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40 Years Ago: STS-9, the First Spacelab Science Mission – NASA

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On Nov. 28, 1983, space shuttle Columbia took to the skies for its sixth trip into space on the first dedicated science mission using the Spacelab module provided by the European Space Agency (ESA). The longest shuttle mission at the time also included many other firsts. Aboard Columbia to conduct dozens of science experiments, the first six-person crew of Commander John W. Young, making his record-breaking sixth spaceflight, Pilot Brewster H. Shaw, Mission Specialists Owen K. Garriott and Robert A.R. Parker, and the first two payload specialists, American Byron K. Lichtenberg and German Ulf Merbold representing ESA, the first non-American to fly on a U.S. space mission. During the 10-day Spacelab 1 flight, the international team of astronauts conducted 72 experiments in a wide variety of science disciplines.

Official photo of the STS-9 crew of Owen K. Garriott, seated left, Brewster H. Shaw, John W. Young, and Robert A.R. Parker; Byron K. Lichtenberg, standing left, and Ulf Merbold of West Germany representing the European Space Agency The payload patch for Spacelab 1
Left: The STS-9 crew patch. Middle: Official photo of the STS-9 crew of Owen K. Garriott, seated left, Brewster H. Shaw, John W. Young, and Robert A.R. Parker; Byron K. Lichtenberg, standing left, and Ulf Merbold of West Germany representing the European Space Agency. Right: The payload patch for Spacelab 1.

In August 1973, NASA and the European Space Research Organization, the forerunner of today’s ESA, agreed on a cooperative plan to build a reusable laboratory called Spacelab to fly in the space shuttle’s cargo bay. In exchange for ESA building the pressurized modules and unpressurized pallets, NASA provided flight opportunities for European astronauts. In December 1977, ESA named physicist Merbold of the Max Planck Institute in West Germany, physicist Wubbo Ockels of The Netherlands, and astrophysicist Claude Nicollier of Switzerland as payload specialist candidates for the first Spacelab mission. In September 1982, ESA selected Merbold as the prime crew member to fly the mission and Ockels as his backup. Nicollier had in the meantime joined NASA’s astronaut class of 1980 as a mission specialist candidate. In 1978, NASA selected biomedical engineer Lichtenberg of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as its payload specialist with physicist Michael L. Lampton of CalTech as his backup. In April 1982, NASA assigned the orbiter crew of Young, Shaw, Garriott, and Parker. As commander of STS-9, Young made a record-breaking sixth flight into space. The mission’s pilot Shaw, an astronaut from the 1978 class, made his first trip into space. The two mission specialists had a long history with NASA – Garriott, selected as an astronaut in 1965, completed a 59-day stay aboard the Skylab space station in 1973, and Parker, selected in 1967, made his first spaceflight after a 16-year wait. Although the crew included only two veterans, it had the most previous spaceflight experience of any crew up to that time – 84 days between Young’s and Garriott’s earlier missions.

Arrival of the Spacelab 1 long module at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida Workers place the Spacelab module and pallet into Columbia’s payload bay in KSC’s Orbiter Processing Facility The Spacelab pallet, top, pressurized long module, and tunnel in Columbia’s payload bay
Left: Arrival of the Spacelab 1 long module at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Middle: Workers place the Spacelab module and pallet into Columbia’s payload bay in KSC’s Orbiter Processing Facility. Right: The Spacelab pallet, top, pressurized long module, and tunnel in Columbia’s payload bay.

The pressurized module for the first Spacelab mission arrived at KSC on Dec. 11, 1981, from its manufacturing facility in Bremen, West Germany. Additional components arrived throughout 1982 as workers in KSC’s Operations and Checkout Building integrated the payload racks into the module. The ninth space shuttle mission saw the return of the orbiter Columbia to space, having flown the first five flights of the program. Since it arrived back at KSC after STS-5 on Nov. 22, 1982, engineers in the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) modified Columbia to prepare it for the first Spacelab mission. The completed payload, including the pressurized module, the external pallet, and the transfer tunnel, rolled over to the OPF, where workers installed it into Columbia’s payload bay on Aug. 16, 1983.

In the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, workers lift space shuttle Columbia to mate it with its external tank (ET) and solid rocket boosters (SRBs) for the first time Space shuttle Columbia’s first trip from the VAB to Launch Pad 39A In the VAB, workers have disassembled the stack and prepare to reposition the ET with its SRBs
Left: In the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, workers lift space shuttle Columbia to mate it with its external tank (ET) and solid rocket boosters (SRBs) for the first time. Middle: Space shuttle Columbia’s first trip from the VAB to Launch Pad 39A. Right: In the VAB, workers have disassembled the stack and prepare to reposition the ET with its SRBs.

