Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut - Mike Mullane (2006)
Chapter 25. The Golden Age
If ever there was a Golden Age for the space shuttle program, that period was 1984 toChallenger . In those two years there were a total of fifteen successful shuttle missions, ten of those coming in the final twelve months. The shuttle would never again achieve that flight rate. In April 1985,Discovery andChallenger were launched only seventeen days apart, another STS record. (The seventeen-day record marks the interval between successful launches.Challenger ’s final mission was launched only sixteen days after aColumbia mission.) The missions were coming so fast that shuttles were simultaneously being readied for launch on pads 39-A and -B. KSC was looking like a spaceport out of science fiction.
The history recorded in this Golden Age was remarkable. It included the world’s first tetherless spacewalks by jet pack–wearing astronauts, the first on-orbit repair of a satellite by spacewalkers, and the first retrievals and return to earth of malfunctioning satellites. With its fifty-foot-long robot arm and spacewalking astronauts, the shuttle repeatedly demonstrated its unique ability to put man to work in space in ways never before possible. It was also during this period that the orbitersDiscovery andAtlantis joinedColumbia andChallenger to complete the four-shuttle fleet. And that fleet showed its muscle: Twenty-three satellites, totaling 142 tons of payload, were deployed from shuttle cargo bays. Just as NASA had promised, the shuttle was doing it all…launching commercial satellites, DOD satellites, and science satellites.
On the surface things looked glorious for NASA. But there was a problem: Getting to the twenty-plus missions per year that would give the shuttle a cost-competitive advantage over other launch systems was proving to be a much more formidable task than expected. The shuttle was a voracious consumer of man-hours. After every landing there were thousands of components that needed to be inspected, tested, drained, pressurized, or otherwise serviced. There were 28,000 heat tiles and thermal blankets on the vehicle. Each one had to be inspected. Mission-specific software had to be developed and validated. Payloads had to be installed and checked out. Severely hampering every turnaround was the lack of spare parts. Just-landed orbiters were being cannibalized of their main engines and other components to get the next shuttle ready. The necessary requirement to meticulously document all work was another drag on vehicle turnarounds: Just tightening a screw generated multiple pieces of paperwork. The joke within the astronaut corps was a space shuttle could not be launched until the stacked paper detailing the turnaround work equaled the height of the shuttle stack…two hundred feet.
At just ten missions per year the shuttle was driving the system to its knees. The message was the same everywhere: “I need more people. I need more equipment. I need more spare parts.” But NASA didn’t have the money to buy these things. While commercial customers offset a portion of the expense, the cash flow was nowhere close to making the shuttle the pay-as-you-go enterprise promised years earlier to Congress. Significant taxpayer money was needed to underwrite the program, and those funds were fixed in the budget. The launch rate had to be doubled with the funds available. The end result was that more was being demanded of the existing manpower and equipment to achieve a higher flight rate. Everybody had a story about how this was overwhelming the various NASA teams. I recall being with an MCC controller when his boss brought in more work for him. The controller objected, “I haven’t had a day off in six weeks. My wife and kids don’t know who I am.” The supervisor was sympathetic but had no other option. “We’re all in the same boat. I don’t have anybody else. You’ve got to do it.” I could see it in both of their faces. They were exhausted, totally burned out. And they weren’t the exception. In many areas NASA only had a first string. There was no “bench” to call on for substitutes. One of our STS-41D prelaunch hangar tests ofDiscoveryhad been botched for that reason. The first string had been supporting the pad checkout of the shuttle being readied for the next launch, so the contractor had scraped together a team for us from God-only-knew-where. One of the technicians had apparently been called from home because he arrived in the cockpit with the smell of alcohol on his breath. It was an outrageous violation and Hank Hartsfield confronted the man’s supervisor about it. He apologized for the intoxicated worker as well as for the entire test debacle, adding, “I don’t have enough people to cover everything.”
