Almost three decades ago, a quintet of veteran astronauts aboard Space Shuttle Columbia sailed through a mission which their launch announcer called “the cutting edge of microgravity research”.
STS-62 Commander John Casper, Pilot Andy Allen and Mission Specialists Pierre Thuot, Charles “Sam” Gemar and Marsha Ivins spent 14 days in March 1994 overseeing a virtual miniature space station—with materials and space technology research, medical and biological experiments, solar physics instrumentation and robotics—in the shuttle’s cavernous payload bay and middeck. And for Ivins in particular, it would offer an early glimpse of the technology that she would one day use to install the U.S. Destiny lab onto the International Space Station (ISS).
“Flawless, all the way up,” was Allen’s description of the climb to orbit by NASA’s oldest shuttle, which rocketed away from Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida at 8:53 a.m. EST on 4 March 1994. That flawless nature was undoubtedly aided by the fact that the pilots wore new water-cooled undergarments under their pressure suits, which Casper later said made them feel “as cool as a chilled martini at sunset”. But the weeks preceding STS-62 had been equally smooth, with a launch scrub on 3 March caused only by an overly cautious reaction to a potentially poor weather forecast.
Yet for Allen, as he reflected years later in a Smithsonian interview, the worst thing about launching for space was saying goodbye to his children. “My process in the quarantine period before launch was to get my will all squared away and write notes and letters to my kids,” he said. During the suiting-up process in the Operations & Checkout (O&C) Building, Allen was captured by NASA TV cameras writing a message to his daughters, Jessica and Meredith.
“Having been in the Marine Corps, and been on aircraft carriers and had gazillions of close calls as a fighter pilot, nothing is as stretched-out as getting ready for a spaceflight,” he said. “Partly, it was because my kids…were at an age where they understood what was going on. Daddy might blow up and he might not come back.”
When Columbia was safely established in orbit, with an inclination of 39 degrees—affording the crew a spectacular perspective on most of the inhabited Earth—the payload bay doors were opened to reveal the second U.S. Microgravity Payload, laden with materials solidification processing furnaces, an accelerometer, an experiment to grow ultra-pure dendrites and an investigation into the behavior of xenon as it neared its “critical point”, where its physical characteristics hovered between liquid and gas.
Many of the payloads had flown before and, significantly, were utilizing “telescience”, with remote commanding from ground-based operators, as was expected to be possible during future space station operations. Throughout STS-62’s two weeks aloft, hundreds of commands were transmitted from the ground to the shuttle, adjusting experiment settings and tweaking various parameters to make changes as new and unexpected data emerged.
Alongside the microgravity research, another package of experiments provided by NASA’s Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology focused on evaluations of new solar cells and energy-storage hardware, as well as investigating the influence of atomic oxygen and plasma upon the shuttle surfaces. The experiments required Casper and Allen to lower Columbia’s altitude to just 105 miles (168 km) to enhance their data-collecting capabilities.
If preparing for the space station was a major goal for STS-62, then the work continued inside the shuttle’s cabin. Squirreled away in the middeck was a set of miniaturized station modules and girder-like trusses—the Middeck Zero-Gravity Dynamics Experiment, tended by Gemar—which sought to understand the dynamics of large deployable structures. All told, more than nine gigabits of data were gathered from this experiment alone and, by the end of STS-62, more than 10,000 images had been acquired by a battery of cameras.
Outside the shuttle, a nifty extension to the 50-foot-long (15-meter) Remote Manipulator System (RMS), known as the Dexterous End Effector (DEE), demonstrated a set of powerful, U-shaped electromagnets to generate an attraction force of 3,200 pounds (1,450 kg). This was an alternative to the traditional RMS method of grappling its payloads by means of a wire “snare”, which closed around a capture pin on its target.
From the astronauts’ perspective, DEE afforded them a sense of “touch” with the arm and yielded vital benefits when working on the development of smaller, more compact grapple fixtures for new spacecraft. Ivins considered it a useful analog for space station construction and, a few years hence, she would utilize the RMS to install the U.S. Destiny lab onto the nascent ISS.
Living and working in a volume the size of a smaller camper van for two weeks was surprisingly comfortable, with Allen anchoring his sleeping bag on the flight deck, Casper and Gemar securing theirs against the starboard wall of the middeck, Thuot tying himself to the middeck ceiling and Ivins jamming herself into the airlock to rest. The only obstacle, the male members of the crew later recalled, was remembering to get out of Ivins’ way whenever she was cleaning her flowing hair…
Early on 18 March, as planned, Columbia returned smoothly to Earth, touching down on the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at the Cape, an hour shy of the duration record set a few months earlier by the astronauts of STS-58. “It would have been nice to get the record,” Casper admitted later, but acquiesced that “I think we did a lot of good things”. Touching down on the Runway 33 “end” of the SLF, the crew waited until shortly before derotating the nose at 175 knots before Allen punched out the shuttle’s drag chute.
However, in an ominous harbinger of the future, a “debris liberation” was noted when four fragments fell from the shuttle’s underside as her landing gear deployed. No evidence was found of superheated plasma having entered Columbia’s wheel-well and the thermal protection system performed as advertised, but nine years later—during the presidential inquiry into the STS-107 tragedy—Adm. Harold Gehman’s investigative board would focus closely on the closing minutes of STS-62.
So serious was the incident that NASA engineers spent two days scouring Runway 33 for additional debris and, certainly, it offered a worrying reminder that even in its halcyon days, the shuttle was never a truly safe machine.