If the factors that conspired to delay Columbia's ascent into space were maddening, those that kept her in orbit and hampered her return to Earth proved equally so. Originally supposed to touch down at KSC's 4.6-km-long Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) on 17 January, the return was brought forward a day to allow additional time to prepare the spacecraft for her next mission. It was imperative that Columbia be ready to meet a 6 March target launch date for STS-61E, in order to acquire the best-quality images and spectra of Halley's Comet.
In readiness for the 16 January landing, Gibson and Bolden checked out their ship's RCS thrusters, but were waved-off due to bad weather at KSC. A further 24hour postponement was enforced on the 17th, for the same reason. The two extra days were spent reactivating MSL-2 and an infrared camera that had spent most of the mission photographing storms, aurorae and volcanic activity. ''It seemed to be equally hard to land [as launch],'' recalled Hawley. ''We were supposed to be the first flight to go back to KSC after [STS-51D in April 1985] and the weather just didn't cooperate. So they kept waving us off and making us wait another day to try to get back into KSC. I remember by the third day we had run out of almost everything, including [camera] film, and part of our training had been to look for spiral eddies near the equator, and Charlie [Bolden] was looking out the window and claimed to see one, and I told him he'd better draw a picture of it, because we [didn't] have any film!''
During this time in orbital limbo, Gibson wrote a song to the tune of 'Who Knows Where or When?' that he and Bolden sang to Mission Control over the communications loop. The two pilots sang it in two-part harmony:
It seemed that we have talked like this before The de-orbit burn that we copied then But we can't remember where or when
The clothes we're wearing are the clothes we've worn The food that we're eating's getting hard to find Since we can't remember where or when
Some things that happened for the first time Seem to be happening again!
And so it seems we will de-orbit burn Return to Earth and land somewhere But who knows where or when?
Mission Control's humorous response was to design a 'Wanted' poster for all seven astronauts, instructing would-be alien captors to return them to Earth immediately if found.
The crew's first chance to land in Florida on 18 January was also delayed by one orbit and, when NASA finally ran out of time, Columbia was diverted to Edwards in California. ''Everything worked except God!'' joked Bolden. ''Finally, on our fifth attempted landing, in the middle of the night on [the 18th], we landed at Edwards, which was interesting because with a daytime scheduled landing, you'd have thought we wouldn't be ready for that. Hoot, in his infinite wisdom, had decided that half our landing training was going to be nighttime, because you needed to be prepared for anything.''
Columbia touched down on Edwards' Runway 22 at 1:58:51 pm, wrapping-up a mission of just over six days. Subsequent inspection would reveal severe thermal damage to the right-hand main gear inboard brake, and it was decided that major improvements to withstand higher energy wear would be incorporated before STS-61E. All this made the planned launch target date for ASTRO-1 just seven weeks later increasingly untenable. ''The landing'', remembered Bolden, ''was otherwise uneventful, other than the fact that it really upset Congressman Nelson, because he really had these visions of landing in Florida and taking a Florida orange! The
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[recovery] crew that picked us up was unmerciful, because they came out with a peck-basket of California oranges and grapefruits! Even having come back from space, [Nelson] was not in a good mood. That was a joke he really did not appreciate.''
Ten days later, as he watched Challenger explode in the skies above KSC, Nelson would be giving thanks that he returned to Earth at all. Not only that, but he would find out during the course of the inquiry that, on the STS-61C ascent, Columbia's SRBs also suffered severe O-ring damage, similar to the problem that doomed Challenger.
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