Columbia Returns Home To

After what Shuttle director Bob Crippen called a mission ''chocked full of work'', Wetherbee, Baker and flight engineer Shepherd ran crisply through the routine checkout of Columbia's systems on 31 October. The payload bay doors were closed at 10:32 am the following morning, and two-and-a-half hours later Wetherbee performed the two-minute OMS burn to drop his spacecraft into the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere. There were, however, a few drama-tinged moments during the Shuttle's fall towards Florida, when a cockpit indicator stopped working.

The STS-52 crew on Columbia's aft flight deck. Front row (left to right) are Bill Shepherd, Steve MacLean and Mike Baker and back row are Jim Wetherbee, Tammy Jernigan and Lacy Veach.

The indicator was particularly critical, because it was used to display information for the pilots on the positions of Columbia's elevons and other steering surfaces. Wetherbee and Baker switched to small digital displays as a backup measure and temporarily recovered the use of the indicator, before it again failed. Post-flight analysis of the indicator would blame a faulty fuse. Fortunately, the crew's return to Earth was otherwise uneventful and the Shuttle touched down on Runway 33 at KSC at 2:05:52 pm, wrapping up a mission that had lasted 9 days, 20 hours, 56 minutes and 13 seconds.

Despite being Columbia's 13th trip into space, and having been in orbit over Hallowe'en, STS-52 had proved a spectacular success. In fact, the mission lasted almost exactly the same length of time predicted in the pre-flight press kit. It was the second landing in Florida for NASA's flagship Shuttle; for more than a year, KSC had officially been on 'equal footing' with Edwards as the primary end-of-mission landing site. In June 1991, NASA had announced its intention to routinely use KSC: among other reasons it saved the agency the million-dollar cost of ferrying Shuttles back from California.

''We will treat them [Edwards and KSC] as equal landing sites,'' spokesman James Hartsfield had said at the time, ''with neither preferred over the other.'' The overwhelming use of Edwards since the post-Challenger resumption of missions in

The STS-52 crew on Columbia's aft flight deck. Front row (left to right) are Bill Shepherd, Steve MacLean and Mike Baker and back row are Jim Wetherbee, Tammy Jernigan and Lacy Veach.

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