The story was no different for the engineers at the SRB Thiokol factory in Utah. The pressure to keep flying was hammering them even while they were struggling with a major anomaly. The O-ring problem first seen on STS-2 had not gone away. In fact, it had gotten worse. Beginning with STS-41B, launched in February 1984, and up toChallenger, only three missions did not have O-ring problems. The other fifteen flights of this period returned SRBs with eroded O-rings. Astonishingly, in nine of these fifteen flights, the engineers had recorded “blow-by,” in which heat had not only eroded the primary O-rings but, for very brief moments, had gotten past those rings. On STS-51C, the blow-by had been exceptionally significant. That mission had launched in January 1985, after the stack had waited on the pad through a bitterly cold night. Engineers suspected that cold had reduced the flexibility of the rubberized O-rings, which, in turn, had allowed a more significant primary O-ring leak, resulting in a more significant blow-by. But in all cases none of the observed erosion equaled what had been recorded on STS-2’s damaged O-ring, and that mission had been fine. In effect the STS-2 experience had become the yardstick against which all following O-ring damage was being measured. If the damage was less (and it always was), then it was okay to continue flights. In what would later be defined as “normalization of deviance” inThe Challenger Launch Decision by Diane Vaughan, the NASA and contractor team responsible for the SRBs had gotten away with flying a flawed design for so long they had lost sight of its deadly significance. The O-ring deviance had been normalized into their judgment processes.
There were a handful of individuals who resisted this normalization of deviance phenomenon. Thiokol engineer Roger Boisjoly was one. In a July 31, 1985, memo to a company vice president, Boisjoly expressed his concern about continuing shuttle flights with the SRB O-ring anomaly. He concluded the memo with this prophetic sentence: “It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action to dedicate a team to solve the problem with the field joint [a reference to the O-ring] having the number one priority, then we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch pad facilities.” Boisjoly feared a catastrophic failure at booster ignition that would not only destroy the shuttle and kill her crew, but would also destroy the launchpad.
Another engineer, Arnold Thompson, wrote to a Thiokol project engineer on August 22, 1985: “The O-ring seal problem has lately become acute.”
An October 1, 1985, interoffice Thiokol memo contained this plea: “HELP! The seal task force is constantly being delayed by every possible means.” In his last paragraph, the memo’s author, R. V. Ebeling, obliquely highlights the major problem of the operational STS…not enough people. “The allegiance to the O-ring investigation task force is very limited to a group of engineers numbering 8–10. Our assigned people in manufacturing and quality have the desire, but are encumbered with other significant work.” He finished his memo with the warning, “This is a red flag.”
Another indication of the crushing workload being borne by the Thiokol engineers is found in an October 4, 1985, activity report by Roger Boisjoly. “I for one resent working at full capacity all week long and then being required to support activity on the weekend…” The operational shuttle program was devouring people.
Astronauts remained ignorant of the O-ring bullet aimed at our hearts. It was never on the agenda of any Monday meeting. None of the memos being circulated at Thiokol made it to our desks. But there were other things happening in the Golden Age of which we were aware—terrifying near misses.
On April 19, 1985, asDiscovery landed from STS-51D at KSC, the brake on the inboard right-side wheel locked on, resulting in severe brake damage and the blowout of the tire. Unlike large aircraft, which have engine trust-reversers to aid in stopping the machine, the shuttle is completely dependent on brakes…and it lands 100 miles per hourfaster than airplanes of comparable size. (A deployable drag chute was added in 1992.) When a shuttle touches down, it is a hundred tons of rocket, including several tons of extremely dangerous hypergolic fuel, hurling down the runway at 225 miles per hour. While the shuttle runways at KSC and Edwards AFB, at 3 miles in length, are sufficiently long for stopping, they are only 300 feet wide. A perfectly landed shuttle is only 150 feet from an edge, an eye blink in time at those speeds. It was a minor miracle thatDiscovery didn’t experience directional control problems as a result of the blown tire and careen off the runway.
STS-51F experienced the second engine-start pad abort of the shuttle program. While not really a near miss, pad aborts have the potential to become dangerous. Afterward, I watched that crew put on their Right Stuff, no-big-deal faces for the press, just as we had done following our 41D pad abort. Astronauts are great actors.
STS-51F also became the first shuttle mission to perform an ascent abort whenChallenger ’s center SSME shut down nearly three minutes early. It was later determined that the malfunction was due to two faulty engine temperature sensors. There had been nothing wrong with the engine. With only two SSMEs, the crew was forced into an Abort to Orbit (ATO). Fortunately, this was the safest of aborts. The shuttle had been high enough and fast enough at the time of the engine failure to limp into a safe orbit on its two remaining engines. Had the engine failure occurred earlier, the crew would have faced a much more risky 15,000-mile-per-hour, thirty-minute TAL to a landing at Zaragoza, Spain.
Having experienced both an engine-start abort and a powered-flight abort, the 51F crew had gone through ten lifetimes of heartbeats. After they returned, astronauts joked that a cocked, loaded gun pointed between the eyes of any of them would not have elicited the slightest fear response. The mission had desiccated their adrenal glands.
STS-61C (Congressman Nelson’s flight), the last mission prior to theChallenger disaster, experienced a pair of bizarre and dangerous malfunctions even before it was launched. During a January 6, 1986, countdown attempt, a temperature probe inside one ofColumbia ’s propellant pipes broke off and was swept into a valve that controlled fluid flow to an SSME. Unknown to anybody, the valve was jammed in the prelaunch open position. Engineers in the LCC noted the temperature sensor was not responding, but erroneously assumed it was due to an electronic malfunction. It had not occurred to anybody that the probe might have actually broken free and was floating around inColumbia ’s guts. The countdown continued using a backup temperature sensor. The mission was ultimately scrubbed for other reasons and the valve jam was discovered in the countdown reset. HadColumbia launched, there was a good chance the jammed valve could have caused a turbo-pump to overspeed and disintegrate during the engine shutdown sequence at MECO. The resulting shower of hot steel inside the engine compartment would probably have trashed the vehicle hydraulic system, dooming the crew on reentry.
During the same 61C countdown, a malfunction of a different valve (this time on the launchpad side of the plumbing) caused the drain back of a large amount of liquid oxygen from the gas tank. For a variety of technical reasons, the LCC had remained ignorant of the lost propellant. The shuttle very nearly lifted off without enough gas to reach its intended orbit. The crew’s first indication of a problem would have come when all three SSMEs experienced a low propellant level shutdown somewhere over the Atlantic. How high and fast they were at that moment would have determined whether the crew lived (TAL, AOA, or ATO abort) or died (contingency abort). Again, the day was saved when the launch was scrubbed for unrelated reasons and the drain-back problem was discovered in the turnaround.
These near misses should have been warning flags to NASA management that the shuttle was far from being an operational system. They were indicative of the types of problems that occur in the early test phase of any complex aerospace machine. Every military TFNG had seen it happen in new aircraft systems they had flown. In fact, we were used to having urgent warnings appear on our ready-room B-boards concerning newly discovered failure modes on aircraft types that had been seasoned in decades of operations. It is the nature of high-performance flying. The machines are extremely complex and operate at the edge of their performance envelopes. And the space shuttle was about as high-performance as flying got. There were certainly more surprises awaiting us in its operations. In fact, if the shuttle program should survive for a thousand flights, I am certain engineers will still be having occasional moments of “Holy shit! I never expected to seethat happen.”
The shuttle was not operational and the close calls—STS-9’s APU fire, STS-51D’s brake problem, STS-51F’s ascent abort, and STS-61C’s valve problems (not even considering what was going on with the SRB O-rings)—were clear warnings to that effect. Yet, nothing changed. The shuttle continued to fly with passengers and without an in-flight escape system, the two most visible manifestations of the operational label. Senior management saw the dodged bullets as validation that shuttle redundancy would always save the day. Meanwhile, astronauts saw the near misses as indicative of the experimental nature of the craft. When backup systems saved the shuttle, we cheered the genius of the engineers just as management did. The gods of Apollo were damn good. But we also knew these incidents were just the tip of the iceberg. There were more unknowns lurking in the shuttle design, and when they finally reared their ugly heads, redundancy might not be enough to save us.
