Productive Mission

Unusually for a Spacelab flight, STS-58 did not operate a dual-shift system, although the entire crew typically put in 14-hour workdays or more. In view of the longer-than-normal duration, and in line with EDO procedures, each astronaut was given several periods of free time to relax and look out of Columbia's windows. ''The crew members are an important part of these investigations,'' said SLS-2 Mission Scientist Howard Schneider. ''We want to assure ourselves that we continue to study the physiological effects of spaceflight and not the physiological effects of fatigue! If the crew is up there and is overly stressed, we don't get good science.''

One of the main leisure activities, obviously, was Earth-gazing and Searfoss took a huge pictorial atlas of the world with him among his personal items. ''One of the most entertaining things we can do is look out the window, so there will be a lot of nose prints,'' Seddon said before launch.

During the mission, Blaha spoke for all of them: ''We have a beautiful planet. We ought to take care of it and we ought to take care of ourselves. Doing research on this type of laboratory can do a lot to improve the welfare of the five billion people who live on our planet.'' The mission was also being hailed as a spectacular triumph by the scientists eagerly awaiting their results. ''SLS-2 has been an undeniable success,'' said Mission Manager Lele Newkirk. ''I'm proud of the team, the work that the crew has done and the science they have gathered. This mission has provided the scientific community with a great deal of information that will benefit humans on Earth and in space for a long time to come.'' Howard Schneider agreed, remarking that SLS-2 had ''exceeded our expectations'' and Payload Operations Director Susan Brand would laud the near-flawless operation of the Spacelab module and the experiment hardware.

Already, STS-58 was due to come close to the duration record set by another Columbia crew in 1992, and to keep their flying skills sharp throughout the long days of weightlessness, Blaha and Searfoss took turns on a new computer program called the Portable In-flight Landing Operations Trainer (PILOT). This comprised a high-resolution colour display and hand controller which gave them the 'look' and 'feel' of the Shuttle. Kept in a middeck locker when unused, PILOT was assembled on the console in front of Searfoss' seat and its joystick was affixed to the top of his 'own' hand controller.

The astronauts also participated in now-customary Lower Body Negative Pressure (LBNP) runs to better prepare them for the punishing onset of terrestrial

Rick Searfoss participates in a PILOT simulator session from his seat on Columbia's flight deck.

A productive mission 207

gravity. Additionally, while the science crew busied themselves with the research in the Spacelab module, Blaha and Searfoss conducted a number of thruster firings in support of the Orbital Acceleration Research Experiment (OARE). This device was designed to make very precise measurements of minute accelerations and jitters and record the levels to which they disturbed particularly sensitive experiments. It had been flown on two previous Spacelab missions in June 1991 and June 1992.

On 26 October, Searfoss sent the device head-over-heels by manoeuvring Columbia through a variety of orientations. He started with the payload bay facing Earthwards and the nose pointing in the direction of travel, then turned the Shuttle end-over-end 360 degrees, put her into a flat spin and gradually rolled her for 20 minutes. He then executed a 'pitch-drag' manoeuvre, whereby he pointed Columbia's nose 'down' 20 degrees and waited for natural atmospheric drag to pull the nose so that it pointed directly Earthwards. This so-called 'gravity-gradient' attitude minimised the need for thruster firings to keep the vehicle stable.

When the time came to close the Spacelab module early on 1 November, in anticipation of landing later that day at Edwards Air Force Base, Columbia's crew had already more-or-less eclipsed the record set by the STS-50 astronauts. Not only that, but Payload Commander Rhea Seddon had set her own personal record. Her husband, Hoot Gibson, was also an astronaut, watching intently on the ground, and

Marty Fettman, Shannon Lucid and Dave Wolf review procedures during a training session in a middeck simulator.

had actually served for the last year as chief of NASA's Astronaut Office. Sometime late in the mission, Seddon surpassed Gibson's total of just over 26 days in space.

''He's still a really good guy [and] I love him a lot,'' she said in a televised interview, ''but I've got more hours in space than he does, so there!'' Sticking her tongue out playfully for the television audience and Gibson, she was, however, forced to acknowledge that he had more launches and landings, having flown four times to her three. By the end of STS-58, Seddon had accumulated almost 32 days in space overall.

Unlike the activation of the Spacelab on 18 October, which had been led by Seddon, the deactivation of the module was under the supervision of Wolf. Columbia's payload bay doors were closed at 11:30 am and Blaha fired the OMS engines to bring his crew home at 2:05 pm. Wrapping up a perfect flight of 14 days and 12 minutes, he guided the vehicle to a textbook touchdown on Runway 22 at Edwards at 3:05:42 pm. This put STS-58 firmly into fourth place in the United States' list of long-duration missions and made it the longest Shuttle flight so far.

''Congratulations on a very successful life sciences mission,'' Capcom Curt Brown radioed the crew as Columbia rolled to a stop.

''From the entire crew, we sure appreciated all the help we got from everyone on the ground,'' replied Blaha from the flight deck. For three of the STS-58 astronauts -Lucid, Wolf and Blaha himself - their future astronaut careers would involve even longer missions of several months apiece on the Russian Mir space station. In fact, Blaha told the author in 1997 that his goal before retiring was to fly a long-duration station mission. He did so, but it brought his long love affair with the astronaut business to an end by turning into the most stressful mission he ever flew.

COOL CREW

When Commander John Casper and Pilot Andy Allen rode Columbia into orbit on the afternoon of 4 March 1994, they officially became the coolest, most chilled-out astronauts around. "We're as cool as a chilled martini at sunset!" Casper had told journalists with a grin before launch. He was referring to a new set of water-cooled long johns - fitted with more than 320 km of tubing - that he and Allen wore under their partial-pressure suits to keep them comfortable during their eight-and-a-half-minute climb into space.

Not only was their ascent comfortable, but the entire countdown had gone exceptionally smoothly. In fact, the only reason Columbia did not launch as scheduled a day earlier, on 3 March, was due to weather forecasters' prediction that conditions would be unacceptable. Citing "predictable weather patterns'', they noted surface winds of 30-50 km/h, easily in excess of the maximum-allowable 24 km/h should an emergency landing back at KSC become necessary. Their ability to make such predictions meant that NASA's Mission Management Team could postpone the launch before engineers started loading Columbia's External Tank with cryogenic propellants.

The STS-62 crew during training. Left to right are John Casper, Andy Allen, Pierre

Thuot, Sam Gemar and Marsha Ivins.

The STS-62 crew during training. Left to right are John Casper, Andy Allen, Pierre

Thuot, Sam Gemar and Marsha Ivins.

Instead, the countdown clock was held at the T — 11 hour mark on 3 March and kept at that point until conditions improved; eventually, half an hour after midnight on the 4th, it started ticking again, the giant tank was fuelled without incident and Columbia lifted off precisely on time at 1:53 pm. By now, the Shuttle's ability to set off a cacophony of car alarms with the roar of its engines had been well proved, and this ascent was no exception: Columbia's noise and vibration were more than sufficient to affect vehicles some 10 kilometres away from Pad 39B.

The smooth countdown and picture-perfect ascent to orbit - the only deviation in procedures being a slight delay in sending recovery ships to pick up the SRBs, due to high seas - set the stage for what would be one of the quietest and most problem-free missions flown by the Shuttle. At the risk of being dubbed 'boring', STS-62 was a 14-day flight with a payload bay and middeck literally packed to capacity with a wide range of materials processing, space technology, medical, solar physics and robotics experiments, many of which had flown before.

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