DISCOVERY TAKES OFF
WITH THE LAUNCH OF THE SHUTTLE, AMERICA REVIVES ITS DREAMS FOR THE FUTURE OF ITS SPACE PROGRAM
There will be setbacks and frustrations and disappointments. There will be, as there always are, pressures in this country to do less in this area as in so many others, and temptations to do something else that is perhaps easier— But this space effort must go on. The conquest of space must and will go ahead. That much we know. That much we can say with confidence and conviction.
—President John F. Kennedy, speaking in San Antonio, Tex., on Nov. 21,1963—the day before his assassination
At 11:37 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 29, not quite 30 years after the birth of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the computer-controlled electrical igniters had fired the three main engines of the Discovery space shuttle. As each engine built to its 375,000 lb. of thrust, breathing fire into the concrete flame trench, the twin 14-storey exterior solid rocket boosters roared into action. The noise could be heard 10 miles down the Banana River at The Original Fat Boy's Bar-B-Q restaurant, where owner Elise Davis, 68, longtime cook to a clientele of hungry astronauts, dashed outside and gazed at the pillar of smoke. Thirty-two months before, Davis had looked up in disbelief as one of the canisters had leaked fire. The resulting explosion 73 seconds after lift-off killed seven crew members and scattered $1.2 billion worth of equipment over more than 90,000 square miles of Atlantic Ocean. Now, 32 months, countless recriminations
and 477 shuttle modifications later, the future of the U.S. space program depended on nothing—absolutely nothing—going wrong. Elise Davis prayed hard.
And nothing went wrong on the launch, giving new impetus to the long-troubled American space effort, which has fallen seriously behind Soviet advances (page 46). Although cautious NASA officials delayed Discovery’s launch for 98 minutes because of
wind conditions, it eventually arced with a crackling roar through the scattered clouds—as shuttles had done 25 times since Columbia took off from the Kennedy Space Centre in April, 1981. The 2,008 tons of metal and fuel surrounding the five crewmen—who were strapped on their backs— rocketed out of a cloud of steam created by the vaporization of water flooding onto the pad to dampen noise vibration. Seven seconds into launch, Discovery turned 90 degrees on its side. In the two front seats, Cmdr. Frederick (Rick) Hauck, 47, a navy captain and veteran of two shuttle missions,
and pilot Col. Richard (Dick) Covey, 41, a former air force combat and test pilot, calmly rhymed off computer readings.
All along the 80-km eastern stretch of Florida known as the “Space Coast,” people cast their eyes to the sky. Coastal Highway Al A, which joins the many aerospace-industry towns, was silent as cars pulled over and their occupants looked past the palms at NASA’s STS-26. An estimated 250,000 visitors, their tents and mobile homes parked along the roadside from Daytona Beach to Melbourne, jumped around in Discovery Tshirts and waved the “Green for go” ribbons distributed by the local Chamber of Commerce. In Port St. John, students at Challenger 7 Elementary School—named for the last shuttle and its seven victims—gasped as Discovery went behind a cloud, then squealed again as it re-emerged.
Discovery soon approached the point when Challenger pilot Michael Smith uttered his last recorded fateful words—“Uh-oh”—in 1986. The 26th flight was nine miles above the Atlantic and still rising toward the critical two-minute mark when the spent solid rocket boosters would be jettisoned. If they failed to separate, their weight would send the craft hurtling into the sea, possibly taking NASA, the American space program and the
livelihood of several hundred thousand Americans along with it.
NASA had taken no chances. The tiniest “anomalies”—as NASA calls its problems— had been investigated. A slight increase in the cabin’s oxygen level created by the astronauts keeping their visors open too long almost delayed the launch. A minor malfunction in two of the body ventilation fans in the suits actually did put the countdown on hold for a few more minutes. Most of the 98-minute delay was caused by unseasonably calm winds in the upper atmosphere being slightly out of accordance with what
the Discovery’s main computer had been programmed to expect.
But as STS-26 ascended, the 200 flightcontrol specialists at Kennedy, and the 300 at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, who took over the flight after the ship cleared the launch tower, had one major concern: would the solid rocket boosters, with their newly designed O-rings, work? With the superstitious 73-second mark passed, the next nailbiter was two minutes, the time for the boosters to separate. Twenty-seven miles up, with the shuttle a shrinking bright spot in the sky, the eight separation motors ejected the two 15-storey solids. The crowds on the ground cheered their loudest.
