Our SpaceFlight Heritage: Shuttle astronauts mark 30th anniversary of first Atlantis flight
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — It was a day three decades in the making: the 30th anniversary of the first flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis. Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, the operators of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, hosted a series of events to honor the orbiter’s powerful legacy. Held on Saturday, Oct. 3, the 30th Launch Anniversary of Space Shuttle Atlantis event provided guests with a wealth of information and opportunities to mark Atlantis’ legacy.
On hand were several veteran astronauts who regaled guests with their memories of orbit as a part of one of the crews that flew on shuttle Atlantis. These included Jerry Ross, Mike McCulley, Bo Bobko, Charlie Walker, Bob Springer, and others. SpaceFlight Insider requested to interview Bobko, the commander of Atlantis’ first mission – STS-51J – what we received was far more special.
Bobko sat down and began to mused about the orbiter’s legacy – and was soon joined by Walker. They, however, were not alone in sharing their experiences with us – but more on that later.
SpaceFlight Insider: It’s been thirty years since Atlantis’ first took to the skies, what are your thoughts about that historic event?
Bobko: “As the commander of the first flight of Atlantis, and with issues we had seen on the first flights of Challenger and Discovery, the first thing that I thought was, ‘this thing is never going to go on time’.”
SpaceFlight Insider: You really thought that?
Bobko: “Well, hey, that was the history right?” (laughs)
“So it was interesting. My wife was a managing consultant and she came to me and said, ‘Bo, what do you think is going to be the situation here?’ And I said, ‘Dianne, it is like most first-flights, it’ll probably be delayed.’ I didn’t have a date I could give her as it was a military flight, and that information was kept secret, as it was a mission for the DoD (Department of Defense). So, she had an opportunity for some business, and she thought it was going to be during the time when she thought Atlantis would be landing. But, she wasn’t sure because I couldn’t tell her that the launch or landing was on any given date.
“She went ahead and set up her business, which required her to be in Baltimore, I think it was like the next day after what she thought was going to be the landing. Well, she was pretty smart about when the launch and landing might go. But she factored in the information that I gave her that it was going to be delayed – and factored that into the equation.
“So, I just let her read what was in the newspapers! (laughs) So what happened was, Atlantis launched right on time – right to the second.
“When it landed, she was there. She had to fly from Houston to Edwards [Air Force Base in California] and gave me a kiss and a hug and took off right away because she had to go to Los Angeles to catch an airplane to go back to the East Coast where her work was going to be starting the next day.
“So, my early experiences with Atlantis were that Atlantis always seemed to make its deadlines. More than probably the other shuttles and I’ve talked to other people around too, and they seem to feel, you know, that if you had Atlantis, it would make the deadline.
“It was nice for us, because whenever we went out to the launch pad to launch, we launched. Which is great, I don’t know how you guys did (gestures over to Walker), everybody tells me that when you go out, especially if you slip, especially if you go out the next day, it takes about 15 seconds after you get into the seat, your back starts to hurt just as bad as it did the day before when you got out of it… so, it was nice too, once you went out to the pad – to go!
Walker: “I’ll just add to say that it was nice, we’re all human beings, it [is] just human nature to fall into a certain behavior or have certain sets of expectations. If you’re all primed psychologically, physically, etc., for some big event, especially one that is emotional, psychological, and physical at the same time, and then, at the last second, be told, ‘Nah, never mind today, maybe tomorrow!’ And then you go back the next day, and you’re like, my back still hurts, I wonder if it’ll happen today because of what happened yesterday. When it is, tickety-poo go – it is nice.”
SpaceFlight Insider: For those readers who are not versed in these matters, how long did it take in the 24 hours prior to launch to get ready to go to the pad, getting strapped in, all of that, about how long would that take?
Bobko: “I’d say it was about four hours once you got out to the pad.”
Walker: “From wake up…”
Bobko: “Maybe a little more than that…”
Walker: “Things changed a lot in that regard after we lost 51L and following Return to Flight [after the loss of shuttle Challenger in 1986], because it went back to a situation where the crew now had full partial-pressure suits on – with all of the recovery accouterments, parachute and all of that. I flew before 51L and, of course, after the orbital flight tests…”
Bobko: “As were my flights.”
Walker: “I call them the ‘white scarf days of the Shuttle Program’ – when we had just the blue coveralls. It didn’t take much to get suited up, you just put on an undergarment or two and then the coveralls and then you would sit and play cards and wait until you went to the pad!” (laughs)
Bobko: “You’d get up in time to have breakfast and use the restroom, and that sort of thing before you got out to the pad.”
Walker: “Right. There was always the slack time that was built in for the crew. Our caretakers, the staff, the vehicle integration test team.”
