Controversial Flight

The inclusion of a veterinarian on the crew had been on the cards before the SLS-1 mission, because, like its predecessor, the second Spacelab Life Sciences flight would involve extensive physiological examinations of 48 male rats (Rattus norvegicus), caged in a pair of Research Animal Holding Facilities (RAHFs). It would also controversially feature the first-ever in-flight decapitation and dissection of six of those rats; this had drawn a significant amount of public criticism, but, according to Marty Fettman and Harry Holloway, NASA's Associate Administrator for Life Sciences, it was essential to assess ongoing changes in the rats' body tissues during spaceflight.

A controversial flight 199

''This is really a unique opportunity to collect biological specimens,'' said Fettman before Columbia's launch. ''We believe these tissues will provide some answers to questions that potentially will change our interpretation of past observations.'' Despite the risk of a public outcry, it was rationalised that examinations of rats brought back after SLS-1 had been unable to conclusively differentiate between the effects of spaceflight and the effects of the rodents' readaptation to terrestrial gravity. The SLS-2 dissections would allow researchers to more precisely assess ongoing tissue changes while in space.

Nevertheless, Holloway had called for an unscheduled pre-flight assessment of the mission's rat research plans; however, he would later deny that he had felt pressurised to do so by either the White House or NASA Administrator Dan Goldin. ''I know there were rumours to the contrary, but I did it,'' he said of the assessment, which was led by Deputy Surgeon-General Robert Whitney of the Department of Health and Human Services. Still, the SLS-2 project management were quick to stress that they were treating the dissection of the rats as delicately as possible.

''We expect some public concern about the animal work we will be doing,'' NASA's SLS-2 project manager Frank Sulzman said before the flight. ''We feel we have done everything that should be done in order to ensure that these animals are treated humanely and that we conform to standard practices for animal care and research.'' Whitney's probe broadly agreed with Sulzman's comments, describing the agency's animal-care review process as ''superb'' and commending the use of protocols that used the fewest number of rats necessary to satisfy the needs of more than a hundred experiment investigators.

Another source of controversy, at least within the astronaut corps, surrounded Mission Specialist Dave Wolf, although it would not become public knowledge until after the flight. The story has been told in detail elsewhere, but apparently involved a bizarre FBI sting called 'Operation Lightning Strike' in which Wolf, through his own misfortune, had become entangled. Although the astronaut himself was later exonerated from any blame and had not, as some journalists claimed, accepted bribes, it would harm his career for some years to come.

On 18 October 1993, as John Blaha led Wolf, Searfoss, Seddon, McArthur, Lucid and Fettman out to the launch pad, none of this had apparently surfaced. From Columbia's flight deck, as he tested his communications gear, Blaha told launch controllers ''Let's go do it'', to which Lockheed engineer Brian Monborne replied, ''This time, we're going to send you!'' And send them they did: after a slightly extended hold in the countdown at T—5 minutes, when a stray US Navy aircraft entered the launch danger area and had to be shooed out, Columbia rocketed into orbit at 2:53:10 pm.

The ascent itself was normal, although when the two SRBs were recovered from the Atlantic Ocean, it was found that one of their four separation motor covers -used to protect the motors, which separate the boosters from the External Tank -was missing. This had also been seen after several previous launches and an investigation team was established to determine the cause; it would later be suggested that it probably came off during the boosters' descent or water impact. The missing cover did not, however, present a safety-of-flight issue for the crew.

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