Rollover of Columbia to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) took place on Sept. 24, where workers mated it with an external tank (ET) and two solid rocket boosters (SRBs). Following integrated testing, the stack rolled out to Launch Pad 39A four days later for a planned Oct. 29 liftoff. However, on Oct. 14, managers called off that initial launch attempt after discovering that the engine nozzle of the left hand SRB contained the same material that nearly caused a burn through during STS-8. The replacement of the nozzle required a rollback to the VAB. Taking place on Oct. 17, it marked the first rollback of a flight vehicle in the shuttle’s history. Workers in the VAB demated the vehicle and destacked the left hand SRB to replace its nozzle. Columbia temporarily returned to the OPF on Oct. 19, where workers replaced its fuel cells using three borrowed from space shuttle Discovery and also replaced its waste collection system. Columbia returned to the VAB on Nov. 3 for remating with its ET and SRBs and rolled back out to the launch pad on Nov. 8.

The STS-9 crew during their preflight press conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston On launch day at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the STS-9 astronauts leave crew quarters to board the Astrovan for the ride to Launch Pad 39A In the VIP stands to watch the STS-9 launch, Steven Spielberg, left, and George Lucas
Left: The STS-9 crew during their preflight press conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Middle: On launch day at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the STS-9 astronauts leave crew quarters to board the Astrovan for the ride to Launch Pad 39A. Right: In the VIP stands to watch the STS-9 launch, Steven Spielberg, left, and George Lucas.

-Liftoff of space shuttle Columbia on STS-9 carrying the first Spacelab science module
Liftoff of space shuttle Columbia on STS-9 carrying the first Spacelab science module.

Ground track of STS-9’s orbit, inclined 57 degrees to the equator, passing over 80 percent of the world’s land masses
Ground track of STS-9’s orbit, inclined 57 degrees to the equator, passing over 80 percent of the world’s land masses.

On Nov. 28, 1983, Columbia thundered off KSC’s Launch Pad 39A to begin the STS-9 mission. The shuttle entered an orbit inclined 57 degrees to the equator, the highest inclination U.S. spaceflight at the time, allowing the astronauts to observe about 80 percent of the Earth’s landmasses. Mounted inside Columbia’s payload bay, the first Spacelab 18-foot long module provided a shirt-sleeve environment for the astronauts to conduct scientific experiments in a variety of disciplines. During the Spacelab 1 mission, the STS-9 crew carried out 72 experiments in atmospheric and plasma physics, astronomy, solar physics, materials sciences, technology, astrobiology, and Earth observations. For the first time in spaceflight history, the crew divided into two teams working opposite 12-hour shifts, allowing science to be conducted 24 hours a day. The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, launched the previous April during the STS-6 mission, and now fully operational, enabled transmission of television and significant amounts of science data to the Payload Operations Control Center, located in the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

View of the Spacelab module in the shuttle’s payload bay Several STS-9 crew members struggle to open the hatch to the transfer tunnel Owen K. Garriott, left, Ulf Merbold, and Byron K. Lichtenberg enter the Spacelab for the first time to begin activating the module
Left: View of the Spacelab module in the shuttle’s payload bay. Middle: Several STS-9 crew members struggle to open the hatch to the transfer tunnel. Right: Owen K. Garriott, left, Ulf Merbold, and Byron K. Lichtenberg enter the Spacelab for the first time to begin activating the module.

Upon reaching orbit, the crew opened the payload bay doors and deployed the shuttle’s radiators. Shortly after, following a few tense minutes during which the astronauts struggled with a balky hatch, they opened it, translated down the transfer tunnel, and entered Spacelab for the first time. Garriott, Lichtenberg, and Merbold activated the module and turned on the first experiments. For the next nine days, the Red Team of Young, Parker, and Merbold, and the Blue Team of Shaw, Garriott, and Lichtenberg performed flawlessly to carry out the experiments. Young and Shaw managed the shuttle’s systems while the mission and payload specialists conducted the bulk of the research. With ample consumables available, Mission Control granted them an extra day in space to complete additional science. One afternoon, the astronauts chatted with U.S. President Ronald W. Reagan in the White House and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, attending the European Community Summit in Athens, Greece. The two leaders praised the astronauts for their scientific work and the cooperation between the two countries that enabled the flight to take place.