Astronaut concerns about the shuttle’s operational label, the lack of an escape system, and the passenger program should have been heard by every key manager, from Abbey to the JSC center director to the NASA administrator. But they were not. We were terrified of saying anything that might jeopardize our place in line to space. We were not like normal men and women who worried about the financial aspects of losing a job, of not being able to make the mortgage payment or pay the kids’ tuition. We feared losing a dream, of losing the very thing that made usus. When it came to our careers, we were risk averse in the extreme. Effective leaders would have done everything possible to eradicate that fear. George Abbey, the JSC director, and the NASA administrator all should have been frequent visitors to the astronaut office, actively polling our concerns, and each visit should have started with these or similarly empowering words: “There is nothing you can say to me that will jeopardize your place in the mission line. Nothing! If you think I’m doing something crazy, I want to hear it.” I had experienced this form of leadership many times in my air force career. I saw it on an F-4 mission in which a general officer was serving as my pilot. I was a first lieutenant—and terrified. I had never flown with a flag officer before. But this man was a leader who understood how fear could jeopardize the team and did his best to eliminate it. As my foot touched the cockpit ladder, the general stopped me and said, “See these stars,” and pointed to his shoulder. “If I make a mistake they won’t save our lives. If you see anything that doesn’t look right on this flight, tell me. There’s no rank in this jet. Flying is dangerous enough as it is without having crewmembers afraid to speak up.” It was an empowering moment. The astronaut office desperately needed the same empowering moments, but they never came. Fear ruled—a fear rooted in Abbey’s continuing secrecy on all things associated with flight assignments. We kept our mouths shut.
It was in the Golden Age that Judy Resnik was assigned to her second mission, STS-51L. She would join TFNGs Dick Scobee, El Onizuka, and Ron McNair as well as pilot Mike Smith (class of 1980) for a flight aboardChallenger. Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire schoolteacher, would later join the crew. Her assignment to 51L was linked to Judy’s. NASA logically wanted Christa to fly with a veteran female astronaut. Greg Jarvis, another part-timer, would ultimately draw aChallenger slot when Congressman Bill Nelson bumped him from STS-61C.
I don’t blame Nelson or Abbey or anybody else for how the chips fell on theChallenger crew composition. Only God can explain the how and why of that. In fact, many months prior toChallenger, Mike Smith was named as a backup to a mission pilot who was suffering a potentially career-ending health problem. That pilot recovered and Smith wasn’t needed. But had the sick pilot’s convalescence taken just a few more weeks, Mike would have flown on the earlier mission and another pilot would have died onChallenger.
I congratulated Judy and the others at their Outpost celebration. With a gold pin in my bureau drawer it was easy to be sincere. No more fake smiles. Still, I felt a touch of envy. The 51L crew would be deploying an IUS fitted with a NASA communication satellite. The Boeing engineers had finally fixed that booster rocket so Judy had a proven payload. It was one less thing to get in the way of her launch date. She would have a second flight long before I would and that was something to envy.
In spite of the record number of missions in 1985 and flight opportunities for astronauts, morale continued to suffer under the leadership of John Young and George Abbey, particularly the morale of the USAF pilots. Air force pilot Fred Gregory filled my ear on a T-38 mission. “Of the twenty-eight CDR and PLT seats available on the first fourteen missions, only six have been filled with air force pilots. Fifteen went to navy pilots.” Fred went on to complain that of the six CDR and PLT seats available on the first three Spacelab missions, four were being filled by air force pilots. (He was one of those four.) He didn’t have to explain the meaning of the latter statistic: If any space missions could be considered routine, they were the Spacelab missions, and the USAF astronauts were getting more than their fair share of those. The navy pilots were getting the challenging and historic missions that included hands-on-the-stick rendezvous time and interviews on national TV. The most egregious example of an air force TFNG being screwed was when pilot Steve Nagel was assigned to fly his first mission—not as a PLT, but as a mission specialist! Even some navy astronauts were outraged by this travesty. Steve was known to be a far superior pilot and to have much better judgment than several of the USN pilots who had drawn front-seat assignments. And Abbey’s preferential treatment of the navy didn’t just stop with shuttle crew assignments. He also picked navy astronauts (Walker, Gibson, and Richards) to serve as directors of NASA’s flying operations at Ellington Field, and navy pilot Don Williams was assigned a position in the JSC Shuttle Program Office.
