Secret Mission

With pressure on getting Discovery and Atlantis into space before the end of 1988, Columbia's launch was delayed until July and eventually the second week of August in the following year. However, as STS-28 drew closer, the shroud of secrecy covering it showed no sign of being drawn back. Not until years later would details of exactly what Columbia's crew did while in space begin to trickle out. Leestma, whose previous Shuttle flight had been a scientific one, described preparations for his top-secret mission as unusual and very cloak-and-dagger in nature.

"Sometimes you had to disguise where you were going! You'd file a flight plan in a T-38 [training aircraft] from one place and go somewhere else, to try to not leave a trail for where you were going or what you were doing, who was the sponsor of this payload or what its capabilities were or what it was going to do. You had to be careful all the time of what you were saying.'' Already, three Department of Defense missions had been flown, the payloads for which were rumoured to be advanced military communications, signals-intelligence and radar-imaging satellites.

STS-28 would transport the Department of Defense's fourth major Shuttle-

launched payload into orbit. In the wake of the Challenger disaster, the US military and intelligence community began to rely to a lesser extent on the reusable spacecraft and began moving towards expendable rockets. Only payloads that were too large, heavy or awkward to be easily reconfigured for a rocket launch remained on the Shuttle. The presence of a human crew and Atlantis' Canadian-built RMS mechanical arm had already, in December 1988, aided the repair of one multibillion-dollar spy satellite when it experienced difficulties shortly after deployment.

"It was a big plus for the DoD,'' said Leestma, "because they had some failures before [which] they might have been able to fix if people had been there or they had been able to spend some attention [on] it. They also were able to get pictures of everything that's going on and see that it was configured just right before it was let go. [But the DoD] did not like dealing with NASA. It was a kinda constrained arrangement, but it worked very well and the DoD was happy with the product that they got in the end.''

It was already standard practice in the build-up to such missions that the countdown was conducted virtually in complete secrecy, until the public-affairs commentary began at T — 9 minutes before launch. Only after that point could the public listen in to intercom exchanges between the astronauts and launch controllers. A software problem caused the countdown to be held for longer than planned and a combination of haze and fog over the SLF runway - used in the event of an emergency return to KSC - meant that the mission set off 40 minutes late at 12:37 pm on 8 August 1989.

As Columbia left Pad 39B - her first launch from this pad - and headed for a 290 x 307 km orbit, NASA's Deputy Administrator J.R. Thompson commented, "We're off to a good start on this mission.'' The high-inclination, 57-degree orbit needed for STS-28's primary payload was achieved by a 140-degree roll manoeuvre 10 seconds after liftoff. Brewster Shaw could be heard making the now-familiar "Roll program'' call as the vehicle rolled over onto its back. Eight-and-a-half minutes later, the flagship of NASA's Shuttle fleet was back in space for the first time in more than three-and-a-half years.

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