Our SpaceFlight Heritage: STS-61C – Delays before disaster
Space shuttle mission STS-61C was scheduled to be the last flight of 1985 with a launch date set for Dec. 18. As it turned out it would be the first launch of 1986 and more important the last successful shuttle mission for almost two years. But it seemed that Columbia, the orbiter tapped to fly the mission, did not wanted to return to space. It took NASA a record eight tries to get Columbia of the ground, and it seemed even more difficult to get her down on the ground again…
In late 1984 the crew for STS-61C was assigned and would consist of a five member flight crew; Commander Robert L. Gibson, Pilot Charles F. Bolden, Jr., Mission Specialists Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, Steven A. Hawley and George D. Nelson. During the summer of 1985 the first of two Payload Specialists for the mission were added; Robert J. Cenker of RCA. The second Payload Specialist was officially selected on Oc. 4, 1985 – Congressman Bill Nelson.
After Republican Senator Jake Garn, who flew on STS-51D in April of 1985, as the first member of Congress to fly in space, it was time for a Democrat to fly. The logical choice was the Chairman of the Space Science and Technology Subcommittee in the House – Bill Nelson. He accepted the invitation from the NASA Administrator James Beggs to fly aboard the shuttle in Sept. 1985.
Shuttle Columbia the oldest orbiter of the fleet had undergone extensive modifications in Palmdale, California after she returned from space during her last mission (STS-9 in Nov. 1983) These modifications gave Columbia a unique new look. Infrared cameras mounted in a pod on the top of Columbia’s tail would map the heat distribution over the top of the orbiter during reentry. The additional black HRSI tiles applied under the pod gave Columbia this “special look”. Columbia also had received a new nose cap, penetrated by fourteen pressure sensors distributed in a cross shaped pattern. These would measure the air flow during reentry, additional sensors were placed into the airframe to record her flight performance during launch and landing.
The launch of STS-61C was originally set for Dec. 20, 1985 but it was moved forward two days to Dec. 18 to avoid a Christmas Day landing. On Dec. 17 the launch was delayed one day when additional time was needed to close out orbiter aft compartment. Also the weather forecast for the 18th was not looking good. The second launch attempt on December 19 was scrubbed at T- 14 seconds due to indication that the right solid rocket booster hydraulic power unit was exceeding the RPM redline speed limits. (This was later determined to be a false reading.). To give the launch team off for the Christmas holidays the launch was reset for January 4, 1986. It was later reset to January 6 to give the crew more training time.
Meanwhile shuttle Challenger was rolled out to launch pad 39B on Dec. 22 to prepare it for mission STS-51L. It marked the first time both launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center were occupied with a shuttle.
The launch attempt on Jan. 6, 1986 was halted at T-31 seconds. The weather was perfect for the scheduled launch at dawn, but a failure of a liquid oxygen drain valve prevented it to close properly. The valve was then closed manually, but not quickly enough to prevent a low temperature in one fuel line. At least that is what NASA told the press and the public.
Crewmember Bill Nelson wrote in his book “Mission: An American Congressman’s Voyage to Space” what really had happened:
“It was interesting that NASA’s public explanation of what caused the delay was that a valve had failed to close, thereby allowing the liquid oxygen to drain out of the fuel tank. The truth is, however, that the valve did not close because it was not commanded to close. It was later determined that the Rogers Commission, investigating the series of mistakes that forced this second scrub, recognized that the problems were personnel-related, caused by fatigue from overwork: One potentially catastrophic human error occurred 4 minutes 55 seconds before the scheduled launch of mission 61-C on January 6, 1986. According to a Lockheed Space Operations Company incident report, 18,000 pounds of liquid oxygen were inadvertently drained from the shuttle external fuel tank due to operator error. Fortunately, the liquid oxygen flow dropped the main engine inlet temperature below the acceptable limit causing a launch hold, but only 31 seconds before lift-off. As the report states, ‘Had the mission not been scrubbed, the ability of the orbiter to reach a defined orbit may have been significantly impacted”
The next launch attempt on Jan. 7 was scrubbed at T-9 minutes. First, the weather at the RTLS landing strip was bad. Then a small boat wandered into the area where the Solid Rocket Boosters would drop into the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, it was scrubbed due to bad weather at both transoceanic abort landing sites (Moron, in Spain and Dakar, in Senegal). The crew spent a total of five hours inside Columbia before crawling out and heading back to crew quarters.
