On 12 April 1981, the twentieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first flight into space, the Space Shuttle system lifted off on its maiden launch. Pilot-astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen took Columbia on a two-day test flight around the Earth. Shortly after coming back to the Astronaut Office in 1978, Joe Allen was assigned to the
support crew for this first Shuttle mission, becoming involved in early flight techniques meetings and flying some simulations to familiarise himself with the way the Shuttle would return to Earth, to aid in his role as Capcom. These simulations lasted from two or three hours up to a couple of days. For this first flight, there was a great deal of nervousness about the re-entry phase of the mission. The launch had occurred without incident and the Shuttle had gone through its paces in orbit, so the most dangerous part of the mission now was the return to Earth. Images revealed some damaged tiles, but not in critical areas, and it seemed that the thermal protection system would be fine for entry and landing.
On Apollo 15, Allen's support role was based on science and he had little to do with the actual spacecraft, but on STS-1 there was little science on board. The whole mission was an engineering experiment to confirm that the Shuttle system worked. In his 2004 oral history, Allen compared the STS-1 mission flight techniques meeting to those of Apollo 11 and 12, the flights assigned to evaluate and prove the complete Apollo mission profile. Unlike Apollo, there had been no unmanned orbital test flights prior to STS-1, nor any manned missions to evaluate parts of the mission profile. For STS-1, it was all or nothing. Due to the short duration of the mission, Allen only served in Mission Control three times, with the final stint coming during re-entry. No data was received during the blackout period, as the (Shuttle-launched) Tracking and
Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) system was not yet deployed. After exiting the blackout, data received on the ground indicated Columbia was performing superbly, as Allen described: "We were thrilled. Columbia was still hypersonic and still with lots of speed and altitude to lose before we were safely on the ground ... but this new invention, the orbiter, seemed to be performing absolutely perfectly and it remained perfect all the way to the ground.'' For the early missions returning from space, NASA had decided to use the dry lake bed runway at Edwards Air Base in California (where there was plenty of room for any overshoot) before committing to the specially constructed Shuttle Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On 14 April 1981, the main landing gear of orbiter Columbia hit the ground at 215 knots. The nose wheel touched down seconds later and STS-1 rolled 2,743 metres (9000 feet) along the runway, kicking up dust as it went, before coming to a stop 2 days 6 hours 20 minutes and 32 seconds - and 37 orbits - after lift-off. The relief and excitement about what had been accomplished was evident in the voices of the crew and Capcom Joe Allen as the vehicle rolled along the runway:7
Allen: "Welcome home, Columbia. Beautiful!''
Young: "Do I have to take it up to the hanger Joe?"
Allen: "We're going to dust it off first.''
Young: "This is the world's greatest flying machine, I'll tell you that. It worked super.''
Following the tradition of the Apollo programme, there was a huge post-flight party, celebrating the success that had taken so long to achieve. However, with three more test flights to fly before declaring the STS system operational, there was still plenty of work to do. These flights would be flown by two-man teams of astronauts from the pilot cadre, but for the scientist-astronauts, a successful Orbital Flight Test Program would bring their own chances of flying on subsequent missions that much closer.
The second flight of the Shuttle occurred in November 1981 and was intended to be a five-day mission. Problems with a fuel cell saw the flight reduced to a fifty-four-hour "minimum mission'', but the crew still managed to complete most of its assigned tasks, including testing the Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS), or robot arm. For this mission, Joe Allen was assigned to media support, working with the representatives of the ABC network. STS-2 also highlighted a potential problem with Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS), namely the possibility of having to bring home the Shuttle when the pilot had not fully adapted to space flight. Joe Engle suffered from SAS upon entering orbit, but would have had time to recover on the full five-day mission (as illustrated by his second flight in 1985). However, due to the minimum mission requirement, he had to bring Columbia home early while he was still dehydrated, causing some concerns during entry and landing. Medical officials decided that a situation could arise during an abort mode, an early return from space or due to crew illness, in which SAS could affect the performance of one or both of the pilots flying the vehicle. They urged that more studies needed to be done early in the Shuttle programme to look specifically at SAS on the ascent into space and the trip home. It was quickly decided to assign physician-astronauts to an early Shuttle flight to determine the symptoms, causes and countermeasures for such an illness. At that time (late 1981), crews for STS-3, 4, 5 and 6 were already in various stages of training, and while it would be possible to place some medical investigations into these flight manifests, it would not be practical to assign a doctor to a crew until STS-7 or STS-8.
For STS-4, and again for STS-5, physician Bill Thornton was assigned to medical support out at Edwards Air Base, standing by in case of emergency situations. This was one of several early assignments for the few available physician-astronauts, who completed familiarisation and procedures training on helicopters and for evacuation of the crew in the event of a emergency landing and crew retrieval situation. For STS-4 Thornton worked with Jim Bagian, and on STS-5 with Norman Thagard.
By late 1981, STS planning schedules included projections for the attrition of "veteran astronauts'' - those chosen prior to the 1978 initial Shuttle-era selection. No names were assigned to these documents which were merely intended as planning documents to manage the large number of flight personnel. It was estimated that by the late 1980s, most of the pre-1980 astronauts (including the 1978 group) would have left the programme. These planning documents also revealed that at the time, NASA was considering teaming up mission specialists in pairs and flying them together on between five and eight missions, to capitalise on their mission experience and to alleviate repetitive training from what would have become a stretched training syllabus.
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