Guy Bluford, the first black American spacefarer, laughed with excitement all the way into orbit on STS-8.
It was around midnight, local time, at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, on the rainy evening of August 30th 1983 when he and his four crewmates - Commander Dick Truly, Pilot Dan Brandenstein and fellow Mission Specialists Dale Gardner and physician Bill Thornton - left the Operations and Checkout Building, bound for Pad 39A. Sitting out at the launch complex, resplendent in the dazzling glare of powerful xenon floodlights, Space Shuttle Challenger was ready for her third orbital voyage in less than five months.
Admittedly, the reusable spacecraft was far from achieving NASA's vision of a flight every fortnight - a rate which presumed a six- or seven-strong fleet of orbiters, rather than the four ultimately built - but it was certainly beginning to prove its commercial worth. Tucked into the Shuttle's payload bay for the planned five-day flight was an Indian communications satellite called Insat-IB, which had netted the agency four million dollars in fees and which Gardner and Bluford would deploy a few hours after lift-off. Unfortunately, another major cargo element - the second Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, known as 'TDRS-B' - had already been deleted from STS-8's roster following the embarrassing Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster failure in April 1983.
Had TDRS-B remained aboard Challenger, alongside Insat-IB, for this mission, it would, said Bluford, have been the heaviest cargo complement yet ferried into orbit at over 29,000 kg. "There was very little weight-growth margin," he said later. "During the training, Dale and I made several trips to Boeing Aircraft Corporation in Seattle, Washington, to learn about the IUS. We were becoming well versed in the operation of the IUS when it malfunctioned on STS-6 and, because of that, NASA decided not to fly the TDRS on our flight until after the mishap was investigated."
Insat-IB is positioned inside its sunshield during STS-8 pre-flight processing.
The presence of two of these communications and data relay platforms in geosynchronous orbit - one at 171 degrees West longitude, above the central Pacific Ocean to the south of Hawaii, and another just off the Atlantic coast of Brazil, at 41 degrees West - was highly desirable to support the first Spacelab research flight in late 1983. A third orbital 'spare' would then be launched on Commander Hank Hartsfield's STS-12 mission and placed over the equator at 79 degrees West.
However, by May 27th, as investigators got to grips with finding out why an IUS booster had failed to inject TDRS-A into its 35,600 km orbit, NASA opted not to risk launching another one until the problems were resolved. Efforts were already underway to raise TDRS-A, which Paul Weitz' crew launched on Challenger's maiden mission, into its correct 'slot', but did so at the expense of using two-thirds of its valuable hydrazine station-keeping fuel. In place of TDRS-B on STS-8 would ride an unusual contraption that NASA originally wanted to fly in early 1984: the Payload Flight Test Article (PFTA).
Measuring 4.6 m long by 4.9 m high and weighing 3,900 kg, it was, in effect, a giant dumb bell to evaluate the performance and handling characteristics of the Shuttle's Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm. The PFTA was constructed from aluminium and stainless steel and equipped with four grapple fixtures; two of which would be used on STS-8. Similar to the Shuttle Pallet Satellite (SPAS) tests undertaken on the last mission, it sought to acquire 'real world' data and develop crew expertise on elbow, wrist and shoulder joint reactions before the RMS was committed to the Solar Max repair.
The experience gained on STS-8 would thus help to prepare the Solar Max crew not only for the repair procedure, but also to deploy their own payload: a 9,750 kg monster of a satellite called the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF). As a result, Dale Gardner's performance as lead RMS operator on STS-8 was being carefully scrutinised by NASA and Bob Crippen's next crew to ensure that the mechanical arm could indeed handle and manoeuvre large payloads with dexterity.
Yet it was the deployment and tracking requirements of their other payload - the Indian National Satellite, known as 'Insat-1B' - that brought about one of the most historic features of the mission: the first Shuttle launch in darkness. After returning from California to Florida at the end of STS-7, Challenger spent a little under a month in the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) and the PFTA was installed into her payload bay on July 21 st. Following rollout to Pad 39 A less than a fortnight later, Insat-1B was also loaded aboard.
