NASA Readies a Nighttime Dazzler
Aboard next week's shuttle flight: America's first black astronaut
"This is going smooth as silk." Thus, with only days to go, NASA Spokesman Jim Kukowski ebulliently described the final launch preparations for next week's flight of the Challenger space shuttle. Lift-off for the eighth mission of NASA'S Space Transportation System, known as STS-8, is scheduled for Aug. 30 at 2:15 a.m. at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, just two months after Challenger's historic flight carrying the first American woman into space. That is the shortest turnaround time yet between shuttle flights. This time there will be three more firsts: the nighttime launch, a nighttime landing and the presence in the crew of a black astronaut.
The lift-off will mark the U.S.'s first nocturnal launch of a manned spacecraft since Apollo 17 roared away in a blaze of fire and smoke shortly after midnight on Dec. 7, 1972. The glow was seen by residents of the Great Smoky Mountains, 500 miles away from Cape Canaveral. The spectacle of the ST58 launch should be even more brilliant: the shuttle's engines and twin solid-fuel rocket boosters will generate a temperature of 6,000° F, double that produced by the Apollo.
The orbiter's landing, planned for 12:43 a.m. on Sept. 5 at Edwards Air Force Base in California, will be eerie in a different way. Like a huge ghost ship, the 100-ton Challenger will silently sweep in over the Mojave Desert with nary a beacon light blinking. It will not be visible until it is about 200 feet above the runway; then it will begin reflecting the illumination from batteries of xenon searchlights along the strip.
NASA's nighttime dazzler, while useful practice for future shuttle service, is required by the mission's major objective: putting into orbit a giant communications and weather satellite for India. The $45 million instrument will be spun away from the Challenger on the second day of the flight. To site it correctly, the shuttle has to be placed in a different orbit from its seven predecessors, one that can be achieved only through a night launch. And because of the rigid rules of orbital mechanics, only a night landing is possible. Otherwise, the spaceship would have to circle the earth for a month before finding a daytime window through which to come down.
The mission specialist aboard ST58 who will launch the satellite from the shuttle's payload bay is Air Force Lieut. Colonel Guion (Guy) S. Bluford Jr., 40, America's first black astronaut, though not the first black in space. That distinction belongs to Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez of Cuba, who was sent aloft with Soviet cosmonauts in 1980. Other members of the crew: Navy Captain Richard Truly, the flight commander, flying his second shuttle mission; Navy Commander Daniel C. Brandenstein, the Challenger's pilot; Navy Lieut. Commander Dale Gardner, who will help deploy the Indian satellite; and Physician William E. Thornton, who will study physiological changes in space.
Bluford, reserved and witty, is a veteran of 144 combat missions in Viet Nam with a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. Growing up in Philadelphia, where his father was a mechanical engineer and his mother a teacher, he spent hours building model airplanes. "I wanted to design planes," he says. "It wasn't until I got into the Air Force ROTC program at Penn State that I started to develop a strong interest in flying. My thinking was that if I were a pilot I would be a better engineer."
His designing plans had to wait, however. After earning his pilot's wings in 1965, he was sent to Viet Nam, then joined the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory at Wright-Patterson A.F.B. in Ohio. In 1978, while finishing up his doctorate at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson, he applied to NASA to become an astronaut, thinking it would give him the opportunity to combine his flying and engineering interests.
Married and the father of two teenage sons, Bluford is one of four blacks in the astronaut program. Says he:
"The four of us never talk about my going first. We all recognize that somebody's going to play this role, just like one of the women had to be first. I'm just looking forward to flying."
The Challenger, now parked on Pad 39 A at the Kennedy Space Center, appears ready too.
Preparations for its mission have been free of the glitches that plagued earlier flights. About 75 heat-resistant tiles forming the craft's skin have been replaced. So has the right-front cockpit window, which was slightly damaged during STS-7, probably by a micrometeorite. The only major repair has been to the craft's braking gear, which crumpled while the shuttle was being towed to its 747 carrier aircraft at Edwards.
Originally the ST58 was to launch a tracking and data relay satellite identical to the one sent up on the shuttle's sixth mission in April. But the first satellite's failure to reach its orbit, since corrected, forced a delay in sending up the second. Eager to prove to prospective commercial customers that the shuttle is a reliable transport, NASA substituted an 8,500-lb. dumbbell-shaped mockup. It will be used to test the maneuverability of the giant remote-controlled arm, first demonstrated on the second shuttle mission. Another planned payload: 260,000 commemorative stamps and envelopes (weight: 2,400 lbs.), which the Postal Service hopes to sell for $15.35 each. Half of the anticipated $2 million profit will go to NASA.
By Anastasia Toufexis, Reported by Jerry Hannifin/Washington and Geoffrey Leavenworth/Houston
August 29, 1983