Mission Impossible

It did not happen. Launch on the 18th, scheduled for 12:00 midday at the start of a 49-minute 'window' for that day, was routinely postponed by 24 hours when technicians required additional time to finish closing out Columbia's aft compartment. The second effort to get the flagship spacecraft off the ground ended dramatically just 14 seconds before launch, when the flight controllers received an indication that the hydraulic power unit on the right-hand SRB had exceeded maximum-allowable turbine-speed limits. After finally deciding that the signal was erroneous, the window was missed and the seven astronauts disembarked from Columbia.

''We were happy as clams,'' recalled Bolden, ''thinking 'We're going to go now'. All of a sudden, everything stopped and the countdown clock went back to T — 9 [minutes] and kinda ticked there. We had no idea what had happened. As they started looking at the data, they had an indication that we had a problem with the right-hand [SRB]. As it turned out, when we finally got out of the vehicle and they went in, they determined that there wasn't really a problem. It was a computer problem, not a physical problem and it probably would have functioned perfectly normally.''

Launch was rescheduled for 6 January 1986, but was under some pressure to get underway because the next flight - STS-51L, further demonstrating the chaos that NASA's Shuttle-numbering system could cause - was due to fly from KSC's newly refurbished Pad 39B on 22 January. This latter mission would be a public-relations boon for the agency, as Challenger's crew included the first private citizen to fly into space: teacher Christa McAuliffe from Concord, New Hampshire. NASA also wanted Columbia back from STS-61C as soon as possible, because the flagship was already booked for an important mission to observe Halley's Comet on 6 March.

An 18 or 19 December launch would have allowed just enough time to refurbish Columbia and load three astronomy telescopes - collectively called 'ASTRO-1' - to observe the comet's 75-yearly journey through the inner Solar System. Delaying the STS-61C mission into January was a headache that NASA could not afford; but there was worse to come. For the crew, however, the downtime over Christmas and the New Year was a chance to relax after more than a year of intensive training in the simulators and uncertainty over when they would finally fly.

''We stayed in quarantine a lot of the time,'' remembered Hawley. ''When you're in launch mode down in Florida, the pace is not very hectic. You're not in training typically like you would be if you're in Houston and going to the simulators every day. You're reviewing procedures and checklists and having a nice time, because you have the opportunity to sort of sit back without the pressure of having to be in a sim[ulator]. I've always enjoyed the time in quarantine, although, because of the launch time, we were getting up at two in the morning every day!''

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment