An Unprotected Crew

When Vance Brand had his official astronaut portrait taken in 1979, wearing the new Shuttle pressure suit, he confidently expected to wear it on his first flight in a few years' time. Although it was questionable how useful Columbia's ejection seats would be as a means of emergency escape, the suit at least would keep him alive in case of a cabin depressurisation during the trip back to Earth. Little did Brand know that when he and his STS-5 crew lifted off on 11 November 1982, they would be wearing little more than overalls and a helmet . . .

The reason was that, on Columbia's fifth mission into space, Commander Brand and rookie Pilot Bob Overmyer would be accompanied by two other astronauts: a physicist named Joe Allen - who had served as Capcom for the first Shuttle flight -and an electrical engineer named Bill Lenoir. It would be the first time that four astronauts had been launched together on the same spacecraft and would pose a difficult dilemma over how to eject from the Shuttle in the event of a major in-flight emergency. The problem was quite simple: not all of them would be able to get out alive.

There was only enough room at the front of the Shuttle's cramped flight deck to accommodate two ejection seats and their rails for the pilots. Allen and Lenoir, members of a new subset of astronauts called 'Mission Specialists' - men and women responsible for accomplishing in-flight tasks, such as satellite deployments and retrievals or scientific experiments - would have to make do with collapsible seats at the rear of the flight deck or on the middeck. Installing four ejection seats with rails would be difficult and, as Shuttle crews increased to a maximum size of seven, would become impossible.

''No-one wanted to fly with seven rockets in the cabin!'' Arnie Aldrich has said, although others wanted to retain the ejection seats. ''That would have restricted the size of the crew,'' admitted former assistant Shuttle director Warren North, ''because [you] couldn't put seven ejection seats in there but we could leave the two pilot seats, [then add] four [abreast] behind the pilots that were of much lighter variety. The Yankee system, for instance, [was] a tractor rocket that pulls the pilot out in a prone position, where the seat [pan] collapses and the pilot is pulled out head first. That would have involved putting pyrotechnic escape hatches in four places - behind the flight crew and in the [overhead] payload deck - which would have involved redesigning the orbiter to some degree [including its] wiring. It could have been done, [but] would have involved a time delay, been a little [more] expensive [and added some] weight. We made mistakes along the way. We've got a vehicle today that has a moderate escape capability, but not nearly what some of the crew would like.''

No ejection seats on STS-5 meant that Allen and Lenoir's chances of escape during an emergency would be limited to the 'long shot' of bailing out through Columbia's side hatch. Eitherway, even if ejection seats for the entire crew were practicable, they would not have provided greater advantages to the astronauts in terms of survivability. STS-1 Commander John Young once joked darkly that the seats' parachutes would open ''about fifty feet after we hit the ground!" With this in mind, perhaps, Brand had elected to do away with the ejection seats and move to the blue NASA overall-like flight suits.

His launch on STS-5 would thus be totally different from his Apollo 18 mission in July 1975, when he and his crewmates had participated in a joint rendezvous-and-docking exercise with the Soviet Soyuz 19 spacecraft. Like Young, Lousma and Mattingly before him, Brand remembered first-hand the escape rockets that sat on top of the Apollo command modules, which were capable of whisking crews to safety in the event of a malfunction. The asymmetrical design of the Shuttle made such escape rockets impractical, and rendered the entire vehicle potentially far more hazardous than the Saturn rockets had ever been.

A civilian astronaut since April 1966, Brand was the only veteran among the STS-5 crew. In addition to his Apollo mission, he had trained for a daring rescue of three colleagues on board the Skylab space station and, owing to NASA budget cuts, had narrowly missed out on a flight to the Moon. He would, however, go some way in making up for this by flying three Shuttle missions and, in December 1990, would acquire distinction as the then-oldest man in space when he led a crew into orbit at the age of almost 60.

Seated alongside Brand was crew-cutted US Marine Corps Colonel Overmyer, who served as Pilot on the mission, before commanding his own Shuttle flight in April 1985. Occupying a collapsible seat behind the instrument panel, just behind and between the Commander and Pilot, sat Lenoir, to whom fell the task of serving as a flight engineer during the ascent portion of the mission. Meanwhile, the final member of the crew, Allen, sat alone 'downstairs' on the middeck for launch, trading places with Lenoir on the flight deck for re-entry. Both of their seats were folded away and stowed during the flight.

Although the bulky ejection seats in the forward part of the cockpit remained in place, and would not actually be removed for another couple of years, they were at least deactivated in time for STS-5. However, their very presence made Columbia's flight deck considerably more 'cramped' than the cockpits of later Shuttles. Indeed, STS-3 Pilot Gordon Fullerton later remarked that the flight deck of the second space-rated orbiter - Challenger, which he flew in July 1985 - seemed much more 'roomy' when he first climbed on board, because it contained more lightweight, collapsible seats.

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