Spaceflight Insider

Our Spaceflight Heritage: International Incident averted – interplanetary success achieved – the flight of STS-34

Photo Credit: NASA

On Oct. 18, 1989, a group of astronauts launched aboard space shuttle Atlantis from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The shuttle carried some very special cargo, Galileo, an unmanned spacecraft heading for the Jupiter. It was the first planetary orbiter to carry out an extended observation of the Jovian system and it was charged with collecting a sampling of Jupiter’s atmosphere. Galileo was also the first to capture photos of asteroids that it flew past. STS-34 has the distinction of being the second space shuttle mission to deploy a planetary spacecraft. The first, STS-30, launched Magellan earlier in the same year on May 4.

STS-34 was led by veteran Commander Donald Williams and Pilot Mike McCulley. They were joined by Mission Specialists Franklin Chang-Diaz, Shannon Lucid, and Ellen Baker.

The launch was rescheduled from Oct. 12, 1989 when the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) controller for the number two main engine was determined to be faulty. Atlantis was then rescheduled to fly on Oct. 17, but was given a “No-Go” for launch, due to inclement weather, a common occurrence given the turbulent conditions along Florida’s Space Coast.

Atlantis was flying heavy, weighing in at 257,569 lbs (116,831 kg) at launch — mostly due to Galileo. Secondary payloads included the Shuttle Solar Backscatter Ultraviolet (SSBUV) experiment, the Growth Hormone Crystal Distribution (GHCD), Polymer Morphology (PM), Sensor Technology Experiment (STEX) , Mesoscale Lightning Experiment (MLE), and an IMAX camera. Atlantis and her crew also participated in the Student Involvement Program (SSIP), which investigated ice crystal formation in zero gravity.

Artist's impression of the Galileo spacecraft and Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA

Artist’s impression of the Galileo spacecraft and Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA

The Jovian bound spacecraft was launched only six-hours and 30-minutes into the flight. Galileo began its primary mission on Dec. 8, 1995, becoming the first official spacecraft to orbit Jupiter. The spacecraft has the distinction of being the first to orbit an outer planet, and the first to fly within the atmosphere of an outer planet. In order to reach the gas giant, Galileo needed help in the form of gravity assists.

Prior to flight, in 1987, it was determined that Galileo would need to conduct multiple gravitational assists, known as Venus Earth Earth Gravity Assist maneuvers (VEEGA). The spacecraft whizzed around Venus once, and Earth twice, gaining gravitational assists from the two worlds. Galileo was on its way to Jupiter and even observed asteroids Gaspra and Ida along the way.

Galileo inserted itself into orbit around Jupiter on Dec. 8, 1995. For the next 198 days, the spacecraft captured images of Jupiter, its moons, and even video of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crash into the giant planet. Galileo’s orbits were carefully planned, bringing it close to two of Jupiter’s moons, Europa and Io. However, researchers were careful to limit the time around Io, as to help shield Galileo from dangerous radiation. Galileo lost the use of its cameras in 2002, and subsequently ended its mission on Sept. 21, 2003, by being deorbited into Jupiter.

Jupiter's four largest moons, as imaged by Galileo. Image Credit: NASA

Jupiter’s four largest moons, as imaged by Galileo. Image Credit: NASA

Several anomalies occurred during STS-34; however, none had a direct impact on the mission itself. The anomalies included, minor issues with the Flash Evaporator System for the orbiter, and the cryogenic oxygen manifold 2. This mission was a hot topic for many, and even drew in a large amount of protesters due to the nuclear radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG ) powering the Galileo spacecraft. During launch, there were several issues, almost forcing the crew to abort. To avoid an “international incident” by landing a nuclear device in another country, the crew went ahead with the mission, and were able to complete it successfully.

Atlantis successfully landed on Runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base in California at 9:33 a.m. EDT (1323 GMT) on Oct. 23, 1989. The landing was moved up a few days and the orbiter was forced to land in California due to weather related issues. The orbiter was returned to Kennedy Space Center six days later, 61,615 lbs (27,948 kg) lighter. The mission lasted only 4-days, 23-hours, and 39-minutes long – but traveled two million miles while orbiting the Earth.


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Heather Smith's fascination for space exploration – started at the tender age of twelve while she was on a sixth-grade field trip in Kenner, Louisiana, walking through a mock-up of the International Space Station and seeing the “space potty” (her terminology has progressed considerably since that time) – she realized at this point that her future lay in the stars. Smith has come to realize that very few people have noticed how much spaceflight technology has improved their lives. She has since dedicated herself to correcting this problem. Inspired by such classic literature as Anne Frank’s Diary, she has honed her writing skills and has signed on as The Spaceflight Group’s coordinator for the organization’s social media efforts.

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