In the early morning hours of 2 November, two decades will pass since Expedition 1 Commander Bill Shepherd pushed open the hatch from Soyuz TM-31 to inaugurate the first long-duration increment aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Together with his Russian crewmates, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko, Shepherd would remain aboard the nascent station for 136 days, before all three men returned to Earth in the spring of 2001 aboard shuttle Discovery. In doing so, they began a remarkable 20 continuous years which has seen at least two humans away from Planet Earth. And on 8 September 2000, only weeks before the arrival of Shepherd & Co., the most short-notice Space Shuttle mission of all time took flight to get the orbital outpost ready for their pioneering residency.
In the meantime, the STS-101 shuttle crew had been training since late 1998 to fly after Zvezda’s arrival, but as the delays stacked up it became clear that they would launch before the service module. Adding to this already complex mission was a need to replace failed batteries aboard Zarya and reboost the station. As such, it was split into two halves, with the first half (STS-101) flying before Zvezda’s July 2000 arrival and the second half (STS-106) shortly afterwards.
In February, crew assignments for STS-106, then planned for August, were made. Former STS-101 mission specialists Ed Lu, Yuri Malenchenko and Boris Morukov would join the flight, together with commander Terry Wilcutt, pilot Scott “Scooter” Altman and mission specialists Dan Burbank and Rick Mastracchio.
“It’s kind of a blessing it’s only six months, instead of twelve,” Wilcutt joked in a pre-flight interview. “When we first got assigned, we front-loaded a lot of the training to get us up to speed as quickly as possible. We worked weekends and obviously, not only are we, the crew, working weekends, but our training team is working weekends, too. After we got a certain level of expertise in what the mission would require, got us back up-to-date and current in shuttle systems, then our training slacked off to more of a normal training flow.”
With Atlantis’ previous mission, STS-101, eventually taking place in May, and Zvezda roaring smoothly to orbit in July, Wilcutt and his men found themselves scheduled to launch on 8 September. From the day of their assignment to the day their Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) and main engine blasted them into space, the training regime for STS-106 had run for just over 200 days, one of the shortest (for an entire crew) in shuttle program history.
Altman recalled the long days, Lu remembered tiredness and staying up all night for six months and Burbank expressed surprise that the astronauts managed to build up camaraderie in a fraction of the time normally allocated to a mission.
However, offshore rain showers, heavy cloud and an elevated risk of lightning threatened the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as dawn broke on launch morning. The lightning protection system on Pad 39B had already incurred a direct strike and the Tactical Air Navigation (TACAN) hardware at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) also sustained possible damage. The chances of launching on 8 September were tightened further by a mere four-minute “window”, which extended from 8:45:47 a.m. EDT to 8:49:44 a.m. EDT, precisely dictated by the orbital location of the ISS itself.
“Opening the door to a permanent human presence in space!” came the jubilant words of NASA announcer Bruce Buckingham as Atlantis sprang from Pad 39B precisely on the opening of the window, her main engines and SRBs piercing the early morning murk.
Within minutes of reaching space, the crew opened the payload bay doors to reveal a Spacehab double module, laden with over 6,600 pounds (3,000 kg) of supplies for the space station. Additionally, Lu and Malenchenko would don U.S. space suits to hook up cables and utilities between Zvezda and the remainder of the ISS.
The two-day chase of the station was a busy time, with Wilcutt and Altman carefully preparing navigational tools and executing precise thruster “burns”, Mastracchio powering-up and checking out the shuttle’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm and Lu, Malenchenko and Burbank readying space suits and tools. It would mark only the second occasion since STS-86 that U.S. and Russian crew members had performed a session of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) in U.S.-built Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMU) suits.
And during training in the “hydrolab” at the Star City cosmonauts’ training center, on the forested outskirts of Moscow, it was the first time that EMUs had been used for training in a Russian underwater facility. “We’re the first shuttle crew to ever train in the hydrolab and that required us to bring a whole series of U.S. training suits and all of our hardware out to Russia and build adapters, such that our suits could be powered off of their oxygen supply systems,” said Lu. “That required an awful lot of work by a lot of our engineers in order to make all this happen.”
In spite of the failure of one of Atlantis’ twin star trackers, Wilcutt flew the shuttle to a position 9.2 miles (14.8 km) “behind” the ISS on the evening of 9 September, then executed a Terminal Initiation (TI) “burn” to arrive within a half-mile (800 meters) of the station about 90 minutes later.
Flying along the “R-Bar”—or “Earth Radius Vector”, essentially approaching from “below”, rather than “ahead”, to exploit Earth’s natural gravitational gradient to brake Atlantis’ approach and minimize rocket plume impingement—Wilcutt docked onto Pressurized Mating Adapter (PMA)-2 on the forward end of the Unity node at 1:51 a.m. EDT on 10 September.
