My Favorite Shuttle Flight



Today seems like an appropriate day to start reminiscing about the ol’ shuttle program, so here goes.


Sooner or later everybody is going to get to pick their favorite shuttle flight. 


There is a lot to choose from; the boldest test flight in history (STS-1), launching the Hubble (STS-31), or servicing the Hubble (several flights), or assembling the space station (STS-88 and many more), or . . . well, you name it.


My favorite flight was STS-77.  This is partly personal, it was the first time I was Lead Flight Director, in charge of the planning and development for the flight as well as the actual execution.  


Other than that personal reason, STS-77 may seem an odd choice for favorite flight, but after I tell you about it, you may change your mind.  On that flight we carried a double SpaceHab module with many science experiments on board.  Doing microgravity science on short term (approximately two weeks) shuttle flights is tough, but some good science was done by the crew.  But the other payloads that captured most of our interest and had the potential to yield the most significant results. 


One experiment consisted of a small cylindrical sub satellite (shown in the following picture) which was covered by reflective material.  It was ejected from the shuttle payload bay early in the flight.  The cylinder also included a couple of permanent magnets.  The entire experiment consisted of using those magnets to align the satellite with the earth’s magnetic field; a very passive way to provide attitude control for small satellites.  The plan was to kick the satellite out, with a lot of wobble – clearly out of control, fly away for a day, come back, and observe how stable the satellite had become. 


Test Satellite ejected from Shuttle Payload Bay



In actual practice, . . . well. 


The shuttle rendezvoused with the satellite 24 hours later, and it was still wobbling all over the sky, so we went away.   We came back another 24 hours later, and it was still wobbling significantly, so we went away again.  We then waited 48 hours and came back and it was nearly stable, but not completely.  End of experiment.  Nice idea, came close to working, but took too long and never quite did what it was supposed to do.




Did I tell you that STS-77 still holds the record for the most number of rendezvous operations of any space flight?  The crew got really good at those procedures.


Even more impressive was the Inflatable Antenna Experiment (IAE).  The Spartan free flyer was originally designed to be a platform for astronomical experiments (one of the A’s in Spartan is for astronomy).  On this flight, a box with a tightly packaged balloon was mounted on the Spartan.  We put the Spartan/IAE out with the shuttle arm, let it go, flew a few hundred feet away, and watched the sequence.  The box was to pop open and pressurized gas at just a few psi would inflate a huge antenna.  If the antenna were stable and the geometry was right, we could have a new way of building light weight, inexpensive radio antennas in orbit.  What a great concept!  The Spartan had cold gas thrusters to maintain attitude control and would point this test antenna in a direction where we could observe whether or not it performed as expected. 


IAE & Spartan over the Grand Canyon


Things did not go as planned. 


Rather than a straightforward inflation of the balloon, the antenna looked at first like an octopus with multiple entangling arms.  After several minutes it achieved a stable shape as we had expected, but the entire Spartan/IAE package was tumbling end over end. 


Clearly the inflation had set up a motion that the Spartan’s attitude control system could not overcome. 


Even worse, when the “lens” part of the antenna came clearly into view, the surface was not smooth but wrinkled and those wrinkles fluttered across the surface of the lens in constant motion.  This would not provide the smooth, stable surface necessary for radio transmission. 


After observing at a close distance for the planned time; the shuttle crew backed off to a safe distance, the balloon was jettisoned, and the Spartan bus stabilized itself. 


A day later the shuttle rendezvoused with the Spartan bus, grappled it with the arm,  and stowed the Spartan safely in the payload bay.


Did I mention that STS-77 still holds the record for the most number of rendezvous executed by any single space mission?


So here is the scorecard:  several of the SpaceHab science experiments provided interesting results.  The Passive Attitude Control sub-satellite using magnets and the earth’s magnetic field did not achieve the expected results.  The Inflatable Antenna Experiment was, in that configuration, a failure.  And of course, the record number of rendezvous!


So, what do we say about this flight?


Both of these showy free flying experiments were radical, even revolutionary ways of doing business in space.  They were bold in their conception and execution.  If successful, those technologies would have been “game-changing” to use a phrase in current vogue.  But they failed.  That happens sometimes when you test radical innovative technologies.  On the other hand, sometimes you actually succeed.  You always learn.  If we were to try those experiments again, with the knowledge of what didn’t work last time, they might just work.  The revolution may still be just out there. 


I recently heard a radio program discussing what makes America so successful, how we have built such an innovative, creative society.  Part of the reason, it was stated, is that we are not afraid to try something and fail.  In fact, it expected that we will encounter failure. You cannot be innovative and not have failures.  Being paralyzed at the prospect of a potential failure is the greatest failure of all.


Try something.  Be bold, revolutionary, even game changing.  Just don’t be surprised if you have to pick yourself up off the ground and dust off your pants from time to time.  It’s the American way.

17 thoughts on “My Favorite Shuttle Flight”

  1. Thanks for sharing Wayne. That’s my favorite too. Mostly because in the process of helping others “fail while daring greatly” we pushed ourselves to the limits of our capabilities, and even expanded them a bit. Whenever we do that, we learn a lot and make ourselves more ready for the next challenge.

  2. A long time ago, in a constellation far far away


    Episode 1


    Turmoil has engulfed the
    Galactic Republic. The technique
    of trade routes to the outlying
    space station is in dispute.

    Hoping to resolve the matter
    with a blockade of deadly
    budget proposals, the greedy
    Federation has stopped all
    shipping to the small planet
    of Alphaiss.

    While the Congress of the
    Republic endlessly debates
    this alarming chain of events,
    the Supreme President has
    secretly dispatched two Jetting
    Knights, the guardians of
    peace and justice, to the
    constellation, to settle the conflict.

  3. What powers the thing is the absolute feeling, the love that the people have down here at the Center, from the people who work with the wrench, to the people that work with the paper. People who feel as though they are literally pushing it off the pad and their hearts go with it every time, as though it is a member of their family if not a part of their being.

    Tip JJ Tallone. Former Columbia, Discovery and Endeavour Flow Director. 1994

  4. Thank you for that blog and more importantly – Thank you for the dreams NASA helped foster in each of us. I think America took NASA for granted and I know many of us are disappointed in the end of our Space Shuttle Program. The thought of having to ask another country for a ride just doesn’t conform with being American. Hopefully the Shuttle program is just on a temporary hold and not on the ‘delete’ list. Thank you to the entire NASA family, there is no way to express how proud we are of you.

  5. Thank you for that blog and more importantly – Thank you for the dreams NASA helped foster in each of us. I think America took NASA for granted and I know many of us are disappointed in the end of our Space Shuttle Program. The thought of having to ask another country for a ride just doesn’t conform with being American. Hopefully the Shuttle program is just on a temporary hold and not on the ‘delete’ list. Thank you to the entire NASA family, there is no way to express how proud we are of you.

  6. A few years back there was some discussion about the possibility of updating the shuttle. There were some suggestions that the external tank might be replaced with much improved booster rockets and larger onboard fuel carrying capacity, perhaps provided by fuel storage in the shuttle bay. I think there was also some discusion of replacing the tiles with a different form of heat shielding. Does anyone know what, if anything, ever came of this discussion?

  7. This is also what makes a democracy different from any other kind of government; if you fail in a dictatorship, you are lucky if you only lost your job; while in a democracy, if the idea has merit you can try again. And again, and as many times as you can get funding for it.

  8. ok.

    I believe life is a game. Yes. A game that always ends…???

    But there are a lot of games, virtual ones, the fourth dimension…

    But there is one thing, there is a programme, a software that simulates that you smoke, it’s like you were playing to smoke, to stop smoking. Could be a good idea, for adictions.

