When Space Flight Began To Become 'Routine'
By Wes Oleszewski
No matter what they called it, “Space Shuttle 5,” “the fifth flight of Columbia,” or “STS-5” the fact is that it launched thirty years ago today and I was there to see it. My venture to see STS-5 launch began with a series of other people’s misfortunes. While doing my best to work my way back into college by saving the lawns and gardens of Volusia County while toiling at the Daytona Kmart’s garden shop a few days before the launch, I was stopped on the way to my break by one of the other employees.
“You always go to those Shuttle launches don’t ya’?“ he asked me.
I replied that I did and he explained that he had scored a vehicle pass for the causeway, but the transmission had just dropped out of his car. He asked if I knew anyone else who wanted to go down that had a working car and may be willing to drive him and his pass to KSC. I told him I’d do my best to make the connection if I could. The following day I was hanging out in the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s student newspaper office. My cartoon strips were always running in the Avion newspaper, so my status was always that of being a part of the staff no matter if I was in school or not. Sometime during the day my pal Jeff, who was a charter member of the L-5 Aerospace Society, ambled in grumbling about the launch. It seemed that the gang at L-5 could get a university van to travel down to the STS-5 launch, but they were unable to get a vehicle pass. Of course it took me about 90 seconds to close that deal. I could provide their pass if they would reserve two seats on the van; one for
me and one for the guy with the pass.
So it was that in the pre-dawn darkness of Thursday, November 11th, 1982 some 11 of us climbed aboard one of the powder blue and white ERAU vans and headed off to see STS-5. Finding my seat in the stretched van the thought struck me that just 17 months earlier, in April of 1981, I was unable to get a seat aboard one of the two big tour buses that were headed down for STS-1. Now here we were, a year and a half later, and the sum total of us willing to sacrifice a school day to see the Shuttle fly was 11 people, including the van driver who was a faculty member. It seemed a drastic decline in interest.
Of course, such a decline in the excitement over the Space Shuttle was exactly what NASA was seeking with STS-5. For years the space agency had quipped that its goal was to make Space Shuttle flights so common and routine that one day the press would not even bother to cover them. In my opinion, such a goal was so contrary to the essence of spaceflight that it was pure fiction. Likewise the bold statements that the Shuttle would one day financially “break even” and eventually actually earn a profit by hauling commercial satellites into orbit was also a myth. This was all rooted in a projected flight rate that was impossible to achieve with any space vehicle. Yet this was the song that NASA was forced to sing in order to sell the Shuttle to the myopic politicians who held the purse strings. Thus, STS-5 was being portrayed as the first commercial use of the Space Shuttle- the “Ace Trucking Company.” Who could have much interest in a trucking company? In my opinion, this sort of
tinting of the program was an early mistake on NASA’s part. Once public interest is doused, it is nearly impossible to re-kindle.
As we approached KSC in our school van, the line-up to get to the space center, although far from the STS-1 crowds, was quite similar to that of STS-3 and STS-4. Traffic was not jammed- rather we simply kept rolling steadily along up to and through the gate. Again, the parking on the causeway had cars stacked 10 to 14 deep. The loud speakers were set up and broadcasting the launch control “loop” and all appeared ready for the launch. As the sun came up it revealed perhaps one of the finest days ever seen for a Shuttle launch. We all spread out and listened to the loop.
Aboard STS-5 was the largest crew ever launched; a total of four astronauts. In command was a veteran of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), Vance Brand. His PLT was space rookie Bob Overmyer who had come to NASA in 1969 from the top secret MOL project. Flying along for the first time were two “Mission Specialists.” Dr. Bill Lenoir, an electrical engineer would ride into orbit up on the flight deck. Meanwhile, Dr. Joe Allen had to ride down on the mid-deck “stuck down in steerage” for the launch. This arrangement would be switched on reentry, however, and Lenoir would be stuck in steerage while Allen would ride up on the flight deck. Joe Allen had become a favorite of many space-buffs, including myself, when he did an amazing job as the CAPCOM during the extended Apollo 15 lunar EVAs.
One of the interesting aspects of my experiences in those early Shuttle days was that because I was there to see the first seven launches in person, aside from STS-1, I never got to see them on TV. Although I had witnessed all of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and ASTP on television, I had missed six of the first seven Shuttle broadcasts. Today, thanks to YouTube, I have been able to fill that void. Coverage for the STS-5 launch would have made NASA’s upper management quite happy. With the exception of one network, every TV news network in the United States began coverage around the time that the count came out of the nine minute hold. ABC news broke into “Good Morning America,” for its STS-5 coverage. But then they broke away so that host David Hartman could talk about the death of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev with former President Jimmy Carter. The TV audience, however, were mercifully spared that torment because the sound failed at Carter’s end and all that could be heard
was launch control in the background instead of Carter. The one network that actually was refining and expanding its coverage was CNN. Of course they were a fairly new network with an all-news, all the time, 24/7 format and they needed content. The Shuttle served that purpose quite well. Through the entire STS-5 mission, every time the crew had a TV downlink going, it was being broadcast on CNN while the other networks just ran soap operas and game shows. CNN, in fact, remained the prime network for any space buff right up until they fired Miles O’Brien in 2008.
STS-5 was slated to launch two satellites. Additionally, astronauts Allen and Lenoir were scheduled to do the first US EVA since Skylab in 1974. Still, it was the release of the satellites that NASA was really promoting. The COMSATs were being launched for TELESAT Canada and Satellite Business Systems. The first release would take place on flight day number one, the second on flight day number two and the EVA would take place on flight day number four. Five flight days were scheduled with reentry and landing supposed to take place early on day number six.
