An Ambitious Mission

A Space Shuttle with a difference headed into overcast Florida skies at precisely 4:00 pm on 22 March 1982. For the first time, Columbia flew into orbit attached to a rust-coloured ET, the result of deleting a coat of white Fire Retardant Latex (FRL) primer that saved 270 kg in weight and $15,000. Although this was only the third Shuttle flight, and STS-1 and STS-2 had already demonstrated the reusability of the system and its viability as a scientific research platform, there was still much to prove and its powerful Congressional enemies continued their calls for its cancellation.

Fortunately, with the exception of a few minor technical obstacles - eagerly jumped upon by the press but, in reality, insignificant in terms of their effect on the mission - Columbia's third trip into space was a spectacular success. Not only did it almost quadruple the two-day endurance limit of the previous missions, it also conducted the first tests of the RMS arm's mettle by hauling 'real' payloads and carried another engineering prototype of the Spacelab pallet; this time outfitted for a series of experiments sponsored by NASA's Office of Space Science.

In fact, by the time the payload, dubbed 'OSS-1', was launched, the office itself had assumed a new name: the Office of Space Science and Applications. Originally, OSS-1 was meant to be the first in a series of missions that would ferry sophisticated astronomical telescopes and space plasma detectors into orbit. Before these could be flown, however, scientists needed to better understand the impact of outgassing, waste-water dumps and thruster firings on surfaces within the payload bay. Such waste products were known to deposit thin 'films' of debris that could cause the optics of very sensitive instruments to degrade.

One of the most important missions under consideration at the time would carry three ultraviolet telescopes for detailed surveys of the Universe. The knowledge gained as a result of the STS-3 experiments helped to get this mission off the drawing boards and - after a long wait - into orbit just before Christmas 1990. Known as ASTRO-1, it turned out to be one of the most complex, yet brilliant, astronomical missions ever attempted. Results from other OSS-1 experiments enabled NASA to build sophisticated solar and atmospheric-physics instruments which rode Shuttle missions late into the 1990s.

Eight of the nine OSS-1 experiments were mounted on the Spacelab pallet in Columbia's payload bay and were devoted to examining the near-Earth environment and measuring levels of contamination produced by the Shuttle herself. One of the most intriguing instruments was the University of Iowa's 158-kg Plasma Diagnostics Package (PDP), a small cylindrical canister of electromagnetic and particle sensors to 'sniff out' the environment surrounding Columbia. Its data on the 'cleanliness' of the payload bay would prove invaluable in allowing NASA to commit highly sensitive scientific instruments to future missions.

To support this important experiment, Commander Jack Lousma and Pilot Gordon Fullerton were extensively trained to use the RMS to lift the PDP from the OSS-1 pallet and manoeuvre it to various positions in the payload bay. According to their pre-mission press kit, they were to use the arm to hoist not only the PDP, but also the desk-sized IECM package, previously flown on STS-2. It was in eager anticipation for one of the most demanding missions ever attempted that the third pair of Shuttlenauts headed into orbit on that murky March day in 1982.

Although only on his first flight, Fullerton was in charge of the RMS for these tests. His training took place in several venues, including the robotic arm's home in Canada and in Houston. ''I went a couple of times up to Toronto to see how [the RMS] worked,'' he said. ''Then we had a full-size mockup at Houston with a 1g-capable arm driven by hydraulics. We had an electronic version of the arm, looking at screens in the windows and the simulator. There were a lot of tools to get the hang of working the arm. That was pretty cool.''

Lousma, a 46-year-old US Marine Corps Colonel, had previously spent two months in orbit on board the Skylab space station in the summer of 1973. Ironically, had the proposed Shuttle repair mission to the ageing station gone ahead some time before 1979, it is possible that he would have flown it with Fred Haise. Fullerton, too, had amassed a wealth of experience both on the ground and above it, having piloted two of the five approach and landing tests on board Enterprise with Haise in 1977.

''A real barn-burner,'' was how Lousma described Columbia's launch; Fullerton was inclined to agree, although it did not go quite as intended. Firstly, it set off an hour late, following the failure of a heater on a ground-based nitrogen gas line. Then an APU overheated four-and-a-half minutes into the ascent, triggering a caution-and-warning alarm in the cockpit and forcing the astronauts to shut it down early. This left one of Columbia's main engines running at only 82% thrust for the last few seconds of the climb into space; its overall performance, however, was unaffected.

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