It had been a textbook approach and docking, tempered only by the need to perform a short, 90-degree roll maneuver to “sight” the space station with the sole remaining star tracker. Even with only three modules in place, the infant ISS was an impressive edifice: measuring 143 feet (43.6 meters) long and weighing in the region of 134,000 pounds (60,800 kg). But before the astronauts and cosmonauts could begin opening hatches and boarding the station, there was Lu and Malenchenko’s EVA to perform.
Although Malenchenko had performed two spacewalks during his first flight to Russia’s Mir space station in 1994, it would be Lu’s first (and only) time out of the airlock. “You have to remind yourself every once in a while, hey, look where you are for just a second,” he said. “You know, take a look at the Earth for a second; sneak a peek at where you are and think about that every once in a while, so you don’t come back inside and say: Wow, did that all really happen or not?”
It was the sixth EVA to be performed outside the station since December 1998 and Lu and Malenchenko were tasked with hooking up nine electrical, communications and telemetry cables between the Zarya and Zvezda modules, as well as installing a stowed magnetometer boom onto the hull of the service module to minimize its propellant consumption. The location of the magnetometer installation site was near the far end of Zvezda.
This required Mastracchio to lift Lu and Malenchenko about 50 feet (15 meters) above the shuttle’s payload bay, achieving the maximum extent of the RMS, after which the spacewalkers clambered hand-over-hand along handrails to reach the worksite at 110 feet (33.5 meters) from Atlantis. Working at a location twice as high as the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), it was the furthest that tethered spacewalkers had ever ventured from the shuttle.
The cables included four power connections, totaling 27 feet (8.2 meters) in length, which would be needed in support of the first U.S.-built set of solar arrays, batteries and radiators, together with two additional cables to facilitate an internal closed-circuit television feed, two more to enable solar array commanding and one to afford a fiber-optic link to permit data-flow from Russian space suits after the arrival of the station’s airlock.
Venturing out of Atlantis’ airlock at 12:47 a.m. EDT on 11 September 2000, the spacewalk of Lu and Malenchenko was the 50th in shuttle history. After getting an initial lift from the RMS, they clambered a further 60 feet (18 meters) up the “stack” to reach the magnetometer.
Working 40 minutes ahead of the timeline, they mounted the magnetometer head onto its 10-foot-long (30-meter) boom, bolted it in place and secured wire and cable ties. They also freed a jammed docking target on the service module, then jumped right into the cable installation work. Finally, after six hours and 14 minutes outside, Lu and Malenchenko returned to the shuttle at 7:01 a.m. EDT.
With the EVA behind them, the crew could now begin the four-hour process of opening the dozen hatches between each of the compartments of the station. Although Zarya and Unity had been previously occupied by astronauts, Zvezda was an entirely new module and the crew wore goggles and breathing filters when they entered for the first time to guard against possible atmospheric contamination.
By this time, STS-106’s economical use of consumables had eked out an additional flight day, pushing the mission from 11 to 12 days and giving Wilcutt and his men a full week to stock up the station.
Over the course of that week, power converters were installed, a new treadmill was set up, batteries were removed and replaced (requiring Burbank and Morukov to resort to a hammer and chisel at one stage) and the ISS orbit was reboosted four times.
Cargo was unpacked not only from the Spacehab double module in Atlantis’ payload bay, but also from the newly-arrived Progress M1-3 supply ship. In a sense, it was similar to earlier shuttle-Mir missions, but for one thing: there was no resident crew on the station to help out.
“All we had to do was get the stuff off the shuttle and you would hand it to a cosmonaut,” remembered Lu, who flew on one of the shuttle-Mir missions. “And so, pretty much, you were only responsible for half of it. On this flight, we are the station crew, also!”
After a long week, hatches between Atlantis and the ISS were closed on 17 September and Wilcutt undocked his ship at 11:46 p.m. EDT. Altman performed a flyaround inspection for photographic survey purposes and Wilcutt sent good wishes to Shepherd, Krikalev and Gidzenko: “Enjoy it like a new home!”
Two days later, with near-perfect weather at the SLF, Atlantis glided in to land on a darkened Runway 15—one of only 26 shuttle missions to end at night—at 3:56 a.m. EDT on 20 September. STS-106 had lasted almost 12 full days and had traveled 4.9 million miles (7.9 million km) and circled the globe 185 times.
Today, we look back on this mission as pivotal in enabling Expedition 1 to take up residency just a few weeks later. “The whole station is about people living in space and this is the crew quarters,” said Wilcutt. “You have to have it. It’s the place to live and provides the systems to allow you to live in the space station.”