Magnificent Mission

For the astronauts and thousands of scientists, the opportunity to finally reach orbit was met with jubilation. ''To say the payload team is ecstatic would be an understatement,'' said Higginbotham late on 17 April. ''Some of us have been working on this mission for years and to finally see it take flight is a feeling that's

The STS-90 crew assembles inside Neurolab for an in-flight portrait. Top row (left to right) are Jay Buckey, Jim Pawelczyk, Rick Linnehan and Dave Williams and bottom row are Scott Altman, Rick Searfoss and Kay Hire.

awfully hard to describe. We're looking forward to 16 days of magnificent science on board this last planned Spacelab mission.'' By that time, Linnehan and Williams were already in the pressurised module, setting up equipment for an intensive research programme.

As with previous life science flights, Neurolab would operate a single-shift system, with all seven astronauts waking up at the same time, in order to preserve their circadian rhythms and support the labour-intensive investigations. For five of them, it was their first experience of space flight, and all were determined to enjoy it, despite their heavy workload. "I feel a tremendous pride to be a Polish-American,'' said Pawelczyk, who took a small Polish flag with him, "and I wanted to provide some way to share that enthusiasm and pay a little bit of tribute back to the people of Poland.''

Williams, meanwhile, carried his wife's flying wings into space with him. "I thought that if I'm going to have a chance to fly off the planet and orbit around the Earth, I would like to take her wings with me,'' he told an interviewer before launch.

Kay Hire, who had been employed as an engineer at KSC from 1989 until her selection as an astronaut candidate in December 1994, said that helping to prepare the Shuttle for launch and now actually flying one "kind of completes the circle for me''.

After a busy first day establishing their orbital research laboratory, the crew was awakened early on 18 April by Aretha Franklin's 'Think', which provided an appropriate start of their two weeks of neurological research. ''Good morning, Columbia; time to get those neurons into action,'' Capcom Chris Hadfield told them, to which Searfoss replied that his crew was rousing themselves for ''a fine Neurolab day of work here''. Not only were the seven astronauts working feverishly; so too were the staff in Mission Control, as evidenced by an entry in Canadian astronaut Hadfield's journal.

''For tomorrow, Flight Day Three,'' he wrote, ''we have added several small things: a maintenance procedure for a broken pump on a Japanese experiment, a contingency procedure for an Animal Enclosure Module (capping an air port) and changing the orbiter's attitude to keep some thruster jets from getting too cold in the shade. Columbia is very healthy, so things are nice and easy for us. We'll send today's Execute Package to the printer on board Columbia just after the crew wakes up at 8:39 am Eastern [Time]. We have 11 messages to send, totalling about 30 pages. After they receive them, the crew will cut and paste the pages into their checklists using scissors and tape. We've spent the night writing all the messages and reviewing them for errors and crew-friendliness. Yesterday, I woke up the crew with the song 'Think', by Aretha Franklin (since it's Neurolab, I went with the brain theme). Today, they'll hear 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game', sung badly by Harry Carey, the late-great Chicago Cubs announcer. It's for Scott Altman, an Illinois native, who's doing a [public affairs] event with Chicago radio today.''

Such messages were typical for each Shuttle mission and highlighted, among other things, the close-knit working relationship and personal bond between the astronauts in orbit and their counterparts on the ground. Overall, Columbia was performing admirably, with the first problem of significant note arising just before bedtime on 24 April, when a valve malfunctioned in the Regenerative Carbon Dioxide Removal System (RCRS), triggering an alarm in the cabin and seriously threatening an early return to Earth.

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