In doing so, preparation for STS-8 snared a new record for the fastest processing time between missions so far - a mere 62 days - which was attained primarily by Challenger's personnel working around-the-clock to get her flight-ready. Seventy-six thermal protection tiles were replaced, as were the damaged brakes in her landing gear, the pitted flight deck windowpane and a failed Auxiliary Power Unit (APU). Other experiments, including a record dozen Getaway Special (GAS) canisters, were also affixed to her port and starboard payload bay walls.
When Dick Truly's crew arrived in Florida in their T-38 jet trainers on August 27th, they included among their number a trio of the Thirty Five New Guys (TFNGs) from NASA's 1978 astronaut class. Although they were assigned at the same time as Bob Crippen's STS-7 team, they would actually become the second subset of TFNGs to fly. Years later, Dan Brandenstein recalled the excitement of the call to George Abbey's office and reception of the sacred news.
"By April 1982, the first six Shuttle flights had been assigned and they were all experienced people that had been around a long time. Nobody from our class had flown, but it was hoping and guessing and rumblings, starting with STS-7, that they'd be picking up some of the new class. I got called over one day and they said that I was going to fly STS-8. One of the neat things about it was that it was going to be a night launch and a night landing. What drove that was we were launching Insat and, to get it in the proper place, we worked the problem backwards. They wanted the satellite 'here', so then we had to go back down our orbital mechanics and it meant we had to launch at night. The fact we launched at night meant that we would end up landing at night. Dick and I had both done night carrier landings and, judging from the way the Shuttle flies and doing that at night, we both looked at each other and said 'Oooh. This is going to be interesting!' We got very much involved in developing a lighting system to enable us to safely land at night. We didn't have enough time to focus 'just' on that, although we got involved because we were the ones doing it first. Astronauts Bo Bobko, Loren Shriver and Mike Smith were all involved in developing the night landing system, so we went through a rather long evolution of floodlights and flares, trying to develop some way to give us the visual cues we needed to make a successful night landing."
This nocturnal launch commitment was also simulated, to an extent, on the ground. "We concentrated on flying night launches and night landings in a darkened simulator," Bluford recalled. "We learned to set our light levels low enough in the cockpit that we could maintain our night vision and I had a special lamp mounted on the back of my seat so that I could read the checklist in the dark. The only thing that wasn't simulated was the lighting associated with the Solid Rocket Booster ignition and the firing of the pyros for SRB and External Tank separation."
STS-8's boosters had themselves changed from the set flown aboard Challenger's previous mission, since they contained new, high-performance motors, which expanded the initial thrust by four per cent. This improvement was achieved by lengthening the exit cones of their nozzles by 25.4 cm and decreasing the diameter of the nozzles' throats by 10.1 cm; the result was an increase in the velocity of solid fuel gases as they departed the booster. Moreover, some of the propellant inhibitor used in previous SRBs was removed, allowing the fuel to burn more rapidly.
By the late summer of 1983, the five astronauts had become a close-knit miniature family in their own right. Like Bob Crippen's crew, they started with just four members, picking up physician Bill Thornton in December 1982 as part of NASA's ongoing investigation into possible countermeasures for space sickness. Thornton, an astronaut since August 1967, had actually designed much of the experimental hardware used by Norm Thagard on STS-7 and would himself be accompanying it into orbit on Dick Truly's mission.
"You spend so much time working together," said Brandenstein, "and that's part of the process of crew selections. You don't put oil and water together. When I ran the astronaut office [from 1987-1992], I was responsible for the crew assignments and you specifically look for people that are compatible. I can't speak for assignments that were made on me before I was doing them, but it was obvious by even looking at it that NASA looked for a good mix. They looked for people with specialities that mesh with the mission requirements. STS-8 was a good crew. Dick Truly had been around a long time and was a good commander; he taught us a lot. Everybody had their strengths and their area of expertise and they focused on those and shared their experience and wisdom with the other folks. We got the job done."
Thornton's assignment had actually led to the creation of an extra, unofficial crew patch. Historically, astronauts avoided doctors like the plague, remarking that there were only two ways a pilot could emerge from their surgeries: either 'fine' or 'grounded'. None of the STS-8 astronauts was at risk of being grounded by Thornton, of course, but his experiments - which included a series of blood tests - resulted in a patch featuring his bespectacled eyes peering at a cluster of four pairs of frightened eyes in Challenger's flight deck.
