Fit And Healthy Crew

''A technological triumph and a scientific success'' was the alliterative description made by Mission Manager Charles Sprinkle as Meade finally deactivated the last of the USML-1 experiments and closed the Spacelab module's hatch early on 8 July. The crew's scheduled landing later that day, after nearly 13 days aloft, was not so assured, however, due to changes of rain associated with Tropical Storm Darby, which lay just southwest of the California coastline. Undeterred, Richards, Bowersox and Baker ran through the routine checks of Columbia's systems, before Mission Control finally waved off their landing attempt until the 9th.

The seven astronauts were surprisingly fit and healthy after two weeks in space and this had much to do with the rigorous exercise regime they followed. The new EDO Medical Project included a special suit to redistribute fluids to their legs and lower torsos and help to counteract the punishing onset of gravity. Known as the Lower Body Negative Pressure (LBNP) suit, it was an inflatable cylinder, 1.2 m tall, which sealed around their waists and drew fluids down into their legs to offset the 'upward' fluid shift that occurs on entrance to the microgravity environment.

''The crewmembers' responses were as expected for this phase of the mission,'' said LBNP team member Sheila Boettcher after initial runs on 27 June. Later, Meade and Trinh also instrumented themselves with portable cardiovascular monitors to measure their heart activity and the blood pressure in their arms. ''On my previous two flights, I didn't exercise at all,'' Richards had said before STS-50 lifted off. ''This time, I'm taking exercise a lot more seriously. During entry, you have to have a strong cardiovascular response, particularly during the final phase.''

Assisted by Bonnie Dunbar, Larry DeLucas prepares for a Lower Body Negative

Pressure (LBNP) experiment.

Assisted by Bonnie Dunbar, Larry DeLucas prepares for a Lower Body Negative

Pressure (LBNP) experiment.

Bowersox agreed. ''What we like here,'' he said in a pre-flight interview, ''are perfect landings. We like to have things very predictable and very controlled, within very tight limits.'' In addition to their physical exercise, the astronauts drank Florinef, a mineral solution that helped them to retain fluids and a medication prescribed for people who regularly faint when they stand up too quickly - a condition known as orthostatic intolerance. All crewmembers drank a litre of heavily salted water shortly before re-entry to help them to hold bodily fluids in place until they could adapt to terrestrial gravity at a more leisurely pace.

After being waved-off on 8 July, Richards and Bowersox fired Columbia's OMS engines for 30 seconds to better align their orbital path for subsequent landing opportunities over the ensuing days. Flight Director Jeff Bantle had already pointed to his preference to bring the crew into Edwards and land on the long concrete runway, which was much better suited to handle the heavier-than-normal 102,500-kg Shuttle with the Spacelab module and EDO pallet in her payload bay. When the rain at Edwards did not clear by 9 July, however, Bantle opted to land at KSC.

It would be Columbia's first landing in Florida, within sight of the launch pad she had vacated two weeks earlier. Weather was ideal, with light winds and a slight chance of patchy ground fog. The payload bay doors were closed and Richards performed a three-and-a-half-minute OMS burn at 10:41 am to begin the hour-long glide home. The Shuttle could be seen streaking, meteor-like, over Houston at 11:30 am as she headed for Florida. Touchdown on Runway 33 was picture-perfect at 11:42:27 am, with Bowersox deploying the new drag chute as soon as all six wheels were firmly on the concrete.

A fit and healthy crew 165

A fit and healthy crew 165

STS-50 touches down on 9 July 1992, marking Columbia's first landing in Florida and her first use of a drag chute on the runway.

Together with the new tyres, this brought Columbia to a smooth halt within a minute. Lasting 13 days, 19 hours, 30 minutes and 4 seconds, STS-50 established itself firmly as the fourth-longest spaceflight in United States history. It was surpassed only by the three Skylab missions in 1973-74, which spent 28, 59 and 84 days aloft. ''I think we got past Gemini 7, but with a lot more comfort!'' Richards said, referring to Frank Borman and Jim Lovell's arduous mission in December 1965 in a capsule that they likened to the front of a Volkswagen Beetle car.

''You sort of forget what it's like to be back on Earth,'' Richards told journalists. Flanked by Bowersox, Dunbar and DeLucas, he excused Blue Team crewmates Baker, Meade and Trinh, who had not slept for more than 24 hours. ''They just need to get home for a well-deserved rest because it's a very tiring process, not just staying up over 24 hours, but getting used to [gravity] again.'' Summing up STS-50, he was philosophical: ''The human performance in space has always fooled us. The whole history is filled with anecdotal experiences that we were expecting something worse than actually occurred. I think we are just being cautious now as we go into this era of longer duration flights. The smart thing to do is do them incrementally, so we don't bite off more than we can chew and run into something we weren't expecting.''

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