Thirty-five years ago, NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet was newly grounded, following the untimely loss of Challenger and her seven-strong STS-51L crew shortly after liftoff on 28 January 1986. As well as a human tragedy of enormous stature—whose implications would haunt the shuttle fleet for the rest of its operational lifetime—the destruction of Challenger triggered a dramatic reappraisal of a spacecraft which had been sold on the premise of being reusable, capable of rapid turnaround times, routine flights and as safe as a commercial airliner. It was folly and never again would the shuttle be treated as anything other than a highly temperamental experimental flying machine.
The fall of Challenger not only eliminated a carefully crafted flight plan for STS-51L, but also caused a dozen other missions for 1986 to vanish into the ether. One such mission was STS-61E, slated to be flown by shuttle Columbia overnight on 5/6 March, which would have been the very next flight after Challenger.
And on the morning of 28 January, as the seven STS-51L astronauts boarded their ship for launch, seven others climbed out of the Shuttle Mission Simulator (SMS) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, to watch the event on television. STS-61E Commander Jon McBride and his men knew their own launch, five weeks hence, was critically timed to observe Halley’s Comet as the celestial wanderer made its 75-yearly visit to the inner Solar System.
When Challenger vanished in fireball, just 73 seconds after liftoff, McBride’s crew knew that their own mission was also gone. But if Challenger had survived that day, there was a likelihood that disaster may have befallen STS-61E in its stead.
It has long been the subject of both idle and informed coffee-table gossip to ponder the what-if scenarios of spaceflight history. With more than 800 “Criticality One” items aboard the shuttle which could cause a Loss of Crew and Vehicle (LOCV) in the event of a failure, every astronaut knew that tragedy lurked around each corner. But STS-61E in particular felt the full weight of the dice loaded against it. Years later, Mission Specialist Bob Parker remembered that the frigid weather conditions which conspired to doom Challenger were even colder on the night of 5/6 March.
And if NASA’s shuttle manifest for 1986 was to be believed, the night of 5/6 March was the date upon which STS-61E had to set sail. It would have been a difficult target to meet, for Columbia had only returned from her previous flight—the “Mission Impossible” voyage of STS-61C—on 18 January, leaving only six weeks to ready the vehicle for space. (This is remarkable, when one considers that even in its heyday in the mid-1990s, flying seven times each year, individual orbiters required at least three months to process between missions.) Yet for Parker and his crewmates, getting STS-61E into space on time was not simply required, but virtually set in stone.
“We were preparing to fly in 40 days to observe Halley’s Comet,” Parker later told the NASA oral historian. “Obviously we didn’t fly 40 days later!” Yet the bullish attitude of NASA management in the weeks and months leading up to the Challenger tragedy had different priorities … and those were governed almost exclusively by the need to meet launch schedules.
The return of Halley’s Comet to the inner Solar System in late 1985 and early 1986 had already provoked a flurry of missions—the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), the European Giotto, the Soviet Vegas, and the Japanese Suisei and Sakigake—to explore the fabled celestial wanderer, and the shuttle was expected to carry cameras and telescopes on three separate missions to observe it.
Of these, STS-61E was the most important, for Columbia would carry a set of ultraviolet telescopes, known as “ASTRO-1”, to observe the comet’s progress. In order to complete these observations at the most optimum time, Columbia had to launch early in March 1986. The criticality of this launch date had already been picked up by the press, and Flight International reported as early as December 1985 that the mission “must be launched by 10 March to achieve maximum science return”, warning that “a slip to 20 March would result in the flight’s cancelation.”
By January 1986, STS-61E was scheduled to begin at 5:45 a.m. EST on 6 March. And with Columbia having landed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on 18 January, NASA was faced with the added headache of getting the orbiter flown atop a Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) back to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.
The return flight got underway on 22 January and, following stop-overs at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona and Kelly Air Force Base in Texas, Columbia was back on the Space Coast and inside the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) by the 24th, only days before Challenger’s final launch. That would have given Columbia’s processing teams an almost impossibly short period of time to get her ready to fly again.
In the years that followed, Parker was vocal in his astonishment at such immovable targets. “It’s amazing,” he said, “when you look back at that, and the rate at which we thought we had to keep pumping this stuff out.” Parker had an expression: The Sun kept rising and setting. Schedule pressure meant nothing in the face of crew safety.
Had Challenger not been lost that frigid January morning, Parker felt that STS-61E might have fallen victim to the technical and managerial cancers which riddled the shuttle at this time. For conditions in Florida in the early hours of 6 March were even colder, and the effect of cold weather on O-ring seals in the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) was later identified as a key factor in the accident.
It is almost certain that NASA would have pressed ahead with the STS-61E launch and, if Columbia made it to orbit safely, it promised to be one of the most exciting scientific missions to date. Although it will never be known if Columbia could have been ready in time, NASA was still aiming to launch the flight at 5:45 a.m. EST on the 6th, kicking off an ambitious flight, during which the seven-man crew would have worked in two 12-hour shifts to operate ASTRO-1 around the clock.
The “red” team comprised Parker, Pilot Dick Richards and Payload Specialist Sam Durrance, with Mission Specialists Dave Leestma and Jeff Hoffman and Payload Specialist Ron Parise on the “blue” team. Commander Jon McBride, meanwhile, would have anchored his schedule across both shifts.
When the Crew Activity Plan (CAP) for STS-61E was published by NASA in November 1985, it was expected that the flight would be the second-longest shuttle mission in history at that time. Landing was scheduled for 3:47 a.m. EST on 15 March, producing a planned duration of eight days, 22 hours and two minutes and 140 orbits of Earth.
In the aftermath of Challenger, STS-61E crew was stood down, indefinitely. For Jeff Hoffman, the decision to stick around and wait for ASTRO-1 was an easy one to make, but other astronauts felt otherwise. At length, in November 1988, a new ASTRO-1 crew was formed from the remnants of 61E: Hoffman, Parker, Durrance and Parise would fly aboard the redesignated STS-35, together with McBride in command and two other astronauts, Guy Gardner as pilot and a third mission specialist, Mike Lounge. A few months later, in May 1989, McBride abruptly resigned his post to return to his native West Virginia, and NASA replaced him with veteran astronaut Vance Brand.
In his NASA oral history, McBride rationalized his thinking. Shortly after his assignment to STS-35, rumors arose that ASTRO-1 was earmarked for cancelation.
“My wife and I had bought a home in West Virginia, in the beautiful Greenbrier Valley,” he said, “and I was commuting.” McBride saw his family every two or three weeks, until one morning something changed. “I looked out the back window and there were deer and pheasants and squirrels and rabbits,” he said, “and seeing the Greenbrier River and the snow-capped peaks…I [had] two choices. I can hang it up now and come back here to West Virginia…or I can go down to Houston and take a chance of training for two more years and never going anywhere.”
By his own admission, the choice was tough, but at length McBride called Don Puddy, the head of Flight Crew Operations, with his decision. “I might be the only person in history who was assigned to a mission that pulled out of it,” he admitted. As circumstances transpired, ASTRO-1 did eventually fly in December 1990, but years later McBride felt that he made the right decision.