Behind the humour, however, there were serious concerns among NASA's senior management that space sickness could detrimentally affect future missions if crew members reacted severely to it. During a lecture in October 1991, Thornton admitted that it remained difficult to predict which individuals were susceptible, although he pointed out that Dale Gardner experienced the nauseous ailment, yet was still able to complete all of his assigned tasks, including the hours-long Insat-IB deployment. "You can't redesign the human body," Thornton said, "but human beings have learned and will continue to learn to adapt and work in zero gravity."
During STS-8, his investigations encompassed seven medical disciplines: testing aural sensitivity thresholds ('audiometry'), tracking his crewmates' general health ('biomonitoring'), recording electrical signals generated by their eye movements ('electro-oculography'), studying the effect of repeating physical movements ('kinesymmetry'), examining changes in their limb-volume circumference ('plethysmography'), measuring external tissue pressures ('tonometry') and photographing changes in leg volume throughout the mission.
Thornton's main conclusions were twofold: that none of the astronauts were directly 'motor control affected' by the condition and that symptoms had more or less disappeared within 72 hours of launch. Since the earliest reported instance by Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov in August 1961, around 40 per cent of space travellers have experienced the problem, although detailed investigations during the Spacelab-1 mission in late 1983 identified the practice of rolling or pitching the head as a helpful countermeasure. "Ambiguous visual cues", on the other hand, such as viewing a crewmate from an unusual orientation, generally exacerbated the sensation of malaise and sickness.
However, the near-impossibility of determining which astronauts were most likely to fall prey to space sickness came as a surprise to Dan Brandenstein. "I'd never been seasick, airsick or anything in my life," he said. "I don't understand half of those medical experiments, but during training they put us in a spinning chair and put a blindfold on each of us. They spun the chair and then they had us move our heads down, up, right, left, down, up, right, left. I was convinced I could never get motion sickness but, man, in about 30 seconds, I was a sick puppy!"
Only Dick Truly had flown before, as Pilot on STS-2, and had never experienced a night launch, so it was with an air of excitement and trepidation that Challenger's crew headed into a bewildering glare of flashbulbs in the opening minutes of August 30th 1983. Their lift-off, at 6:32 am (2:32 am local time), came 17 minutes into a half-hour-long window, due to thunderstorms in the area which lit up the sky of a slumbering Florida. Bluford, whose historic journey made him the first black American in space, vividly recalled being strapped into his seat directly behind and between Truly and Brandenstein.
For Brandenstein - one of 15 Pilot candidates chosen by NASA in January 1978 -it was his first opportunity to put more than five years of training in a variety of simulators into practice. "We got a full set of briefs on each system, so we knew how the electrical system worked and how the hydraulic system worked and the computers," he said. Part of his requirement for being on 'active' flight status was also having the ability to maintain proficiency in NASA's fleet of T-38 jet trainers.
These legendary - some observers have called them 'antique' - aircraft continue to be used by today's Shuttle astronauts for flight training and, literally, as personal taxis to reach appointments across the United States. Unfortunately, the ability of this sleek, supersonic dart to precisely mirror the handling characteristics of the stubby, delta-winged orbiter has long proven problematic: the lift-to-drag ratios of the two vehicles are quite dissimilar. In order to best simulate the steep-angled Shuttle approach to the runway, astronauts typically opened the T-38's speed brakes as wide as possible and deployed its landing gear at the very start of their descent.
A powerful electrical storm creates an eerie 'tapestry' of light at Pad 39 A in the hours preceding the Shuttle's first nocturnal lift-off.
"There was an area, just outside Houston, over the Gulf of Mexico, where we could go out and do what we called 'turn and burn'," Brandenstein explained of his T-38 escapades, "which is do aerobatics and loops and rolls and chase around clouds and stuff like that. All the time, that's a way of maintaining your piloting skills. Obviously, it's a kick for people that had flown thousands of hours, but for somebody who had never flown before or had very little experience, it was a 'real' kick, because you could go supersonic, pulling 7 gs. All the Pilots had been test pilots before, so we'd go out and run the Mission Specialists over the wringer, showing them the various things you'd do if you're testing a new airplane. We'd do simulated combat runs and show them what it was like to have a dogfight and all those sorts of things." As mission-specific training got underway, Brandenstein and Truly found themselves practicing Shuttle landing approaches, at least once or twice per month, not only in Houston, but also at KSC, Edwards Air Force Base in California and White Sands in New Mexico.
Since the crew would be launching at night, it became necessary in the final week before the flight for them to enter quarantine and shift their sleep patterns into the daytime hours. "It took us about a week to get comfortable with that," recalled Bluford, who ended up 'sleep shifting' in readiness for three of his four missions. "Some of us slept at home, while others slept in the crew quarters at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. We ate food prepared at the center and practiced in the simulators at night. About three to four days before launch, we flew to the Cape for the final launch countdown. On August 29th, we were awakened at 10:00 pm local time. We had breakfast and suited up for the mission, then headed downstairs for the van ride to the launch pad. I noticed it was raining. There was lightning in the area and there was some concern expressed by the launch control center about our safety as we proceeded out to the pad. Finally, they left it up to Dick to decide if it was safe for the crew to go to the pad. He made the decision for us to proceed and we went out to Challenger. As we climbed into the vehicle and completed our pre-flight checks with the launch control center, the rain began to subside and the clouds began to clear away. The ride into orbit was really exciting! We had darkened the cockpit to prepare for lift-off; however, when the SRBs ignited, they turned night into day inside! Whatever night vision we hoped to maintain, we lost right away at lift-off. The ride on the SRBs was noisy and bumpy as Challenger rotated to align us to a 28.45 degree inclination. The orbiter pitched down as we headed downrange, upside down. Approximately two minutes into the mission, we jettisoned the boosters. There was a large, momentary flash of light in the windows when the SRB pyros fired. We continued to ride on the three main engines for the next six and a half minutes and then jettisoned the External Tank at eight minutes and 45 seconds into the flight."
During ascent, it was Bluford's job to act as the flight engineer, checking off each stage of the Shuttle's violent climb to orbit and reading out procedures to support the pilots in the event of problems. Next to him on the flight, directly behind Brandenstein, was Gardner, while Bill Thornton sat alone in the darkened, locker-studded middeck. From his vantage point, the 54-year-old physician had little to see: the only window was a small circular one in the side hatch, although, craning his neck, he could see 'upwards' into the flight deck and through the overhead windows.
Turning night into day across a sleeping Florida, Challenger effortlessly carries out the Shuttle's first nocturnal lift-off.
At the instant of ignition, he recalled years later, the sensation was similar to "taking a fast ride on the London Underground". From his perspective, Thornton added, all was dark during the first two minutes of ascent, but as soon as Challenger shed her twin SRBs, the entire cockpit was eerily lit up. Upstairs, Dale Gardner's main view was through the overhead windows - and what he saw worried him sufficiently to call Brandenstein, one of whose tasks was to monitor the performance of the main engines.
"Obviously, Dick Truly and I were upfront, watching the instruments," recalled Brandenstein, "and Dale was looking back over his head out the window and back at the ground. At night, he could see how it lit everything up. During the first stage, it was really bright, because we had the boosters going. In fact, from the front cockpit, looking out, it was like we were inside a fire, because we didn't really see the flame, but we did see the reflection and the light. We weren't very far into the launch and Dale said 'Dan, how do the engines look?' I said 'Yes, look fine'. Thirty seconds later, he said again 'Dan, how do the engines look?' 'Fine'. I don't know how many times this happened going uphill. We didn't have a lot of time to chat about it, so finally we got all settled down on orbit [and] I said 'What was going on?' He said 'I was looking out the window', and when you watch a Shuttle launch the flame from the engine is solid. It comes out of the nozzle and just 'sits' there. During all those engine tests before STS-1, you'd have an engine running on the test stand and the flame would be solid and then, all of a sudden, the flame would 'flutter' and the engine would blow up! As you get higher in altitude, and from the perspective Dale had, the flames from the engines seemed to be fluttering, so his connection was that when the flames flutter, the engine blows up. You just have a different perspective as you get higher. The air pressure goes way down and you get into a vacuum, so basically what holds your flame real tight is the atmospheric pressure factors in that. When you get outside atmospheric pressure, they expand and flutter a little bit more."
After the mission, as the five astronauts listened back on their cockpit intercom tapes from Challenger's ascent, they were puzzled to hear someone chuckling all the way into orbit. It was Bluford. Years later, in an April 2003 interview, he remembered being so excited by the whole event that his only feeling at the time was not fear, but sheer elation.
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