Ironically, the flight assignment situation with the air force pilots turned in my favor. On February 6, 1985, Abbey phoned me (no office visit this time) to tell me I was being assigned to the first shuttle mission to fly from Vandenberg AFB in California. Abbey had finally drawn the air force’s attention when he assigned Bob Crippen, a navy captain, to command the most “air force” of all missions—the first Vandenberg flight. The air force was the lead service in DOD military space operations, and it was a fact of orbital mechanics that many of their satellites had to be launched into polar orbits. For a spy satellite to see all of America’s potential enemies, it has to have a view of all the Earth. A satellite orbiting around the Earth’s poles gets such a view as the Earth spins underneath it. But it is impossible to launch polar orbiting satellites from the Kennedy Space Center, because a north- or south-directed launch from KSC would endanger populations below the rocket flight path. Polar orbiting satellites have to be carried into orbit by rockets launched from Vandenberg AFB, located near Point Conception, California. A rocket launched on a southern trajectory from this point will achieve polar orbit while flying safely over the ocean. The air force had spent a decade and several billion dollars building a shuttle launchpad at Vandenberg AFB. It was their launchpad and the first mission to be flown from it would carry an air force payload. The air force had wanted it commanded by an air force pilot, but Abbey had other ideas and assigned Bob Crippen. In the ensuing discussions between the USAF and NASA, the air force had accepted Crippen, but with the caveat that the majority of the rest of the crew would be air force. (Or so the rumor mill had it. As always, there was nothing but rumors on the subject of flight assignments.) In a strange twist, I became a beneficiary of Crippen’s commandership of the first Vandenberg mission, a fact made clear to me when Crippen later commented, “You have the right color uniform for the flight.”
I was deliriously happy about my good fortune. The Vandenberg mission was going to be a true first. It would carry me and the rest of the crew into polar orbit, something no human had ever done. The poor schmucks flying out of KSC on the commercial communication satellite deployment missions only got to see a narrow strip of the Earth between 28 degrees north and 28 degrees south latitude (as I had done on STS-41D). How boring. In a polar orbit we would see all of the Earth. We would flythrough the northern and southern lights. We would fly over the Greenland ice cap and the mountain ranges of Antarctica. We would pass over all of the Soviet Union. It was a mission Hank Hartsfield would have loved—he could have made the Kremlin a target for one of his BMs. I was back in my pre–STS-41D frame of mind. I was mad to get into space on this mission. But the liftoff date—originally scheduled for spring 1986—was slipping to the right. The new Vandenberg launchpad and launch control center had to be finished and checked out. The State Department had to complete its negotiations to secure shuttle abort landing rights on Easter Island’s runway, a task being made more difficult by a Soviet Union disinformation campaign that shuttle operations would destroy the island’s stone figures. The Soviets understood that most of the payloads carried out of Vandenberg would be spying on them and were doing their best to lay down obstacles.
STS-62A’s slippage provided time for me to pull other duties, including several missions as a CAPCOM. There were noApollo 13 dramatics on any of these flights but, like everything else in the astronaut business, even the mundane can be unique. One Saturday night I was on CAPCOM duty and nearly comatose in boredom. The orbiting crew was engrossed in their experiments and the shuttle was performing flawlessly. On rev after rev all I did was make Acquisition of Signal (AOS) and Loss of Signal (LOS) calls as the shuttle passed in and out of the coverage of various tracking stations. I tried to maintain an appearance of busy professionalism, knowing the public affairs wall-mounted cameras were focused on me. When no video was being streamed from the shuttle, the NASA PR officer would switch to these MCC cameras. Cable companies broadcast “NASA Select” video to their subscribers, including most astronaut households. My image was being dumped into living rooms throughout Clear Lake City and across America. Aware of this, I resisted the impulse to pick ear hairs and instead opened a shuttle malfunction checklist and pretended to study it. My eyes glazed over and my head nodded.
When my console phone rang I was instantly alert. The MCC phone numbers were unpublished. If a phone was ringing it was official business. I was glad for the interruption…anythingto break the monotony. I snatched the receiver and answered in a crisp military manner, “CAPCOM, Mike Mullane speaking.”
