The Cape, Chapter I, Section 5

USAF Space Organizations and Programs

Early Space Shuttle Flights

The Air Force hoped the TITAN 34D and Space Shuttle would complement each other on heavy space operations in the early 1980s, but the Shuttle's slow development was a cause for some concern. Though the Space Shuttle would eventually become the centerpiece of America's space effort, the vehicle was plagued with thermal tile and engine problems late in its development. Those problems continued to delay the Shuttle's debut, and they contributed to the Air Force's decision to hold on to the "mixed fleet" approach to military space operations several years before the Challenger disaster. At the beginning of 1979, as Rockwell International struggled to install thermal protective tiles on the first Shuttle orbiter (Columbia) before its ferry flight to the Kennedy Space Center, the corporation's Rocketdyne Division had to retest the orbiter's main engines to verify the successful redesign of the engines' main oxidizer valves. That testing was successful, but a fuel valve failed during another engine test in July 1979. Engine testing resumed in October 1979, and it continued into the middle of March 1980. In the meantime, Columbia had been ferried to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) toward the end of March 1979. The new orbiter still lacked 10,000 of its 34,000 thermal protective tiles, and those tiles were painstakingly installed by a special NASA team at the rate of about 600 per week through the summer of 1979. Problems with tiles and engines continued to delay NASA's first launch of Columbia in 1980, and that mission was eventually postponed to March 1981. Since the first four Shuttle flights would be test flights, the first operational mission was not expected before September 1982. Consequently, some payloads scheduled for Shuttle missions had to be delayed or transferred to more unmanned launch vehicles. The Space and Missile Systems Organization contracted six more TITAN 34Ds with Martin Marietta in the summer of 1979, and Space Division (i.e., SAMSO's successor) placed another order for five TITAN 34Ds with Martin in November 1980.31 

While work on Columbia continued at KSC, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers marked the completion of IUS processing facility modifications to the east end of the Cape's Solid Motor Assembly Building (SMAB) in September 1980. The west low bay area of the SMAB was set aside to support IUS/Shuttle payload integration, and a $15,900,150 contract for the construction of the Shuttle Payload Integration Facility (SPIF) in that area was awarded to Algernon Blair Corporation of Atlanta, Georgia on 10 July 1981. Construction on the SPIF began on 4 August 1981, and it was completed on 15 February 1984. A separate contract to operate the SPIF was awarded to McDonnell Douglas Technical Services Company on 22 April 1982, and, following installation of equipment and completion of the facility in February 1984, the SPIF was declared fully operational. The SPIF was designed as a processing facility for military payloads, but Space Division agreed to let NASA use the SPIF for civilian payloads on a "case-by-case" basis as long as the agency paid for the processing work and complied with the Defense Department's security requirements.32

Figure 32: Shuttle COLUMBIA
November 1980 

Ten Shuttle missions had been launched from KSC by the time the SPIF went into operation, and those flights set the tone for the Air Force's launch vehicle strategy in the mid-1980s. The schedule for the first of these missions (i.e., Columbia, March 1981) had been extremely tight. As events unfolded, three different problems arose to delay that flight by about one month. Nevertheless, with veteran astronaut John W. Young in command and Navy Captain Robert L. Crippen as pilot, Columbia lifted off Pad 39A on 12 April 1981 at 7:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. For that 54-hour mission, Columbia carried instruments to measure orbiter systems performance, but no payloads were carried in the orbiter's payload bay. Tests of Columbia's space radiators, maneuvering and attitude thrusters, computers, avionics systems and protective tiles all went well, and Columbia's crew landed the orbiter at Edwards Air Force Base on April 14th. Columbia's second mission was scheduled to be launched from Pad 39A on October 9th, but its actual lift-off occurred there on 12 November 1981. The third Shuttle test mission was launched from Pad 39A on 22 March 1982, and the last of Columbia's test flights was launched from Pad 39A on 27 June 1982. The mission on June 27th featured the first Shuttle launch of a Defense Department payload, and it generated several Air Force "lessons learned" reports designed to enhance the future of military space operations aboard the Shuttle.33 

