Unfinished business

'new' STS-35 crew was named in November 1988, Commander Jon McBride remained in charge, but chose to resign from the astronaut corps just six months later. His replacement was three-flight veteran Vance Brand, who flew Apollo 18 in July 1975, Columbia's STS-5 mission and another Shuttle flight in early 1984.

The Pilot for STS-35 was Guy Gardner, who made his first flight on a top-secret Department of Defense mission in December 1988, deploying an advanced radarimaging satellite known as Lacrosse. The third Mission Specialist - and incumbent of the flight engineer's seat - was Mike Lounge, who would be making his third trip into space. Interestingly, Lounge had also flown on STS-26, the first post-Challenger Shuttle mission, in September 1988. The original STS-61E Pilot, Dick Richards, and Mission Specialist, Dave Leestma, were already, by this time, well-immersed in their training for Columbia's return-to-flight STS-28 mission.

Hoffman and Parker would both be making their second trips into space - the former flew on Discovery in April 1985 and performed the Shuttle's first unplanned spacewalk, and the latter had been on board Spacelab-1 - while both Payload Specialists were first-timers. Parker would later recall his activities on the morning of the Challenger disaster: ''We were preparing to fly in 40 days to observe Halley's Comet. That morning [28 January 1986], we were training [for] launches and entries [and] stopped to watch the Challenger launch on TV. Obviously, we didn't fly 40 days later!''

Original plans called for three flights of the ASTRO observatory, each with two Payload Specialists. Durrance and Parise would fly the first mission; then Parise would join another Payload Specialist, Ken Nordsieck, for ASTRO-2 and Durrance would fly with Nordsieck on ASTRO-3. All three missions were expected to be completed by July 1987. Hoffman and Parker, it seems, would have flown all three missions! It seems remarkable today, when astronauts typically wait three or four years between flights that NASA was planning to fly them into space in such rapid succession.

Parker has since expressed disbelief at the sheer number of missions planned up to the time of the Challenger disaster. ''It's amazing when you look back at that [schedule pressure] and the rate at which we thought we had to keep pumping this stuff out. You'd have thought the world was going to end [if we didn't meet our launch targets]. My favourite expression is: Guess what? The Sun kept on rising and setting! The Sun didn't even notice [if we missed our launch targets].''

One important factor that was missed, however, was Halley's Comet, which only visits the inner Solar System every three-quarters of a century, and by the time ASTRO-1 finally set off in 1990 had continued its cyclical journey to more distant parts of the Sun's empire. Fortunately, a flotilla of other unmanned spacecraft -Europe's Giotto, the NASA-led International Cometary Explorer (ICE), Japan's Suisei and Sakigake and the Soviet Union's two Vega missions - had close encounters with the comet.

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