Later ground crews and the launch team found out that a liquid oxygen sensor broke off and lodging in the number two main engine prevalve. This was discovered during the detanking procedure after the scrub. Had it launched that day, it was possible one engine would not have shut down on orbit and would have blown the aft section of the spaceship to pieces…
The launch was re-set for Jan. 9 but replacement of the broken sensor took longer and the launch was set for early in the morning of Jan. 10. On that morning the weather was really bad across the entire state of Florida, but despite that the crew was once again aboard Columbia. The launch team took the countdown to the T-9 minute mark hoping the weather would improve for launch, it did not. The crew inside saw a lot of lightning near the pad and were wondering when one would hit the fully loaded Shuttle stack. At the end of the launch window Launch Director Gene Thomas came on the radio to talk to the crew and told them there would be no launch today and they would reset for Jan. 12. This was the seventh scrub for STS-61C and the fourth with the crew aboard.
On Jan. 12 the crew went for their fifth ride out to the launch pad. The astronauts and the white room crew developed a certain routine and with humor, symbols and good luck charms appearing above Columbia’s hatch it set the tone for the day. And then a man wearing black horn-rimmed glasses, a huge nose and bushy mustache was entering the white room, resembling comedian Groucho Marx. It was astronaut Steve Hawley, who now had the record of going through more scrubs than any other shuttle astronaut (including an engine shutdown during STS 41-D). He wouldn’t take a chance. He stuck a piece of duct tape over his name tag on his flight suit so the shuttle wouldn’t recognize him.
This time the countdown would not go into a hold and at 6:55 a.m. EST that morning the Space Shuttle Columbia began its 7th mission to space. As soon as the shuttle was in low-Earth orbit (LEO) the payload bay doors were opened and the MSL-2 payload was activated by the crew as well as some other, smaller experiments. On the 7th orbit the RCA’s Satcom Ku-1 communications satellite was successfully deployed from Columbia’s payload bay.
All the launch delays were not so good for observations of Halley’s Comet, because the comet was much closer to the Sun now than it would have been in December. On top of that the crew experienced a failure with the CHAMP camera. The camera had been left switched on well before launch. The batteries were drained and the unit could not be used anymore. So no long-exposure photographs of Halley’s Comet during this mission.
NASA was planning to shorten the mission because of the tight launch schedule ahead. Challenger with mission 51L was planned for a Jan. 24 launch and on March 6 Columbia was scheduled to return to space for the STS-61E – ASTRO-1 mission for more and better observations of Halley’s Comet. The decision was made to land Columbia on Jan. 16 in Florida. But the Sunshine State’s turbulent weather on landing day was not good, a low cloud cover prevented a landing so the crew with all their equipment already stowed had to remain in orbit an extra day. The next day the weather was as bad as the day prior preventing again a landing in Florida. NASA would rather have the shuttle in orbit a day longer then landing it in California which would have taken a whole week before it could be returned to KSC and thus extra stress for ground crews who would prepare it for its March flight.
On Jan. 18 the Florida weather still would not allow Columbia to land at KSC, but since the crew was running out of food and clean clothes she had to come down. There was no other option then to land at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Landing at KSC would have been in daylight but this unscheduled landing at Edwards would now be in the middle of the night. It was a good thing the flight crew had its landing training divided into day and night landings. The second night landing of the Shuttle Program was at 5:58 a.m. PST. Total mission duration was 6 days, 2 hours, 3 minutes and 51 seconds.
At KSC during a press conference after the landing NASA Director for Launch and Landing operations Bob Sieck told reporters that the 3,000 miles off target landing would not have much impact on Shuttle operations for 1986:
“We knew that ’86 was going to be a challenging year. The landing at Edwards for the first mission is certainly going to increase the degree of difficulty that we have in front of us. But we do not see it having an impact on our plan this year for the manifest.”
On Jan. 20 preparations for Columbia’s return to KSC were going smoothly. Temperature sensors taken off Columbia’s main engines were flown by T-38 jets to Florida to be installed on Challenger which was scheduled to launch on the 25th of January. On Jan. 23 Columbia made it back safe to Florida on top of a NASA Boeing 747. It was expected that Columbia would be ready on the launch pad on March 4, for a March 6 launch for mission STS-61E. Events on Jan. 28, however, would change all that…
A native of the Netherlands, van Oene became ‘infected’ with the ‘space virus’ by an enthusiastic school teacher in 1981. Since 1994 he has been a freelance space photographer and writer for magazines and websites in Holland, Belgium and ‘Spaceflight’, the magazine of the British Interplanetary Society.
van Oene is also the co-founder and CFO of SPACEPATCHES.NL. This Netherlands-based foundation currently produces all the official Soyuz crew patches for the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos.