A fire on landing

One unexpected bonus of the flight occurred over Kazakhstan, when the crew was able to observe and photograph the secluded and (at the time) covert Russian space launch facility at Tyuratam, situated on the bank of the Syr Darya River, which empties into the Aral Sea. In June 2002, Parker described this successful operation during a talk at San Diego's Reuben H. Fleet Science Center:

"Photographing the Russian launch site was not a public mission objective, but it was something that, as a crew, we really wanted to do. We were the first people to get that picture. We could see the Russian shuttle runway that they used for the Buran, that they flew only once, and see big assembly buildings. They don't show up very clearly because the concrete comes from the land around. You don't truck in gravel from a thousand miles away; you take it from somewhere in the area. So the land and the runway kind of look the same. It's the same with the Great Wall of China - it does not stand out.

"I was flying with John Young, and it was his sixth flight. He knew more about what was going on than I did. A month or so before we launched, he said to me, 'Bob, we are going to fly over the Russian launch site. We need to plan ahead to take pictures.' So what we did was take the map of our orbit - we knew what time we were launching, therefore we knew what day and time we were going to be where. We saw at one point we'd be passing over the southern border of the Caspian Sea, over the Aral Sea, then a river, then a bend in the river, and just after we got to that bend, we were going to see the Soviet launch site. So we marked it out, put it aside, and took the map with us.

''Fifteen minutes before we crossed the Caspian Sea, John called me up from down in the lab where I couldn't see out of the windows very much. He said, 'Okay, let's go and do this', and we started looking. We saw the landmarks, the bend in the river, looked where it ought to be, and there it was. We found it, we took our photos.

''A later mission, three or four years later, asked us about it. They told us they looked out and couldn't see it, and asked us how we'd done it. We asked them, 'Did you plan ahead?' and they said, 'No, we just looked for it.' It's important to plan ahead for low-contrast things like that.''

Five hours before Columbia's scheduled landing, a dramatic situation occurred when two of the orbiter's five computers went awry while John Young was firing the nose-mounted Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters to orient the spacecraft for de-orbit. An unexpected, jolting shock travelled through the orbiter at the first firing, and the primary General Purpose Computer (GPC) dropped out. Young later said he heard ''a loud bang and the whole spacecraft shook. My stomach turned and my legs turned to jelly.''38 As programmed, a back-up GPC began to take over to compensate, but a further ''hard burst'' of the RCS four minutes later sent that GPC off-line.

"I think it was the up-firing jets... that made the computers fail,'' Young reported in a transmission to the ground. "It really hit the computers hard.'' He recommended that they close the forward RCS, "and not run any more of those rascals.''

The thrusters left Columbia without any computer-controlled guidance and navigation for nearly a minute, before a third GPC finally kicked in. Although the Shuttle can land with only one of its quad-redundant computers operating, flight engineers were so concerned about the possible consequences of another thruster firing that Mission Control decided to call off the landing sequence for another four orbits, while engineers requested Columbia be allowed to "free drift'' until they had looked at the situation. To add to their many woes, IMU-1 then malfunctioned. This was one of three inertial-measurement units designed to sense the Shuttle's acceleration and position. Fortunately, this was not crucial to the re-entry phase. Flight engineers finally gave their clearance to proceed with the re-entry burn, having already delayed the landing by around seven-and-a-half hours. On Columbia's 166th orbit, a 156-second burn on the two OMS engines took place without incident, following which the orbiter was realigned for its nose-first return passage back to Earth.

Dropping out of orbit over the Pacific on the morning of 8 December, Columbia plummeted through the dense atmosphere, soon surrounded by a white-hot halo of flame. Owen Garriott was seated in the mid-deck next to the window in the side hatch, and was able to make a comparison between his Skylab and Shuttle re-entries.

"Looking up, I could see through a bit of the overhead windows, too. You see the interesting colours - oranges and pink - as you come down through the more and more dense layers of the atmosphere. We were flying at a lower altitude on Spacelab 1 than I flew on Skylab. Although the orbital velocities are about the same, in that you're travelling a little under five miles per second in any of these lower altitudes, the angular rate at which the nadir moves by is about twice as high when you're at half the altitude. That means the ground beneath you appears to move by about twice as fast, which is certainly one noticeable difference.''31

Eventually, Columbia crossed the California coast at nine times the speed of sound, and Young glided the 114-ton spacecraft to a textbook, unpowered landing on dry lakebed Runway 17 at Edwards AFB. Following shutdown, the recovery team moved in to vent the engine bay, and then another major problem erupted. Smoke had been seen venting out of the orbiter's aft section containing the Auxiliary Power Units (APUs). Space Shuttles have three APUs, which are used to power the orbiter's hydraulics during ascent and re-entry. They use highly toxic hydrazine propellant to drive a high-speed turbine that in turn provides hydraulic power. Later analysis found that two minutes from touchdown, leaking fuel lines had sparked a fire in wiring around two of the hot APUs. Had this occurred earlier in the re-entry process, the results might have been calamitous. Overall, however, the flight of Columbia and the Spacelab 1 module had proven to be a major success.

Following their mission, the science crew members spent the next week at Edwards AFB undergoing what Garriott termed "very extensive physiological testing'' for all four mission and payload specialists. They underwent repeats of most of the experiments they had conducted in space, and their return to normal Earth-based responses were observed. Among many post-flight checks, these tests provided inter esting results in vestibular rehabilitation, reflex results to the ''hop and drop'' experiment, and sensitivity to acceleration. Pursuant to the ''hop and drop'' experiment carried out before and during the flight, it was noted that normal reflexes would return a few days after regular gravitational influence and activity was resumed. According to Garriott, however, ''the initial response after returning from weightlessness was quite different from that before flight. It was almost bizarre! Our legs had almost forgotten how to arrest our fall and we had to have another person help catch us from behind to avoid falling to the floor. But the normal reflexive response returned to baseline within a day or so.''

The scientists also carried out cardiovascular experiments to determine the degree and rapidity of fluid shifts and blood volume loss in microgravity, and whether a decrease in heart volume caused any reduction in heart performance. They did this by such means as measuring central venous pressure in the arm veins. Prior to this mission, no direct on-orbit measurements of venous pressure had been available to check hypotheses associated with the cardiovascular process. When venous pressure was first taken twenty hours into the flight, it proved to be lower, rather than higher, than pre-flight measurements. However, one hour after the crew's return to Earth, venous pressures were higher for all four scientists, indicating fluid shifts associated with the body's re-adaptation to a 1-G environment. Investigators were subsequently able to conclude that the fluid shift is a highly dynamic process that might even begin with crew members seated in their couches for a couple of hours waiting for lift-off. These results provided a good cornerstone for further experiments on later missions.

There was good news in store for the crew of Columbia, and particularly the four-man science team: by mission's end they had not only achieved most of its goals, but they had accumulated twenty million pictures and two trillion bits of data. Results of the mission, jointly released by MSFC and ESA several months later, determined that the crew members had accomplished all systems verification objectives, with only minor anomalies, and achieved eighty percent of the overall mission objectives in all but atmospheric physics and Earth observations (which achieved sixty-five percent). Samuel Keller, deputy associate administrator for Space Science and Applications, declared Spacelab ''an unqualified success,'' while mission scientist (and later MSFC's Director of Science) Dr. Charles (Rick) Chappell deemed the flight ''a very successful merger of manned space flight and space science.''

''I think the key element of this flight was its multi-disciplinary nature,'' Owen Garriott reflected in summing up his second and final space mission. ''There was no single experiment, no single discipline, that monopolised the majority of the time.

''Spacelab 1 was intended to show how well all disciplines could make use of the Shuttle orbiter as a laboratory in space, and in that I feel our crew, our ground-based team and indeed Spacelab, achieved a remarkable success.''31

During 1982 and 1983, of the nine remaining scientist-astronauts who still were working at NASA, six had made it to space on board the Space Shuttle. Garriott had flown a second time, but his Skylab colleague Joe Kerwin would not make that second flight, having been reassigned in 1982 to a management role in the space agency which took him out of consideration for a flight assignment. For the others, it was their first experience of space flight, and while all hoped it would not be their last, for some that

They may be the wrong creatures, but this stone feature in the Garriotts' front garden is a whimsical reminder of the STS-9 "Three Wise Monkeys'' episode. [Photo: Colin Burgess.]

long awaited first mission would indeed be their only chance to experience the thrill of launch, the excitement of orbiting our Earth and the adrenaline pumping fiery ride back home. During 1984 and 1985, five of the group would fly on the Shuttle: Allen, Musgrave and Thornton on their second missions, and Henize and England finally realising their long-awaited dream of a trip into space.

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