Part 1: KSC Security Does Not Have A Sense Of Humor
By Wes Oleszewski
On the 27th day of June, 1982 the Space Shuttle program was slightly more than 14 months old. For those of us who were there to see first Shuttle launches, we were sure that we were witnessing flights of what NASA called “the primary space vehicle for the foreseeable future.” None of us, however, ever imagined that "the foreseeable future" would come and go in just three short decades.
This fourth launch of the Space Shuttle was scheduled to be the last of the flight test series for the Space Transportation System (STS). After the seven day mission the Space Shuttle was to be declared "operational." Of course, that declaration depended largely on the success of this mission that had been dubbed simply "STS-4." In the news media, however, the TV networks of the time really were not yet sure what to call the mission. Apparently they thought that the STS-4 moniker was too obscure and NASA-like for general public consumption, so they called it “Space Shuttle 4.”
In order to attend the STS-4 launch I had once again teamed up with the same guys from Embry-Riddle who were with me for the first Shuttle launch, my buddies Brian and Jennings. This time, however, instead of camping out all night on the riverbank in Titusville, we were a bit more experienced at Shuttle launch watching. Jennings had scored a causeway pass for his car and we all drove down early in the morning prior to launch. Along the way we discussed some of the unique aspects of the STS-4 mission. One of the primary aspects that captured our attention was the fact that STS-4 was going to be the first Shuttle mission to carry a Department Of Defense (DOD) payload. Now anyone reading this, who perhaps was not around in that era, should keep in mind that those days were the beginning of the Reagan administration and the Cold War with the Soviet Union was rapidly growing colder. Thus, the concept of using Space Shuttle to carry DOD payloads was one of major importance. Driving down toward the Kennedy
Space Center (KSC) we talked and joked about the prospect of carrying DOD cargos on the Shuttle. I'm not sure which one of us came up with the idea, but somewhere along the drive we three college students conceived that it may be fun to arrive at the KSC security gate speaking in thick Russian accents.
"Dah, we are joost happy Amridcan spaceuh boofs, here to zee shootle.” “Camra? Ez only short randge feelm.” “How ‘bout dem Braves?”
An important lesson for everyone reading; KSC security does not have a sense of humor.
Eventually we got through security, onto the causeway at KSC and found a place to park among thousands of other vehicles. Viewing a Shuttle launch from the causeway in 1982 was very similar to what it would be like throughout the entire Shuttle program. Cars were parked three to six deep along the roadside, porta-pottys were in place and along the entire length of causeway itself small loud speakers were wired up on stands and the “loop” of control conversation could be heard. On the occasion of STS-4, the only thing that interrupted the neat rows of parked cars was an 8 foot long alligator. Sometime prior to our arrival the alligator had crawled out of the water looking for a warm meal. Having lived in Florida for a few years the three of us knew enough to stay well clear of the beached alligator. Some of the other tourist-types parked among us, however, were not nearly as savvy. I watched in horror as a few individuals allowed their children to crumple up papers and toss them at the
alligator. Before long KSC security got wind of the situation and roped off about a 20 foot perimeter around the alligator and posted a guard. It was part of KSC’s “Keeping Idiots From Becoming Meals” policy.
Selected as crew for the STS-4 mission were Ken "T.K." Mattingly, commander (CDR) and Henry "Hank" Hartsfield, pilot (PLT). Mattingly had flown to the moon 10 years earlier on Apollo 16 as its command module pilot. Hartsfield had formerly been selected for the Air Force’s ultra-secret Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program, but was later transferred to NASA when the MOL was canceled. They would be the last two-man crew to ever fly a Shuttle orbiter.
Assembly of the STS-4 stack began on March 29th, 1982 when the aft assemblies of the two SRBs were placed on Mobile Launch Platform (MLP) number 1. That was just seven days after MLP-1 had been used for the launch of STS-3, thus demonstrating NASA’s ability to quickly turn around an MLP following a Shuttle launch. The Columbia arrived from Edwards on April 6th and went into the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) the following day. A number of fixes were required to be done on Columbia not the least of which was the removal of the orbiter’s malfunctioning toilet and its return to the manufacturer. On April 16th the External Tank (ET) was stacked between the two SRBs. The ET itself had been at KSC since January 22nd and like its predecessor, as well as all future tanks, it was not painted white. On May 19th Columbia was rolled out of the OPF and over to the VAB. Its stay in the OPF had been just 40 working days- the shortest turn around in the Shuttle program thus far. The orbiter was mated
to the stack the following day and rolled to Launch Complex 39A on May 26th. One month later my buddies Brian, Jennings and I were there to watch the final countdown.