Garriott preparing to draw a blood sample from Lichtenberg for one of the life sciences experiments Garriott, front, and Lichtenberg at work in the Spacelab module
Left: Robert A.R. Parker, left, Byron K. Lichtenberg, Owen K. Garriott, and Ulf Merbold at work inside the Spacelab module. Middle: Garriott preparing to draw a blood sample from Lichtenberg for one of the life sciences experiments. Right: Garriott, front, and Lichtenberg at work in the Spacelab module.

The rotating dome experiment to study visual vestibular interactions Owen K. Garriott prepares to place blood samples in a passive freezer Inflight photograph of the STS-9 crew
Left: The rotating dome experiment to study visual vestibular interactions. Middle: Owen K. Garriott prepares to place blood samples in a passive freezer. Right: Inflight photograph of the STS-9 crew.

The Manicougan impact crater in Quebec, Canada, with the shuttle’s tail visible at upper right STS-9 crew Earth observation photograph Hong Kong STS-9 crew Earth observation photograph of Cape Campbell, New Zealand
A selection of the STS-9 crew Earth observation photographs. Left: The Manicougan impact crater in Quebec, Canada, with the shuttle’s tail visible at upper right. Middle: Hong Kong. Right: Cape Campbell, New Zealand.

On Dec. 8, their last day in space, the crew finished the experiments, closed up the Spacelab module, and strapped themselves into their seats to prepare for their return to Earth. Five hours before the scheduled landing, during thruster firings one of Columbia’s five General Purpose Computers (GPC) failed, followed six minutes later by a second GPC. Mission Control decided to delay the landing until the crew could fix the problem. Young and Shaw  brought the second GPC back up but had no luck with the first. Meanwhile, one of Columbia’s Inertial Measurement Units, used for navigation, failed. Finally, after eight hours of troubleshooting, the astronauts fired the shuttle’s Orbital Maneuvering System engines to begin the descent from orbit. Young piloted Columbia to a smooth landing on a lakebed runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert, completing 166 orbits around the Earth in 10 days, 6 hours, and 47 minutes, at the time the longest shuttle flight. Shortly before landing, a hydrazine leak caused two of the orbiter’s three Auxiliary Power Units (APU) to catch fire. The fire burned itself out, causing damage in the APU compartment but otherwise not affecting the landing. The astronauts safely exited the spacecraft without incident. On Dec. 14, NASA ferried Columbia back to KSC to remove the Spacelab module from the payload bay. In January 1984, Columbia returned to its manufacturer, Rockwell International in Palmdale, California, where workers spent the next two years refurbishing NASA’s first orbiter before its next mission, STS-61C, in January 1986.

John W. Young in the shuttle commander’s seat prior to entry and landing Space shuttle Columbia lands at Edward Air Force Base in California to end the STS-9 mission Space shuttle Columbia lands at Edward Air Force Base in California to end the STS-9 mission
Left: John W. Young in the shuttle commander’s seat prior to entry and landing. Middle: Space shuttle Columbia lands at Edward Air Force Base in California to end the STS-9 mission. Right: The six STS-9 crew members descend the stairs from the orbiter after their successful 10-day scientific mission.

Workers at Edwards Air Force Base in California safe space shuttle Columbia after its return from space Atop a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, Columbia begins its cross country journey to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida The STS-9 crew during their postflight press conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston
Left: Workers at Edwards Air Force Base in California safe space shuttle Columbia after its return from space. Middle: Atop a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, Columbia begins its cross country journey to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Right: The STS-9 crew during their postflight press conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The journal Science published preliminary results from Spacelab 1 in their July 13, 1984, issue. The two Spacelab modules flew a total of 16 times, the last one during the STS-90 Neurolab mission in April 1998. The module that flew on STS-9 and eight other missions is displayed at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia, while the other module resides at the Airbus Defence and Space plant in Bremen, Germany, not on public display.

The Spacelab long module that flew on STS-9 and eight other missions on display at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia The Spacelab long module that flew on STS-9 and eight other missions on display at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia The Spacelab long module that flew on STS-9 and eight other missions on display at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia
The Spacelab long module that flew on STS-9 and eight other missions on display at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia.

Enjoy the crew narrate a video about the STS-9 mission. Read Shaw’s, Garriott’s, and Parker’s recollections of the STS-9 mission in their oral histories with the JSC History Office.

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