Discovery had reached its “Max Q” speed of 2,251 feet per second and was bound for orbit. Then, as the Discovery disappeared from sight, dark clouds moved in over the launch pad—too late to create an anomaly— and it started to rain. WMME radio, Cocoa Beach, dedicated The Impossible Dream to NASA. And Elise Davis went back into her restaurant full of autographed photos of astronauts dating back to the early 1960s and prepared a launch-day special of prime rib. By Saturday afternoon, NASA officials were calling the flight “near perfect.”
Despite the unprecedented joy in the Cape Canaveral area last week, the mission by Discovery—compared with previous shuttle flights—was relatively routine. Between their entry into orbit Thursday and their expected 225-mile-per-hour landing on the 24km runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on Monday, the crew’s major task was to make sure all elements of the new Discovery—with $500 million in modifications— worked. As well, Discovery deployed a tracking and data-relay satellite—the second in a series of three designed to replace the costly network of ground relay stations NASA currently relies on to keep track of its spacecraft.
After Challenger, many promoters of the space program were concerned for the future of the American dream. A 13-member presidential panel investigating the disaster, headed by former secretary of state William P. Rogers, found NASA guilty of slipshod qualitycontrol procedures, of having an amorphous bureaucracy and of generally playing what the final report called “Russian roulette” with safety. The 1986 commission, along with the authors of various books that appeared following the crash, traced NASA’s decline to President Richard Nixon’s administration. The Apollo missions were coming to 3 a close then, and the public was not interest-
0 ed enough in space to object to budget cuts 3 by a government which itself showed little 'i interest in exploring the cosmos. NASA saw X its funding decline from a peak of 4.41 per $ cent of the federal budget in 1966 to 0.71
1 per cent in fiscal 1989. The number of NASA v employees during that same period dropped x to 22,650 from 35,860.
I One of the people the Rogers report critiP cized was James C. Fletcher, who was the £ administrator of NASA between 1971 and
1977, the years of the shuttle’s early development. The report also charged Fletcher with undermining safety by bestowing virtual administrative autonomy on NASA’s space centres, which prevented reports of technical discrepancies from reaching senior agency officials. Fletcher, 69, who was reappointed to his former position following the 1986 disaster, is contrite. “In all fairness, we probably were cutting corners and Exhibit A is the Challenger accident,” he told Maclean’s.
NASA’s duty now, he added, is to ensure that all future programs are properly funded. He estimated that NASA will need $17 billion a year to ensure the future of the space program. That includes money to establish the shuttle as a 14flight-a-year vehicle for ferrying satellites and equipment for scientific and military experiments to space platforms. Money will also be needed to build the international space station slated for 1995, as well as research to support last February’s National Commission on Space recommendation that permanent settlements be established on the moon and Mars.
The Discovery flight was the most cautiously prepared-for space mission ever. Said NASA spokesman Karl Kristofferson: “It gives us the shuttle we should have had at the beginning.” Since the Challenger crash, every part of the assembly has been re-examined. More than 1,300 components have been designated “Criticality 1,” meaning lifethreatening should they fail. By identifying those parts—which include the booster seals and the explosive bolts that jettison the rockets—technicians can better plan what to do if they fail. For Challenger, only 545 parts had been designated “Criticality 1.”
The 477 changes to the orbiter, fuel tank and booster rockets include the escape system, new O-rings, modified main engines, stengthened wings and a stronger landing gear. The escape system would have been no use to the Challenger crew but now gives crew members the option of sliding along a pole and parachuting to Earth if the shuttle makes an unscheduled descent out of range of a runway. The O-rings, which girdle the joints of the boosters, were reinforced with more overlapping metal, which should better prevent flames from leaking. The main blades of the turbines, which drive the pumps that accelerate liquid hydrogen and oxygen through a series of chambers, were strengthened to improve service life. And the metal and graphite skeleton of the wings had its aluminum cross braces reinforced, enabling the orbiter to lift heavier loads.
For the time being, only experienced crews are being given clearance to fly the new, improved vehicle. NASA has placed a temporary moratorium on civilian participation, officially because of the relative newness of the redesigned shuttle. Unofficially,
NASA representatives say that they do not want to risk another lawsuit such as the one launched by the families of schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe and the other Challenger victims. Nor have Canada’s six astronauts— including Marc Gameau, who flew on the Challenger in 1984—been given a firm date for further Canadian participation.
