STS-72. Photo Credit: NASA

Space Shuttle Endeavour launches on Jan. 11, 1996. Photo Credit: NASA

Endeavour also carried the Shuttle-Pointed Autonomous Research Tool for AstroNomy (SPARTAN), a reusable, free-flying, unmanned spacecraft equipped with four experiments for the Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology (OAST).

Wakata deployed the appropriately named “OAST-flyer” on Jan. 17, 1996. The spacecraft carried the Return Flux Experiment (REFLEX), which tested the accuracy of computer models in predicting contaminants on the surfaces of sensitive objects such as lenses.

SPARTAN also contained the Solar Exposure to Laser Ordnance Device (SELODE), which tested new techniques of firing pyrotechnics using fiber-optic laser pulses; the Global Positioning System Attitude Determination and Control Experiment (GADACS), which tested thruster firings through the SPARTAN Packet Radio Experiment (SPRE) – a University of Maryland experiment that supported amateur GPS data through GADACS.

After SPARTAN was deployed, pilot Brent Jett maneuvered Endeavour to a distance of 44 miles (72 km) from the newly-deployed space observatory. When the time came for deployment, SPARTAN realigned itself for rendezvous, as it was designed.

While SPARTAN was deployed, mission specialists Leroy Chiao and Dan Barry conducted an extravehicular activity (EVA) in order to construct a portable work platform. This was a prototype for a mobile workstation on the ISS.

After assembling the platform, Chiao and Barry attached it to the end of Endeavour’s robotic arm. This allowed Jett to maneuver various pieces of equipment in a manner similar to what would be required during the orbiting laboratory’s construction.

“The EVAs that were conducted by Leroy, Winston and Dan helped to evaluate some of the tools and techniques that were planned for the ISS. If you look at what the station has become – I think it’s safe to say they did a great job,” Duffy said.

They then unfurled the Rigid Umbilical (RU), which simulated the fluid and electrical umbilicals that would eventually connect Space Station modules to the truss structure and the solar arrays.

Space shuttle Endeavour touches down at the Shuttle Landing Facility's Runway 15 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo Credit: NASA

Space shuttle Endeavour touches down at the Shuttle Landing Facility’s Runway 15 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida after completing mission STS-72. Photo Credit: NASA

“I was honored to be part of an incredibly talented, international team that began a very complex mission twenty years ago today. After many years of planning and training, teams in the U.S. and Japan worked together seamlessly to retrieve the Space Flyer Unit satellite to be brought home after a year in space and returned to Japan. The mission demonstrated the true value of the space shuttle… the ability to carry 25 tons to orbit and bring 25 tons home,” Duffy told SpaceFlight Insider regarding the flight.

Years later, Chiao described the experience to a NASA oral historian: “Getting to do spacewalks was [a] surreal experience, seeing the Earth with peripheral vision involved, really feeling like the Earth was a ball. Of course, looking through the window, you know it’s a ball, but there’s something about looking through the window and then being out there with an unrestricted view that really made it feel like it was three-dimensional for the first time.”

The day after the retrieval of the SPARTAN, Chiao and Scott commenced the mission’s second EVA, testing a portable utility box that would hold fluid lines and avionics on the ISS.

Endeavour returned to Earth on Jan. 20, 1996, having successfully accomplished all her mission objectives. The orbiter would go on to fly 15 more missions (the orbiter was launched 25 times in total since its first flight in 1992).

For Duffy, the mission served not only to achieve objectives laid out by NASA, JAXA, the U.S. Air Force and other entities, but it also provided him with experiences, both professional and private that he cherishes to this day.

“What can I say about Koichi? What a guy!  He’s so level-headed and fun to be with, but in Japan he’s bigger than Elvis! STS-72 was such a great mission and experience that I wanted to do it again and was given the opportunity on STS-92 (which flew in 2000),” Duffy told SpaceFlight Insider.

Video courtesy of NASA / Noah Johnson


Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.

Reader Comments

Great article – thanks for posting!

What a great mission to be a part of…I was fortunate to serve as one of the Shuttle Flight Directors for STS-72 and was Flight Director for the EVA…which tested to cooling of the suit in the shadow if the Orbiter in an extreme cold test.
And Yes….Koichi was “THE MAN”!!!!!!

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