Had Challenger not exploded, Columbia was set to fly a further four missions during the course of 1986. It would have been the most she had ever flown in a single calendar year and, judging from the impossibly short seven weeks expected to get her ready for STS-61E, probably could not have been realistically achieved. On the 6 March flight, she and another seven-man crew would have been launched to spend eight days in orbit with the ASTRO-1 observatory of three ultraviolet telescopes affixed to a pair of Spacelab pallets in the payload bay.
This would have been Columbia's first use of the pallet-train-and-igloo combination, as well as putting a telescope-aiming device called the Instrument Pointing System (IPS) through its paces. The IPS had been tested, with mixed results, during Spacelab-2 and will be discussed in more depth later, but was essentially a platform onto which the ASTRO-1 telescopes were mounted. The STS-61E crew -Commander Jon McBride, Pilot Dick Richards, Mission Specialists Jeff Hoffman, Dave Leestma and Bob Parker and Payload Specialists Sam Durrance and Ron Parise - would have worked around-the-clock in two teams to operate the telescopes.
As well as an extensive programme of astronomical observations, the crew's time would have been consumed by studies of Halley's Comet using the CHAMP hardware and the ultraviolet telescopes. Following her return from STS-61E, her next mission was STS-61H, a seven-day flight scheduled to launch in the last week of June. As well as carrying her heaviest load of communications satellites so far -Indonesia's Palapa-B3, the Western Union's Westar-6S and the British Ministry of Defence's Skynet-4B - she would also have carried Indonesian and British Payload Specialists.
Like STS-5, the three drum-shaped satellites would have been housed inside Pacman-like cradles and deployed atop PAM-D upper stages. Since 1985, as part of efforts to compete with the European Ariane rocket for commercial launch contracts, NASA had begun offering customers an extra incentive: a seat for a Payload Specialist representative. On STS-61C, RCA's Satcom Ku-1 had been accompanied by RCA employee Bob Cenker, and Saudi Arabian and Mexican satellites sent aloft in June and November 1985 had been watched intently by representative Payload Specialists from those countries.
On STS-61H, Briton Nigel Wood, a Royal Air Force squadron leader, and Indonesian microbiologist Pratiwi Sudarmono would have observed the deployment of'their' satellites. The remainder of the crew consisted of Commander Mike Coats, Pilot John Blaha and Mission Specialists Anna Fisher, Jim Buchli and Bob Springer; Fisher and Pratiwi becoming Columbia's first female passengers.
A top-secret Department of Defense mission (STS-61N) in September and another commercial flight (STS-61L) in November would have completed Columbia's roster for 1986. On the first of those missions, Commander Brewster Shaw would have led a five-man crew - Pilot Mike McCulley, Mission Specialists Jim Adamson, Dave Leestma and Mark Brown and US Air Force Payload Specialist Frank Casserino - into space to deploy a classified military satellite. On the second, which would have deployed the Leasat-5 and GStar-3 satellites and operated MSL-3, only one of the seven crew members was ever named: Payload Specialist John Konrad of the Hughes Aircraft Company.
One point to make from these assignments is that, in spite of Challenger and the almost three-year stand-down of the Shuttle fleet, the crews remained more-or-less intact. Most of the original STS-61E crew - Hoffman, Parker, Durrance and Parise -were members of the post-Challenger ASTRO-1 mission when it finally reached orbit in December 1990. So, too, might McBride have been, had he not resigned from the astronaut corps in May 1989. With the exception of Fisher, who took leave-of-absence to bring up her children, the core STS-61H crew of Coats, Blaha, Buchli and Springer remained together for the STS-29 mission in March 1989.
Similarly, the STS-61N crew - minus Mike McCulley, who was replaced by Dick Richards, and Frank Casserino, who returned to the US Air Force - would fly Columbia's first mission after the Challenger disaster. That, however, could not have been further from their minds in 1986 as each became immersed in the plans to return the Shuttle fleet to operations. A huge number of modifications, implemented on the recommendations of the presidential commission, had to be made to Columbia before she could fly again and her managers quickly found their ship in 'third place' in the pecking order behind Discovery and Atlantis.
It was at around this time that, again for reasons best known to NASA management, the agency reverted to its original numbering system for Shuttle missions. The first flight after Challenger would be the 26th and, logically, was labelled STS-26. Atlantis would fly STS-27 and Columbia was scheduled for STS-28 to deploy a classified Department of Defense payload. Early in 1988, she also received her crew for the mission: Shaw, Richards, Adamson, Leestma and Brown. Of the quintet, Shaw had flown twice before - including the Spacelab-1 mission -and Leestma once. The others would be making their first trips into orbit.
''At the time,'' remembered Leestma, ''Discovery was going to fly first, then Atlantis and then Columbia. [I was] assigned to Columbia and they were having a hard time. This was its big 'down' period to make it look like the other orbiters that had been built, and since Columbia had been built earlier, there were a lot of differences. So it was still in the process of being modified and put back together, so it didn't make 28. It slipped too, when they flew Discovery and Atlantis one more time each before we finally flew in the summer of 1989.''
A busy year cut short 101
Columbia entered OPF Bay 2 on 24 June 1986 and from thence was transferred to the VAB's High Bay 2 for storage in mid-March of the following year. From September 1987 until July 1988 she underwent low-key attention in the Orbiter Maintenance and Refurbishment Facility (OMRF) - later to become the third OPF bay - and at the end of January 1989 she finally began STS-28 processing in earnest. Her External Tank was mated to its boosters on 23 May and, after the addition of Columbia to the stack, the complete STS-28 vehicle was rolled out to Pad 39B on 15 July.
More than 250 modifications were incorporated into Columbia during the postChallenger period: among the most important were the addition of a reinforced carbon-carbon 'chin' just behind and underneath her nose, installation of a new telescopic pole to enable astronauts to escape from the vehicle during the later phase of re-entry, and improvements to her wiring, power-distribution system and thermal protection tiles and blankets. She also received upgraded GPCs, new fuel cells and APU controllers. Although these modifications added 1,130 kg of weight to Columbia, some of this was saved by replacing more than 2,300 protective tiles with newer-specification thermal blankets.
''There was an opportunity to look at the whole system and make it as good as it could be,'' said Arnie Aldrich, who became director of the Shuttle programme in 1986, ''and I think the Shuttle benefited tremendously from that. What we found was that [with] all the pressure to get to [the] first flight, there'd been a lot of decisions made about, 'We'll live with this for now, but we'll fix it later', and so there were a lot of things that troubled people, that we wanted fixed, but there was never time. And once we started flying, the flights came so quick one after another, you couldn't stop and fix anything. So we got all of this on the table and we made a lot of changes and made the Shuttle a lot better. In fact, some of the changes to the main engine[s had] literally taken over a decade to make! They were just completed some 10 years later! So it was a time to take a lot of stock."
Although the technical cause of the disaster was corrected, and many other potential problems were also addressed, the problem of a two-and-a-half-year downtime worried many within NASA. "I was concerned about the long delay between flights," said Henry Pohl, "and primarily the technicians that put [the Shuttle] together. If you're doing something every day and it's kinda routine, you remember what to do, but now if I don't do it for nine months or a year and then try to start up, you don't exactly remember how you went about doing those things.''
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