A spokesman for the National Research
AFTER THE CHALLENGER DISASTER, NASA WILL ‘ERR ON THE SIDE OF BEING TOO CAREFUL’
Council’s Astronaut Program Office said that she expects that Steve MacLean, 33, an Ottawa laser physicist, will go aloft sometime in 1991. Meanwhile, Canada is spending $2 billion on its space effort over the next 10
years to develop technology including an improved version of the shuttle’s Canadian-built crane, the Canadarm.
The Canadarm, used for grappling with satellites in space, was not needed on last week’s flight. What was needed was a crew of solid professionals to provide a basic test for the redesigned vehicle. Flying with Hauck
and Covey were Lt.-Col. David Hilmers, 38, John Lounge, 42, and George (Pinky) Nelson, 37. Their annual salaries range from Hilmers’s $63,300 to Hauck’s $83,000. Covey, lean and laconic in the best NASA tradition, flew 339 combat missions in Vietnam, became an air force fighter and test pilot, then a shuttle pilot in 1985. Hilmers is a former marine attack pilot who is the Discovery’s mission specialist. Lounge, dark and husky, was a navy aviator and veteran of 99 combat missions before joining NASA in 1980.
Nelson, an astronomer, is the only crew member who has not served in the military. Blond, with all-American good looks, Nelson plays guitar for an all-astronaut rock band called Max Q. “There is no doubt this is a risky business,” Nelson, a father of two teenage daughters, said in July. “Still, any chance I get to fly, I jump in. Anyone in our office would have jumped at the chance to do this mission.” All the men displayed traditional astronaut coolness before the launch. They arrived at the pad at 8:09 a.m. and joked with the close-out crew, one of whom gave Covey a pair of joke glasses with plastic eye-
balls. The astronauts also took with them an autograph book featuring the signatures of the 15,000 workers who helped refurbish the Discovery.
Beyond the technical improvements and the beefed-up crewing, NASA has drastically modified its management system. Acting on the recommendations of the Rogers commis-
sion, the agency has moved astronauts into senior positions. Former shuttle flyers Rear Admiral Richard Truly and Capt. Robert Crippen are now the associate administrator for space flight and the deputy shuttle manager, respectively. The space centres, once again, are answerable directly to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. And a new system is in place under which any concerns from any worker at NASA or at one of its subcontractors may be secretly sent to top management without fear of dismissal.
Before the Challenger was launched, engineers at Morton Thiokol Inc., the Utah manufacturer of the boosters, had recommended against exposing the O-rings to the low temperatures that morning, but their superiors overruled them. Now, those concerns would be heard by the NASA administrator. Improvements have increased morale, said William Bush, 50, chief of the flight-program branch of the life sciences division and a 29-year NASA veteran.
The lead-up to the latest launch, however, raised some doubts about NASA’s self-professed return to the celebrated phrase “the right stuff.” The relaunch of the shuttle was originally scheduled for June 2, but Crippen delayed it repeatedly. Last December, a rocket nozzle component designated “Criticality 1” failed. In June, cuts to the critical 0rings were found at the Morton Thiokol subcontractor that supplies them. Investigators discovered that a company employee, still unidentified, had sabotaged them. Then, during tests of the shuttle’s main engines in August, faulty valves and hydrogen leaks pushed back the schedule further still. But although some former astronauts criticized NASA officials for losing their nerve, commission chairman Rogers applauded Crippen’s caution. “It’s of
critical importance that the launch be sue cessful,” he told Maclean’s. “I would hate to think of the other possibility. It is better to err on the side of being too careful.”
But improvements to NASA’s infrastructure alone cannot provide it with that vision for the future. Money is also needed. President Ronald Reagan’s space policy proposes the continuance of the shuttle program, a manned space station, the development of a hypersonic aerospace plane capable of flying civilians from New York City to Tokyo in two hours, and a manned Mars mission by early in the next century.
Both Republican George Bush and Demo-
crat Michael Dukakis have pledged continued support for the space program. But, said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at Washington’s George Washington University: “We need another Kennedy. That is the music that Dukakis is playing now.” But Logsdon added: “I am not optimistic about the future of the American space program. We are going back once again to primary dependence on the shuttle, and until we fly it regularly and understand its costs and its ability to meet a schedule, we will not know what we have got.” As well, Logsdon said: “We need a president to decide what kind of space program he wants and to provide a budget adequate to accomplish that. He needs to put a NASA administrator in who can reinvigorate the agency and give it a sense of spirit.”
By last Saturday evening, as NASA celebrated its 30th birthday, the astronauts were into their 38th orbit. And for everyone at NASA, and for sky-watchers around the world, there could not have been a more appropriate birthday present.
RIC DOLPHIN in Cape Canaveral with WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington