The Curse Of Steve Hawley

When the crew left their quarters early on 12 January, Steve Hawley had gained the unenviable record of having ridden the bus to the launch pad on 10 occasions for only two 'real' liftoffs. To this day, he thinks a conversation and agreement he had with Commander Hoot Gibson may have helped to finally get Columbia into space: ''I decided that if [Columbia] didn't know it was me, then maybe we'd launch, and so I taped my name-tag with grey tape and had the glasses-nose-moustache disguise and wore that.'' It worked and the STS-61C crew lifted off safely at 11:55 am.

Even the first few seconds of Columbia's ascent did not go well, as recounted dramatically by Bill Nelson in his book about the flight, Mission. Shortly after leaving the pad, Bolden - whose job it was to monitor the main engines - noticed an indication of a possible helium leak. ''[We] had an alarm go off within seconds after lifting off,'' he said later. ''I looked down at what I could see, with everything shaking and vibrating, and we had an indication [of] a helium leak in the right-hand engine. Had it been true, it was going to be a bad day.

''We called the ground and said, 'We've got a helium leak. We're going to work the procedure.' The ground didn't see anything. It was [a glitch] in one of the computers. [We] tried to isolate the first system; no luck. Still looked like we had a leak. Tried to isolate the second system; no luck. Then I looked down and it looked like we were making helium, so I told Hoot, 'I think we've got a sensor problem.' So we called the ground [and] reconfigured the system back to normal. This [was] all inside a minute after we lifted off!''

Other than the malfunctioning sensor which provided this momentary scare, Columbia's ascent was normal - although, in Bolden's words, his first launch into space ''went by really fast!'' - and was quickly established in a 340-km orbit. Bolden has downplayed his role in isolating the sensor problem: ''To this day [Bill Nelson] thinks that Charlie Bolden saved the crew and Columbia, and I didn't. We had a problem, but it was an instrumentation problem.'' Whatever the problem, the mission was at last underway and the crew prepared to deploy their commercial payload.

For Bolden, one of relatively few black members of NASA's astronaut corps at that time, there was one particular place on Earth that he really wanted to see immediately after reaching orbit: Africa. Years later, he would describe it as ''awe-inspiring and, in fact, it brought tears to my eyes.'' However, Bolden's first glimpse of his ancestral homeland from space would mirror the reactions of many astronauts upon seeing the Earth from the Shuttle's altitude: there were no lines to demarcate the different countries and he found it difficult to orient himself and realise what he was looking at.

The payload bay was sparsely occupied for STS-61C. Reminiscent of STS-5 - the first commercial Shuttle flight - Columbia carried a Pacman-type cradle, in which sat the Satcom Ku-1 communications satellite, mounted on an uprated PAM-D2 upper stage. Just in front of the cradle was a cross-bay bridge called a Mission-Peculiar Equipment Support Structure (MPESS), onto which were affixed three experiments forming the second Materials Science Laboratory (MSL-2). Behind the Satcom cradle, near the end of the payload bay, was yet another bridge, fitted with no fewer than twelve privately sponsored GAS canisters.

Although the Pacman cradle closely resembled those flown on STS-5, its content on STS-61C was somewhat different. The satellite, for starters, was a different shape. Unlike SBS-3 and ANIK-C3, which were both cylindrical 'drums', Satcom was cube-shaped and was part of a network of three satellites that would provide commercial communications services in the Ku-band of the electromagnetic spectrum. Owned by RCA - which had paid NASA $14.2 million to launch the satellite - the Satcoms were equipped with 16 transponders to cover the 48 members of the 'continental' United States or the eastern and western 'halves' of the nation.

Confusingly, the second Satcom, known as 'Ku-2', had already been placed into orbit by Space Shuttle Atlantis in November 1985. After Columbia's delivery of Ku-1, a third member of the series was scheduled to be sent aloft in 1987. Satcom Ku-1 was a three-axis-stabilised satellite, carrying its own electricity-generating solar cells in a pair of deployable solar panels, attitude-control thrusters, thermal-control system and command-and-telemetry equipment. Like the other Satcoms, its 45-watt transponders were considerably more powerful than the 12-30 watts used in C-band transponders. This was expected to allow users to employ dishes as small as a metre across.

The curse of Steve Hawley 91

The curse of Steve Hawley 91

The Satcom Ku-1 deployment. Note the MSL-2 payload in the foreground.

Since Ku-band frequencies were not shared with terrestrial microwave systems, dishes served by the Satcoms could be located within major metropolitan areas characterised by heavy terrestrial microwave traffic. The deployment of Satcom Ku-1 was supervised by Franklin Chang-Diaz and Pinky Nelson towards the end of the first day of the mission. ''I had done [a deployment] on a previous flight,'' remembered Hawley, ''[so] we kind of divided up the responsibilities so that we could maximise the resultant training and experience of everybody on the crew.''

After several hours of checkout in the payload bay, Satcom and Columbia finally parted company at 9:26:29 pm, some nine-and-a-half hours into the STS-61C mission. It was a textbook deployment, similar to those performed by Bill Lenoir and Joe Allen on STS-5. The main difference was that Satcom was more than three times heavier than either SBS-3 of ANIK-C3: weighing some 1,920 kg. For this reason, it was bolted to a newer version of the PAM upper stage, which was capable of placing larger satellites into geosynchronous transfer orbit.

The PAM-D2 could accommodate payloads up to 3 metres in diameter, as opposed to just 2 metres for the PAM-D. Thanks to its upgraded Thiokol-built Star 63D engine, it could send satellites weighing up to 1,920 kg into geosynchronous transfer orbits, as opposed to the 1,270 kg achievable with the PAM-D. The larger size of the satellite and the upper stage meant that the Pacman cradle used on STS-

61C was also bigger. Fifteen minutes after Satcom left Columbia's payload bay, Gibson and Bolden fired the OMS engines for 12 seconds to provide a safe separation distance before the PAM-D2 fired.

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