Our Spaceflight Heritage: Go long – the flight of STS-78
On June 20, 1996, at 10:49 a.m. EDT (14:49 GMT), Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off from Pad B at Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. It was the start of a 17-day mission of scientific experimentation in the Spacelab module that was stowed in Columbia’s Payload Bay. STS-78 would enter into history as the second-longest shuttle mission behind STS-80.
Commanding the mission was Terence Henricks, a Civil Engineering major from the U.S. Air Force Academy and a graduate of Golden Gate University. He completed pilot training at Craig Air Force Base located in Selma, Alabama, and F-4 conversion training at Homestead Air Force Base in Miami, Florida. He flew thirty types of aircraft and had a master parachutist rating after 747 parachute jumps. STS-78 was his fourth flight into space.
The mission’s pilot was Kevin Kregel, who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1978 and earned his pilot wings in 1979 at Williams Air Force Base. While stationed on board the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, he made 66 carrier landings. He was hired by NASA in 1990 as an aerospace engineer and instructor pilot in the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) and went on to be selected as an astronaut in 1992.
Flight Engineer Susan Helms joined the flight as a veteran of two previous shuttle missions, and would later live and work aboard the International Space Station for six months in 2001.
Also on board Columbia were mission specialists Richard Linnehan and Charles Brady, and payload specialists Jean-Jacques Favier of France and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk.
STS-78 launched on time, but for the first time, fuel leaked into the J-joint of the redesigned solid rocket motor, which had been retooled after the Challenger accident in 1986. However, flight safety was not compromised. It was determined that the new, more environmentally-friendly adhesive and cleaning fluid was the cause of the leak.
The primary payload of STS-78 was the Life and Microgravity Spacelab (LMS) – which was developed by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the French Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. Research scientists from ten countries worked on the LMS, which consisted of some 40 experiments.
The first day of the mission was a busy one which LMS Mission Scientist Patton Downey described as a “marathon mission”.
“Today was the busiest first shift of activities we’ve ever had for Spacelab,” Downey said. “Virtually every experiment on board either had its equipment activated or checked out.”
An hour after launch, Favier and Thirsk began their physiology studies by donning electrodes to monitor eye function as well as head and torso movements in order to study space sickness. The experiment was designed by Dr. Douglas Watt of McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
Brady, Linnehan, Favier, and Thirsk used the Torque Velocity Dynamometer, a form of exercise equipment that recorded muscle performance. They also had blood drawn to be studied by scientists on Earth to prepare for long-duration space missions.
Mission Manager Mark Moudreaux described STS-78 as having “[…] the key ingredients to take us into the next era of space exploration: the International Space Station.”
On the second day, Kregel, Henricks, and Thirsk began a study on the effects of weightlessness on mental skills. The Astronaut Lung Function Experiment was started in order to study lung function during exercise. The crew also set up the Gas Analysis System for Metabolic Analysis Physiology (GASMAP), which measured the amount and types of air the astronauts were breathing.
The Canal and Otolith Integration Studies experiment was a head gear that displayed moving targets. The purpose of the experiment was to study how the middle ear functioned in the microgravity environment.
Downey noted that the second day of the flight was “the busiest day of the mission because of the desire to make a number of measurements regarding the crew’s adjustment to the first few days and hours of flight. This – plus the desire to check the status of our other experiments’ hardware – made this one of the busiest days in space ever.”
On the third day, Henricks and Favier set up the bicycle ergometer on the middeck – a stationary bicycle with a device to measure cardiovascular activity. Henricks also tested a device enabling astronauts to control the closed-circuit television by voice commands.
Favier, Thirsk, Brady, and Linnehan conducted the first-ever exclusive study of sleep in space, studying the circadian rhythm that dictate when we sleep.
“If we are really going to do long-term exploration in space, we have to know what happens when we remove ourselves from real-time cues,” said Dr. Timothy Monk of the University of Pittsburgh, who designed the experiment.
Day four tested how thought processes are affected by space flight. Linnehan, Thirsk, and Favier recorded the quality of their sleep on laptop computers.
On day five, Brady, Thirsk, Linnehan, and Favier used the Torque Velocity Dynamometer to test hand-grip strength.
The following day, the astronauts got a break, using the second half of the day for recreation. A week into the flight, the astronauts began a maintenance procedure to bypass a possible electrical short in the Bubble Drop experiment’s power supply.
On June 29, day eight, Helms interviewed by KNX Radio in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Henricks and Favier discussed the shuttle’s scientific experiments with French students at Paris technical school. Mission Control approved extending the mission one day in order to complete more scientific experiments, rendering STS-78 the longest Shuttle flight up to that time.
Efforts to troubleshoot the potential short in the Bubble Drop experiment paid off on the following day when it became fully functional. Henricks, Helms, Linnehan, and Brady discussed the progress of their mission with KABC-TV in Los Angeles on this day as well, highlighting the pace that the crew was working.
After a morning press conference and some experiments, day ten became another day off for the Columbia crew.
One of the many experiments conducted on STS-78 was the Torso Rotation Experiment, which tested the body’s reaction to head, eye, and body movement after long periods in space.
Days thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen continued these scientific experiments in Spacelab. With much of the mission behind them, the crew of STS-78 celebrated the United States’ two-hundredth anniversary on July 4, 1996.
The sleep schedule was now adjusted in preparation for the Columbia’s return to Earth. Spacelab experiments continued, but the end of the mission was at hand as several of the experiments were operated for the last time.
Day sixteen was another full day of Spacelab work, but on day seventeen, July 6, 1996, Columbia tested its orbital maneuvering thrusters and flight control systems for the trip home.
On the next-to-last day of the mission, Henricks and Kregel pulsed the orbiter’s vernier reaction control system to gently boost Columbia‘s orbit without damaging the Spacelab experiments. This maneuver would later be used on flights to the Hubble Space Telescope and International Space Station in order to maneuver without damaging the delicate instrumentation of those spacecraft. The maneuver was next used by Endeavour on STS-82 to boost Hubble’s orbit without damaging the observatory’s solar arrays.
Columbia re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on July 7, 1996, touching down at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at Kennedy Space Center at 8:36 a.m. EDT (12:36 GMT), having traveled 7 million miles.
Dr. Victor Schneider, the Life and Microgravity Sciences program scientist with NASA Headquarters, said, “Overall, in terms of life sciences, the information gathering has just been tremendous. As a scientist, I think the amount of data we will have is exciting.”
Video courtesy of NASA STI Program
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.