Shortnotice Spacelab

A few days after Kenneth Szalai's investigative board presented its report on the TSS-1R mishap, Space Shuttle Columbia was being hauled out to Pad 39B to begin final preparations for her 20th trip into orbit. It would be a mission that, perhaps more so than any previous Spacelab flight, would virtually mimic the research that would be conducted on board the International Space Station. Dubbed the Life and Microgravity Spacelab (LMS), the flight, according to its Mission Manager Marc Boudreaux of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, had ''the key ingredients to take us into the next era of space exploration''.

One of these ingredients was the relatively short period of time it took from laying the initial blueprints for the mission to its actual realisation: just 21 months! Historically, Spacelab missions were incredibly complicated affairs, involving hundreds of scientists and engineers from numerous institutions spread across the globe, and took up to four years to prepare from initial conception to getting off the launch pad. In the wake of the IML-2 mission in July 1994, it was recognised that there would be a conspicuous lack of life and microgravity science flights until the space station became operational.

With this in mind, in September of that year NASA announced its intention to stage a one-off 16-day mission in the summer of 1996. Midway through the following May, seven astronauts were assigned to the flight, which would become known as STS-78: Payload Commander Susan Helms, Mission Specialists Rick Linnehan and Chuck Brady, Payload Specialists Jean-Jacques Favier and Bob Thirsk and Alternative Payload Specialists Pedro Duque and Luca Urbani. Five of them would actually fly Columbia for the ambitious mission, while Duque and Urbani would serve as backups and help to coordinate the experiments from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

The LMS mission was intended to be 'international' in its flavour, providing yet another ingredient in preparing for space station activities, and the names of its crew members reflect this: Helms, Linnehan and Brady were American astronauts, Favier was French, Thirsk was Canadian, Duque was a Spaniard and Urbani was Italian. Many of its experiments would be carried over from earlier Spacelab Life Sciences and International Microgravity Laboratory missions, with Principal Investigators based at four European sites and four United States institutions and employing the most extensive use of telescience to date to run them from the ground.

Already, the USMP series had demonstrated the ability of scientists to control their payloads remotely from Earth and on the LMS they would do the same with research facilities in the pressurised Spacelab module. In a similar move to what was planned for International Space Station scientific operations - and as NASA had done on each of its life science-dedicated missions - Columbia's crew would work a single shift, rather than being divided into two 12-hour teams. ''It represents kind of

Short-notice Spacelab 267

Short-notice Spacelab 267

The STS-78 crew. Left to right are Bob Thirsk, Chuck Brady, Tom Henricks, Susan Helms (holding an Olympic torch), Rick Linnehan, Kevin Kregel and Jean-Jacques Favier.

a blueprint, a roadmap, to the space station,'' said Arnauld Nicogossian, the acting head of NASA's Life and Microgravity Sciences Office.

The benefit of a single-shift mission was that life science experiments, which by their very nature would require a significant amount of crew time and video coverage, but only minimal power and energy, could be performed when all seven astronauts were available as 'test subjects' and operators. The automated and remotely controlled materials science investigations, on the other hand, could then be run via telescience from the ground as the crew slept. Full telecommand and video facilities would still be available, but at the same time the absence of movement from astronauts would not disturb the highly sensitive microgravity investigations.

Developed at a cost of $138 million, the LMS comprised 22 major experiments, supported by NASA and ESA, as well as the Canadian, French and Italian space agencies, together with adjunct research teams from 10 other nations. Specifically, the life science investigations explored the responses of living organisms to the weightless environment, with a particular focus on musculoskeletal physiology. The other, microgravity side of the LMS 'coin' probed subtle influences at work while processing a variety of materials and examining the behaviour of fluids.

In May 1995, around the same time that the first portion of the STS-78 crew was announced, technicians in KSC's Operations and Checkout Building began integrating the LMS hardware into the Spacelab module. By the following April, when the fully experiment-laden, 10,100-kg facility was closed-out and loaded on board Columbia, the crew for the mission had been increased to seven with the addition of Commander Tom Henricks and Pilot Kevin Kregel. The Shuttle arrived in the VAB on 21 May for stacking onto her External Tank and boosters, and was transferred to the launch pad overnight on 29-30 May.

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