What came into my ear was a soft, feminine voice. “Raise your hand if you want a blow job.”
I bolted upright. Was I hallucinating? “Pardon me” was the only rejoinder I could muster.
“Listen up, Mullane! I said, raise your hand if you want a blow job.”
It is in the DNA of men to respond to such a proposition in the affirmative, so my hand shot up like the space shuttle. The flight director and a couple of nearby MCC controllers looked at me like I had just had a seizure. No telling what the space geeks around the country watching me on TV thought had happened.
My brain quickly replayed the conversation and I identified the voice, a TFNG wife. It was a Saturday night. Somewhere there was an astronaut party. Someone had turned on the TV to check on the progress of the shuttle flight and found me bobbing toward unconsciousness. A crowd had gathered at the TV while this woman was given the CAPCOM phone number and made her call. I could imagine the roar of laughter when the party audience had seen my hand jerk skyward.
Now it was my turn to shock the caller. “You know this phone call is being recorded.” She just laughed me off. It was no more possible to embarrass this particular woman than it was to embarrass Madonna. But the callhadbeen recorded. All MCC telephone conversations are recorded for accident investigation purposes. Somewhere in the National Archives are audiotapes with historic quotes from the space program, like Alan Shepard’s “Let’s light this candle,” and Neil Armstrong’s “Houston, theEagle has landed,” and Gene Kranz’s “Failure is not an option,” and a TFNG wife’s “Raise your hand if you want a blow job.”
There were Monday meeting discussions that proved almost as attention-grabbing as this proposition. We received a status report on the subject of herpes-infected monkeys. STS-51B, a Spacelab mission, was to carry several primates as part of their life-science research and it was feared the virus, which was common in monkeys, could infect the crew. Needless to say this was a briefing that brought out the best in the Planet AD crowd.
“If you don’t screw the monkeys, you won’t catch herpes” came one call from the cheap seats.
“Good luck restraining the marines” came another.
“The ugliest one will come back pregnant by one of you air force perverts.”
As this inter-service banter continued, one of the post-docs was able to shoulder in a valid question. “Why don’t they just fly clean monkeys?”
The presenter replied, “It’s difficult and expensive to find herpes-free monkeys.” Then he added, “The scientists believe the herpes risks to astronauts are acceptable. They think there’s a greater chance of the shuttle exploding than the crew contracting herpes.” The scientists were right. Nobody on the 51B crew would be worried about catching herpes from a monkey while sitting on 4 million pounds of propellant.
Weeks later, during a STS-51B simulation, the Sim Sup introduced a simulated monkey “malfunction.” It wasn’t a herpes outbreak, but a monkey death. This was to help prepare the MCC PR people to deal with nightmare antivivisectionists scenarios. (A group of these people were protesting NASA’s Spacelab animal experiments.) Per Sim Sup’s instruction, the crew reported the simulated monkey was sick and bloated. A short while later they made the “monkey has died” call. At about the same time in the simulation, Sim Sup also introduced a human medical problem for the MCC flight surgeon to work—pilot Fred Gregory was ill with a fever and a urinary tract infection. The nearly simultaneous monkey illness and Fred’s simulated infection had Fred vigorously defending himself in the simulation debriefing: “I did not violate the monkey!”
The herpes-infected monkeys made the flight and, as far as anybody knew, none of the crew caught the virus, not even the marines. And neither did any of the monkeys later give birth to an air force pilot’s simian bastard. Nor did Fred come back with a urinary tract infection.
At another meeting one of the female physician astronauts presented some life-science findings derived from Spacelab animal experiments. “Newly born mice appear healthy but, in weightlessness, they are unable to stay on their mother’s teats to nurse.”
The comment elicited a Beavis and Butt-Head reaction from the Planet AD crowd. “Dude, she said teats.” A wave of giggles swept through our ranks. One USMC astronaut whispered, “Sucking tit in zero-G sounds like a job for a marine.”
Another life-science experiment presented to astronauts involved the insertion of an instrumented hypodermic needle into an astronaut’s body to measure zero-gravity veinous blood pressure. A Spanish Inquisitor would have blanched at the size of the experiment needle. I asked, “Where are you going to find a vein large enough to stickthat ?”
Physician (and former marine fighter pilot) Norm Thagard joked, “The dorsal vein of the penis will work.” On Planet AD everybody was a comedian.
The briefer assured us the penis would not be a target, but wherever the needle was destined it wasn’t going to be fun. Needle-oriented experiments always seemed to be part of Spacelab missions, a fact that generated this office joke.
Question: “Why do Spacelab missions require a crew of six MSes/PSes?”
Answer: “Five are needed to hold down the experiment victim.”
At yet another Monday meeting the topic was the STS-51F space cola war between Coke and Pepsi. That mission carried experimental zero-G-functional cans of each soft drink. The crew was to evaluate them in the hope carbonated beverages could be added to the menu. Not surprisingly, both soft drink companies wanted theirs to be the first cola consumed in space and called for their political connections to make that happen. Astronauts would hear the issue had reached all the way to the White House. A disgusted John Young returned from one management meeting and said the first-cola-consumed-in-space topic had occupied hours of the committee’s time. That prompted a growl from the back ranks: “Sure hope they’re spending as much time working on the things that can kill us.”
As the Coca-Cola Company was the first to come to NASA with the suggestion of flying their product, they won the battle. The 51F crew was ordered to take photos of the consumption of the drinks with the date/time recording feature of the NASA cameras in the on position. That data conclusively established that Coke was the first cola consumed in space. But since shuttles have no refrigerators, the beverages had to be consumed at room temperature. That fact doomed the experiment to be a disappointment. STS-51F was the first and last cola flight.
On January 27, 1986, I jumped in a T-38 and, along with the rest of the STS-62A crew, flew to New Mexico for some payload training at Los Alamos National Laboratory. While the primary business of the lab was nuclear weaponry, it was also involved in passive military space experiments. Some of these were to be payloads on our Vandenberg flight.
We landed in Albuquerque and took a lab-chartered flight to the small Los Alamos airport. After checking into a motel, I called Judy at the KSC crew quarters to wish her good luck on tomorrow’s mission. I also teased her about the black cloud of delay that seemed to follow her. Her mission had already recorded two launch scrubs, one on January 25 for bad weather and then the next day for a problem with the side hatch.
“So you’re the bad-luck person who caused all ourDiscovery scrubs.”
“I don’t think so, Tarzan. It was Cheetah.” She was right about Hawley. Steve now had the unenviable record of nine strap-ins for two flights. Judy was only working on her sixth strap-in.
I asked her how the launch looked for tomorrow. “Good, except it’s supposed to be cold, down in the twenties. We’re worried about ice in the sound suppression system.”
“It’s all these shuttle launches that are changing the weather.”
She chuckled at my reply.
I kept the call brief knowing she probably had others to receive or make. “I just wanted to say good luck, JR. Please tell the others the same for me.” These were the last words I would ever speak to her.
“Thanks, Tarzan. I’ll see you back in Houston.” These were the last words I would ever hear from her.
The last hope to saveChallenger passed that night. When the Thiokol engineers learned of the extremely cold temperatures forecast at KSC, they convened a special teleconference with their NASA counterparts and argued that the mission should be delayed until the temperature warmed. Their justification was the fact that STS-51C, launched a year earlier with the coldest joint temperature yet—53 degrees—had experienced the worst primary O-ring blow-by of any launch. They suspected the cold temperatures had stiffened the rubberized O-rings and adversely affected their ability to seal. With an estimated joint temperature of about 30 degrees forChallenger, the same thing could happen tomorrow, they argued. They recommended the launch be delayed until the joint temperature was at least 53 degrees. The suggestion brought a fusillade of objection. One NASA official responded, “My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April?” Another said he was “appalled” by the recommendation to postpone the launch. They correctly pointed out that there had been blow-by observed after launches in warm weather, a fact that suggested there was no correlation between temperature and the probability of O-ring failure. The arguments continued for several hours but, in the end, Thiokol management caved in to NASA’s pressure and gave the SRBs a go for launch. The Golden Age had only hours remaining.