The next six Shuttle flights featured a variety of payloads, problems and mission results. Columbia's STS-5 flight was the first operational mission of the Shuttle program. Its primary objective was to launch two communications satellites (Satellite Business Systems' SBS-3 and TELESAT CANADA's ANIK C-3). The countdown went well on 12 November 1982, and both satellites were deployed successfully on the first and second days of the mission. The sixth Shuttle mission (STS-6) was Challenger's maiden flight, and it featured the first extravehicular activity (i.e., spacewalk) in the history of the Shuttle program. Preparations for Challenger's first flight were anything but uneventful: the launch scheduled for 20 January 1983 was delayed when a hydrogen leak was detected in Main Engine Number 1 in mid-December 1982; the launch was postponed for two months, but a replacement engine also developed a leak, and a second replacement engine had to be checked out and shipped to KSC in late February 1983. Leaks were detected in another component of Main Engine Number 2, and all three of Challenger's main engines were pulled for repairs at the end of February. The launch was rescheduled for March 26th, but contamination was detected in the payload bay area in early March, so the launch was rescheduled for early April 1983. Under the command of Paul J. Weitz, Challenger finally lifted off on its five-day mission from Pad 39A at 1830:00 Greenwich Mean Time on April 4th. The first in a series of Tracking and Data Relay System (TDRS) satellites was deployed on Challenger's first day in orbit, but the IUS used to propel the payload into geosynchronous orbit had a premature cutoff, and several months of altitude correction by the satellite's thrusters were required before the satellite entered normal service.34

Figure 33: Launch of Shuttle COLUMBIA
27 June 1982 

Two Hughes HS-376 series satellites were deployed successfully during Challenger's second mission (STS-7) in mid-June 1983, but ground control checkout problems with the TDRS satellite deployed during STS-6 delayed support long enough to push Challenger's third mission from August 20th to the end of the month. That flight (STS-8) was launched at 0632:00 Greenwich Mean Time on 30 August 1983, and it proved to be the smoothest Shuttle mission up to that time. An Indian National Satellite (INSAT-1B) was deployed from the orbiter on Day Two of the mission, and TDRS-A communications tests went well. Extensive testing of the orbiter's Remote Manipulator System (RMS) was successful.35 

The ninth Shuttle mission (STS-9) was Columbia's only flight during 1983, and it was conducted from November 28th through December 8th. It was commanded by John Young and piloted by Brewster H. Shaw, Jr. The flight was primarily a "shakedown" mission to test the compatibility of Space Lab systems with orbiter systems, but secondary objectives included investigations into atmospheric physics, plasma physics, astronomy, material and life sciences and Earth observations. At least 70 experiments in those disciplines were performed during STS-9. The Space Lab science crew consisted of Dr. Byron K. Lichtenberg and Dr. Ulf Merbold. Dr. Owen K. Garriott and Dr. Robert A. Parker served as mission specialists. In circumstances reminiscent of STS-8, Columbia's mission was rescheduled to late October 1983 due to delays in TDRS-A verification testing. A further delay occurred in mid-October when Columbia had to be rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at KSC and demated from its external tank so a suspicious exit nozzle on the right-hand solid rocket booster could be replaced. The procedure required a complete restack of the orbiter/booster assembly, and it delayed the launch until late November. The countdown and launch on November 28th was uneventful, and on-orbit operations went well. Unfortunately, a significant problem surfaced during deorbit operations: two of the orbiter's five General Purpose Computers (GPCs) broke down, and only one of the two computers could be reinitiated. The Flight Director waved off the planned deorbit, and the landing was rescheduled to give officials time to study the computer problem. Columbia finally made a lakebed runway landing at Edwards about seven hours and 48 minutes later than scheduled.36 

Under the command of Vance C. Brand, Robert L. Gibson piloted Challenger on the tenth Shuttle mission (41-B) from the 3rd through the 11th of February 1984. Bruce McCandless II, Ronald E. McNair and Robert L. Stewart served as mission specialists on the flight. The mission included the first untethered spacewalks by McCandless and Stewart, the first use of the Manned Maneuvering Unit, and the first Shuttle landing at KSC. The orbiter experienced very few problems during the mission, but Western Union's WESTAR VI communications satellite and Indonesia's PALAPA B-2 spacecraft both wound up in useless low-Earth orbits after their Payload Assist Modules (PAMs) malfunctioned following deployment. (Both satellites were retrieved during Shuttle mission 51-A in November 1984.) Challenger landed without incident on February 11th.37


The Cape: Miltary Space Operations 1971-1992
by Mark C. Cleary, Chief Historian
45 Space Wing Office of History
1201 Minuteman Ave, Patrick AFB, FL 32925