In yet another attempt to make Shuttle flying appear commonplace, the pressure suits worn on previous Shuttle launches were now done away with and replaced by regular NASA flight suits as well as helmets that could easily be mistaken for motorcycle mead gear, yet probably afforded less protection. All of this was a part of the “new” operational era of spaceflight. Even if the mission was just as dangerous as every other spaceflight- it would, at least, look commonplace.
As the count continued, not a single flaw was touched upon. The causeway erupted in screams, whistles, cheers and rebel yells as the main engines ignited and came up to speed. At liftoff the Shuttle did not disappoint the crowd. One may think that after having witnessed four previous launches you would be used to it, but a Shuttle launch was something that no one could ever grow used to. It was always something that reaches out, grabs you and shakes you. You could not simply hear it- you had to feel it too. STS-5 climbed into a clear blue Florida sky, but the crew said very little other than making the standard required calls. At SRB separation the expended solids could be seen tumbling away for a protracted period. If you glanced away for an instant, however, you could not re-sight them. STS-5 made orbit just fine even though the SRBs had produced a slightly depressed trajectory. We piled into the van, and joined the crowd trying to leave KSC and await the next launch of a Space Shuttle.
Shortly after we had returned to Daytona, the crew of STS-5 were preparing to release the first of their two satellites. Each satellite was contained in a cradle which was covered with a retractable sun-shield. The satellite itself was mounted to a solid rocket motor called a Payload Assist Module (PAM) which was seated upon a turn-table like device called a “spin table.” A command from the orbiter’s aft work station caused the sun-shield to open. Another command signaled the spin table to begin rotating. The spinning action imparted stability into the satellite as it moved clear and was later boosted into its proposed orbit. This rotation could be between 45 rpm and 100 rpm depending on the needs of the satellite. For STS-5’s satellites a rate of 50 rpm was required. A “Marman clamp” held the satellite onto the spin table against a spring secured by explosive bolts. When the proper time came, a command was sent to detonate the bolts and the spinning satellite
was ejected from the cargo bay of the Shuttle at a rate of three feet per second. The orbiter was then moved to a distance of 16 miles from the satellite. A timer aboard the satellite and PAM combination fired the solid rocket motor 45 minutes after it had left the spin-table and boosted it to its desired orbit. Both satellites were successfully deployed. The Satellite Business Systems unit was deployed at 3:17 pm EST on flight day one and the TELESAT Canada unit was deployed 3:24 pm EST on day two. As a result, the crew took on the motto, “We Deliver.”
Shortly after the second satellite was ejected, two of the crewmembers were struck by a case of space adaptation sickness, a type of motion sickness that is only found to strike people in micro gravity. Hardcore test pilots and mission specialists alike can be hit by it. In the case of STS-5 Bob Overmyer, a tough Marine pilot and Bill Lenoir, a PhD. engineer were both struck for what remained of day two. By day three, Overmyer was feeling fine, but Lenoir was still not 100%. The scheduled EVA was postponed.
Later, the EVA was cancelled, not due to space sickness, but due to issues with the suits. While in preparation for the EVA, Joe Allen discovered that his suit’s circulating fan was not functioning properly. The fan would start up, run for a short time and then stop. While protracted trouble shooting from the ground was taking place on that glitch, Lenoir discovered that his suit was also not functioning correctly. It was regulating at 3.6 PSI rather than the expected 4.3 PSI. More trouble shooting could not solve the problems and the EVA was eventually scrubbed.
I managed to swap shifts with one of my fellow lawn, pine bark and cow manure technicians at the Kmart garden shop on flight day six so I could be home that morning and watch STS-5 land. That landing was done at Edwards AFB and was planned to take place at 9:26 am EST, Tuesday, November 16. Gone were the days when the networks started coverage of the landing prior to de-orbit burn. This time the networks picked up coverage about 19 minutes prior to touchdown. Edwards was forecast to have a scattered layer of clouds with bottoms around 16,000 AGL, but as the sun came up it was obvious that the layer had turned to a near overcast. John Young flying the STA reported the conditions as being “marginal.” Vance Brand was going to have an interesting approach on his hands. He was going to drop like a lead sled into an overcast layer and hope that all of NASA’s data had been correct and there would be a runway on the other side. Of course pilots had been doing these dive-bomber approaches
since the early 1960s and the M2-F1 lifting body flights. Vance himself had done countless such approaches in the Shuttle Training Aircraft as well as the T-38 in training- so there was no real abnormal risk involved… it’s just kind of fun to think that he was just a little bit puckered on this one.
ABC News had hired Gene Cernan to assist and do “color” commentary during all of these first Shuttle missions. In my opinion, they struck gold. Cernan was not only a national hero, having flown a Gemini mission and two Apollo missions, as well as having been the last human ever to stand on the surface of the moon, but he was a natural when it came to broadcasting spaceflights. During the early Shuttle missions you wanted to superglue your dial to ABC for launches and landings.
This time the Columbia popped through the overcast right on target and slid down the glide-slope as pretty as could be. Setting smoothly down on Runway 22, she rolled to a stop in a routine that would become so familiar that indeed one day the big networks would not bother to cover it live. This time they at least cut back to show us the crew coming down the stairs and then that was that- the first operational, commercial flight of the Shuttle was over with as little fanfare as NASA could muster.
I rode my bicycle to work that afternoon thinking that this program was rapidly going the way of Skylab with the media losing interest and the public doing the same. Only this time it appeared as if that was exactly NASA’s intention. As long as I was living in Daytona, at least I would always get to see the launches live anyhow. The Space Shuttle was a big success and I felt certain that it would fly for the rest of my life. Of course, I was wrong.
(Images provided by NASA)