John Blaha And The Long Road To Sls2

"John, we're going to fly you one of these days,'' NASA Launch Director Bob Sieck called over the communications loop as the afternoon of 15 October 1993 wore on. The disappointment of another scrubbed launch attempt was in his tone. "Just hang in there.''

"Nice try,'' responded STS-58 Commander John Blaha from the flight deck, as he and his six crewmates prepared to disembark from Space Shuttle Columbia after two-and-a-half uncomfortable hours on their backs, clad in bulky partial-pressure suits, harnesses and parachutes. It was the second time they had been through this routine to get into space for what would turn out to be NASA's longest-yet Shuttle mission, lasting just over two weeks. For now, however, Columbia was living up to her reputation: an immovable bear difficult to get off the ground, but once in orbit, a beautiful, graceful swan.

More than two months' worth of delays in getting her previous mission - the German-sponsored Spacelab-D2 - into space had already pushed her next flight back a month from August until mid-September. That date had also quickly become untenable as another mission, STS-51 on Discovery, experienced 1993's second on-the-pad main engine shutdown and was itself repeatedly delayed. Not until Discovery and her five-man crew were aloft could a firm timeline be set for Columbia's own launch. Eventually, a Flight Readiness Review by top-ranking Shuttle managers scheduled it for 14 October.

Bad weather that day caused a two-hour extension of the launch window and, when it finally cleared, the countdown clock continued ticking towards a scheduled 4:53 pm liftoff. Then a failure in a US Air Force Range Safety command message encoder verifier resulted in the cancellation of the attempt; this system would have been used to destroy the vehicle by remote control should an unthinkable in-flight accident happen. It had, in fact, already happened during Challenger's catastrophic ascent in January 1986, when it was employed to destroy the two wayward SRBs as they spiralled out-of-control, potentially threatening populated areas.

The attempt on 15 October was relatively smooth until a problem surfaced with one of two S-band transponders on Columbia. Although it could transmit data, the 13.6-kg unit could not receive properly. Flight rules stipulated that both transponders - which provide a steady stream of main engine data and voice communications between the ascending Shuttle and Mission Control - must be fully functional for a launch to proceed. The option to sidestep the rule and fly with only one transponder was briefly considered, then a spare unit was rushed to the pad for hasty installation.

Ultimately, however, NASA managers were not happy with engineers replacing it in the short time available before the launch window closed or asking the astronauts to replace it once they reached orbit. "As that scenario unfolded, folks could not quite get comfortable with it. Me included\'' said Loren Shriver, the new head of NASA's Mission Management Team and himself a former Shuttle Commander. 'That scenario would have placed a lot more responsibility and decision-making on the crew. Having been there [myself], there is no substitute for having a little help from the ground.''

John Blaha and the long road to SLS-2 197

Sts Pre Launch Photos
The STS-58 crew participate in a practice countdown on the launch pad. Front row (left to right) are John Blaha, Marty Fettman and Dave Wolf and back row are Rick Searfoss, Bill McArthur, Shannon Lucid and Rhea Seddon.

Shriver was here referring to the dire predicament Columbia's astronauts would have faced if the one remaining transponder had failed and an in-flight problem had forced Blaha and Pilot Rick Searfoss to perform a hazardous and as-yet-untried emergency landing back at KSC. A failed transponder might have left the crew out of communications with Mission Control for up to 15 critical minutes. However, even if the transponder problem had not arisen, as the weather closed in on the Floridian spaceport it was becoming more likely that Columbia's launch that day probably would not go ahead.

The 'failed' transponder, in fact, had already operated 700 hours longer than its 2,600-hour design lifetime, more than proving its worth. It was replaced over the weekend of 16-17 October, in readiness for another attempt the following Monday. It was with characteristic enthusiasm that Blaha led his crew out of the Operations and Checkout Building for what would be 'third time lucky' in getting STS-58 off the ground. Not only would it become the longest Shuttle flight so far, but would also allow Blaha to finally undertake a mission he was originally assigned to fly four years earlier.

An astronaut since 1980, the now-retired US Air Force Colonel waited an unenviable nine years for his first trip into orbit. Although at the time of his selection, Blaha was actually the senior military officer in his class, many regarded him as a steady, dependable astronaut, rather than a mission-hungry 'rising star', and this perhaps contributed to his receiving a flight assignment so late in his career. He was slated to fly as Pilot on STS-61H in the summer of 1986, a flight abruptly cancelled by the Challenger disaster, but finally made it into space on STS-29 in March 1989.

His admirable performance on his first flight led to his rapid reassignment, within a fortnight of landing from STS-29, as Pilot of the first Spacelab Life Sciences mission (SLS-1), scheduled for the summer of the following year. Blaha had only been training for his second flight for a couple of months when tragedy conspired against one of his fellow astronauts and gave him another assignment. Dave Griggs, who was due to fly as Pilot of a top-secret Department of Defense mission in November 1989, was killed in an aircraft crash and Blaha was quickly drafted in to replace him.

After completing Griggs' mission, he went on to command a highly successful nine-day flight in August 1991 which deployed an important communications satellite for NASA. A year later, he at last got his chance to train for a life sciences mission by receiving the command of SLS-2. Joining him were Pilot Searfoss and flight engineer Bill McArthur, together with a four-person science crew: two medical doctors (Payload Commander Rhea Seddon and Mission Specialist Dave Wolf), a biochemist (Mission Specialist Shannon Lucid) and a veterinarian (Payload Specialist Marty Fettman).

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