One of the unspoken objectives of the STS-4 launch was to actually get the mission launched exactly on schedule. All three of the previous flights had suffered some sort of delays. STS-3 was scrubbed 48 hours for a computer timing error. Then STS-2 was scrubbed for a week due to an APU issue. STS-3 was delayed by one hour due to a problem with ground support equipment. In spite of the fact that these missions were all of a flight test nature, critics of the program made the most of the delays asking if the STS was too complex to become what NASA had promised; a reliable “space truck.”
An event that could have caused a delay in the launch took place on the afternoon before launch day when one of those “typical” Florida thunderstorms blew up right over LC39. Lightning, heavy rain and hail events took place all around the pad. Although none of the lightning struck the vehicle, plenty of hail did hit the Columbia. Some 400 tiles were “dinged” by hailstones during the storm. After a brief evaluation it was decided to roll the rotating service structure back around the vehicle and allow technicians to “spackle” the damaged spots. The results were that after an all-night repair effort, Columbia was deemed ready to fly and there was no delay in the countdown.
What the news media described as “an air of secrecy” supposedly “hung over the mission” due to its highly secret payload that was supposed to be extremely important to national security. Of course if most of us had known what the payload actually was all about, we would have been fairly disappointed. The “forbidden subject” was to never be publicly spoken of either during the flight or at any time afterward. The DOD was said to not only be testing the payload, but also the ability to fly secret military payloads on the Space Shuttle. And they got a lesson indeed- prior to launch, members of the news media managed to dig up the identity of the payload by way of Congressional testimony and inside sources. ABC News’ famed spaceflight reporter Jules Bergman even did a pre-launch feature on it- complete with graphics. The package, he said was called “CIRRIS” which stood for Cryogenic InfraRed Radiance Instrumentation for Shuttle. There was also another
portion of the package that contained an Ultraviolet Horizon Scanner. Officially, and secretly the internal designation of the package was “P82-1” a name that would surely confound those gosh darned Soviets. It was also considered by CDR Mattingly to be “rinky-dink,” although he never was able to publicly say so until after he retired. In 1982, however, everyone at NASA was doing their best to act like spooks and assure the DOD that they could, in fact, fly secret payloads. Of course all the Soviets had to do was tune in ABC News to get all the information that they needed. Odds are that the KGB already had the inside poop on P82-1, and they probably thought it was “rinksky dinkski” too.
In absolutely perfect launch weather the countdown neared zero. A silence fell across the causeway as the Space Shuttle Main Engines ignited and turned the pad’s water deluge into the now-expected billow of steam. Three seconds later the SRBs ignited and the Florida sun was matched by the brightness or the SRBs. By now, my two buddies and I were veterans of Shuttle launches having witnessed all three of the past missions first hand- but that mattered little, we still screamed like idiots; “GO! GO BABY GO!!” Columbia rolled onto her back and arced into the blue Florida sky like a homesick angle as her sound rolled over us and shook us with glory. We watched SRB “sep.” and then did our best to keep our eyes on the white dot that was STS-4 headed for orbit. A glance away and you had lost it from sight. All that was left was to listen to the loop and monitor the progress. People climbed into their cars, but nothing on KSC was allowed to move until the “Negative
Return” call was given. Even then, no one was going anyplace- the traffic jam would last well into the afternoon.
While we hung around the car waiting to join the traffic jam, about 125 nautical miles out into the Atlantic the first major failure in the Space Shuttle program was taking place. We did not hear about it until the evening news reported that both of STS-4’s SRBs had sunk upon landing. No one seemed to know why, but that did not stop the news media from pointing fingers. The prime target for the finger pointing was the parachutes. One of the foundations of the Shuttle program was the concept of saving money by way of “reusability” and that concept was first exercised on STS-4 which was re-using the SRB parachutes from STS-1. Of course the folks at the Pioneer Parachute Company, who manufactured the parachutes denied that their canopies were responsible- and they were correct.
What caused the parachute failure was that a new device had been added to the system. The device was a series of explosive charges that were supposed to sever half of the parachute risers when the SRB hit the water. This would allow the canopies to deflate so as to not drag the floating boosters with the wind. Those charges were triggered by “G-switches” that would sense the SRBs hitting the water. Unfortunately, the “G-switches” were set too low and when the frustums (the lower conical portions of the nosecones) that covered the parachutes was jettisoned, the shock of the jettison caused the charges to detonate before the parachutes ever deployed. As a result, all six parachutes turned into streamers and the high-speed impact with the water caused the booster casings to sink in about 3,000 feet of water. The loss cost the program $58,000,000.
Once in orbit STS-4 pretty much went silent. There was no first-day TV and few words from the crew all in the name of DOD secrecy. We all went home and stuck by our radios and TVs in the hope of getting any little tid-bit about the semi-secret, partly DOD mission of STS-4. It would not be until years later that those of us who were space-buffs then would find out that the secret mission did not go at all as planned.
Watch for Part 2, STS-4: “This Has Got To Beat Firecrackers” coming on July 4th, 2012. (Images courtesy NASA)