Bobko: “And then you also have to consider that the launch countdown has built-in holds. So, I would tell people that it was minus twenty minutes – which actually meant that we were an hour from launch… there’s a nine minute hold at 10 minutes and a 20 minute hold at 20 minutes, these were the ‘old’ holds.”
Walker: “But the crews have been training for years in simulators, where the ‘sim sup’ is always throwing delays in and you get trained to the point where…, then you go through the steps ‘tickety-poo’ and when we get down to T-31, something is most-likely going to happen in the next 30 seconds, you know, so it’s then that I would start looking at the clock – because all of these simulations had holds built into them.”
Bobko: “The flight that Charlie and I were on together, was the one before my flight on Atlantis, and we got close enough to launch four times, that they had patches made (Walker laughs), so there are different patches made.
“I mean that, that crew, that crew, we did a lot of unexpected things, like an unexpected rendezvous, an unexpected EVA – all of these things that were unexpected – that I’m not sure we could have done without the time that we had spent in training. The guys that carried out the EVA had spent a lot of time training to do those EVAs in the pool, so they were ready for it.”
McCulley: “I do have one input I’d like to put in about Atlantis, something I asked John Zarrella to ask me this afternoon, the moment I really fell in love with Atlantis was when I came down here as the Launch Site Director after I left the Astronaut Office, and so I was in charge of the orbiter from wheel stop until lift off – and pretty much everything that happened in between, five thousand engineers, technicians and inspectors and all that.
“When you landed on 51J, the quickest turnaround on a vehicle was between Atlantis’ first flight and its second. We didn’t pull the engines out of it. It was the only time we never took the engines out.
“[…] the most efficient flow in terms of hours, problem reports, [and] days – Atlantis owns all of those records, down here, by far.
“Columbia was built, Challenger was built, and then Discovery was built – by the time that they got around to building Atlantis, those guys at Rockwell knew what the hell that they were doing. Those guys at Palmdale knew what they were doing; they had the parts lined up, and Atlantis showed up here [at Kennedy Space Center] in better shape than any vehicle – ever.
“Consequently, as I said, it was the easiest to process, it was more predictable, in terms of countdown and launch, and problem reports – it was just an amazing machine…”
Walker: “I want to pile on here with one thing that I want to see on the record somewhere, if nowhere else then just in your notes… in your file. On that point, I want to go up another level to say that I do clearly understand and believe in the national decision that went into ending the Space Shuttle Program when it was ended in order to provide some funds and the initiative to develop next-generation vehicles and spacecraft.
“But, to me, the flip side to that is that this nation invented, developed, and operated the most complex flying vehicle ever developed and did so in a remarkable degree – as Mike indicated.
“Every consecutive orbiter that came off the assembly line was more advanced technically, internally less massive, [and] could carry more payload because there was less structure – the builders having refined the structural design and characteristics of the vehicle with each successive one – and the internals became more and more [perfected]; the instrumentalities and the components became more and more efficient in fulfilling their design requirements to the end that Mike just pointed out.
“This nation refined that vehicle with each successive one – that vehicle being the space shuttle programmatically – with each successive orbiter. We were in pretty darn good shape…”
McCulley: “We shut down at the very top of our game.”
Walker: “At the top of our game!”
McCulley: “The whole system…”
Walker: “That’s a sad statement on leaving the nation feeling that it needed to make the decision that it did at the time that it did.”
SpaceFlight Insider: With that, we were here when the Visitor Complex conducted the Grand Opening of this exhibit. What is your take on Atlantis’ exhibit?
McCulley: “This is the best exhibit I have ever seen of anything aeronautical or aerospace-related – ever. Nothing comes close to this that I have ever seen.”
Walker: “I just want to add that, while I have not been exposed to every, even all of the major displays and exhibits around the country. I’ve seen a good number of them, participated even as someone who answers questions at the Udvar-Hazy [the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center] in Washington D.C., etc, and I think this is, from what I have participated in and what I have heard about – this is the best display of aerospace hardware intentions and accomplishments anywhere on the planet. I think this place is wonderful.”
Bobko: “It certainly is up there with the top couple!
McCulley: Bo’s older – he has seen more!” (Laughs)
Bobko, and the crew of STS-51J, Ronald J. Grabe, David C. Hilmers, Robert L. Stewart, and William A. Pales lifted off on Atlantis’ first dip into the black of space on Oct. 3, 1985. The mission lasted 4 days, 1 hour, 44 minutes and 38 seconds.
The orbiter’s last mission, STS-135, took place in July of 2011 – closing out the Shuttle Program’s three decades of accomplishments. After engineers had removed its engines and “safed” the vehicle, it was then transferred to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex where it was placed in its $100 million, 90,000-square-foot exhibit.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.