In a blinding backfire of orange flame, the space shuttle Columbia rose from its launchpad for the third time last week, cresting skyward on its most rigorous scientific journey to date. The seven-day, 115-orbit mission was designed to put the reusable bird through its space paces and, in particular, to see how it would react to temperature extremes. Still, although the flight tested, measured, computed and compiled more spacial information than the two previous journeys put together, perhaps the most striking revelation was that you can take man out of the Earth’s atmosphere, but you can’t leave his problems behind.
The crackling messages coming from Col. Jack Lousma and Col. Gordon Ful-
lerton in their two-tiered cockpit sounded at times remarkably like the domestic complaints of a couple trying to cope with the warp speed of modern life. For the first three days both astronauts were having trouble sleeping, the thermostat on their dream house having been set too high at night and too low in the morning. Lousma, who slept in his cockpit seat, also complained of high-frequency static from his headset, especially when flying over Iran and China. A sleeping pill was prescribed.
Like 30 per cent of all space travellers, Lousma was particularly affected by motion sickness—an occupational hazard of circling the Earth every 90 minutes at an altitude of 240 km. Fullerton complained of a “fullness” in his stomach which, after a long-distance call to his doctor, was diagnosed as gas.
After two days of minor irritations, the astronauts were described by NASA officials as “not feeling very chipper.” The next day they were allowed to sleep in. Said Flight Director Neil Hutchinson: “We really need to get the crew back on the straight and narrow.”
There were other trials as well. A Florida fruit fly was buzzing bothersomely around. The toilet, a space-age contraption that resembles a combination of a Cuisinart and centrifuge, broke down in mid-flight. Not only that, about 40 heat-resistant tiles fell off the surface of the 40.5-m-long vehicle, and two of Columbia’s TV cameras went on the fritz. It seemed at times as if the astronauts needed a home repairman more than their bank of astro-scientists at NASA’s mission control in Houston.
Other minor technical problems also troubled Columbia, including the loss of three radio channels. But by week’s end none had proved as serious as those that marred her two previous flights, and NASA officials boasted that things were going so well that Columbia could stay in space an extra day or two if weather conditions for Monday’s planned landing at White Sands, N.M., proved to be a problem.
The slightly late lift-off did not seem to dampen the spirits of the 750,000 onlookers who camped on causeways and beaches near Cape Canaveral. With pride in his voice, President Ronald Reagan, who watched the launch on TV, hailed it as “a magnificent achievement.”
Perhaps no single achievement was greater than the flawless flexing of the shuttle’s Canadian-made (by Spar Aerospace Ltd. of Toronto) bionic arm, which got its first heavy workout in outer space. The jointed 15-m arm, which weighs 411 kg and is too weak to support itself on Earth, passed its first test with flying colors when it effort-
lessly lifted a 160-kg canister containing experimental instruments. Lousma, the flight commander, then tested the arm to see how it reacted to stress by firing Columbia’s rockets and causing the ship to pitch and roll. Despite the movement, the $100-million arm kept a steady grip.
Although TV pictures confirmed to Canadians that their arm had the right stuff, smiles grew wider when Lousma opined: “The operation is smooth. I am really impressed with that piece of machinery.” The hope was that that would still be the verdict after even more testing and Columbia’s return to Earth.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.