    I don’t know if you know!

    But failures are like errors in computers.

    It’s not what you expect. ok.

    Technology is a failure futuristically but not presently.

    It’s development and progression. Always going ahead…??? The direction could be a confusion, couldn’t be???

    Direction is the sense, the sense is the intention.

    To advance is on Earth to go towards the same direction always, if not you don’t evolve, it is supposed that exists the difference between directions.

    But originally direction only there is one, I believe universally.

    We manage that display, variety is not the question…

  9. Re: NASA WARS

    Episode 5

    The smiling lord Darth Bolden,
    obsessed with finding young
    Skywalker, has dispatched
    thousands of remote unmanned probes into
    the far reaches of space.

    Well, looks like those probes have found there mark after seeing reports of Jeff Hanleys reassignment. Science fiction is becoming more fact everyday.

  10. To be honest, breaking the record for most rendezvouses with a broken piece of aluminum foil sounds extremely boring & explains why the budget goes nowhere but down. It’s about the missions. Japan is building a robotic moon base. Now that’s something.

  11. A while ago I sent a snail mail to a Wayne Hale living near to Houston.I didn’t have an e mail address. In it I suggested that NASA launch the last shuttle with a crew of 4 and use Soyuz vehicles to return the crew if the the shuttle was damaged. I don’t know if you passed it on, or if others had a similar idea.
    I saw in your blog that you read all comments before they are posted so I figure this will act like an e -mail.
    Can I suggest that if STS 135 goes ahead it launches when the ISS has a crew of 3. worst case happens and there are 7 on the ISS with 1 Soyuz.Launch a rescue soyuz with 1 flight crew, older Soyuz returns with 3 cosmonauts/astronauts.The ISS now has 1 Soyuz and 5 crew.Launch 1 more Soyuz with 1 cosmonaut and it’s back to 6 crew on the ISS with 2 Soyuz vehicles.
    On a separate issue I do enjoy reading your blog.

  12. Once again, another great blog! Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  13. Wayne,
    My favorite flight was STS-49….the three-person EVA and the bare hands catch of Intelsat. No months of rehearsals, no talk-talk-talk. Totally gutsy call reminiscent of the call to change Apollo 8’s mission.

    When NASA loses, it loses hard and when it wins…few notice. I noticed.

  14. Wayne, I have been a fan for a long time and appreciate whenever we FAIL. It is the single most important signpost on the road to understanding.

  15. A possible answer for the Guest in comment #7 asking about shuttle upgrade studies. As I recall it (and this is purely recall, not specific research), the last serious such study undertaken by the Johnson Space Center was circa 1996-7. Many things were looked at, including more resilient tiles, liquid flyback boosters, LH2/LOX OMS/RCS propellants, an upgrade to the cockpit displays (hardware and software), re-hosting the flight software, new window materials, longer Nosewheel strut, and some other things. The cost/payback was judged too high for most of them and I think the only survivors were the hardware cockpit upgrade to flat panels and the drag parachute. There was some later work on better crew displays making use of the flat panels but they never made it either due to cost/payback considerations. Incorporation of GPS navigation for navigation accuracy was also done; I think that was separate from the 1996-7 studies, but I could be wrong.

    Jack Knight

  16. Some related quotations from American inventor Thomas A. Edison (1847 – 1931):

    “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

    “Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.”

    “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

    “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

  17. Every mission I had the pleasure of supporting and working was a favorite. Some more than others… One of those that stand out was STS-49, Endeavours first flight, the highlight being the ‘rescue’ of the Intelsat comm satellite. The one and only time that 3 siom EVAs were preformed from a shuttle. It was am amazing feat.

    But the moments I will never forget were ones filled with horror. That being: I was working in the Command Section at the time. We had just completed passing through the ZOE (TDRS Zone of Exclusion)- which was the one time during each orbit that most folks ran off for the few brief moments to take care of pressing ‘personal matters’, re-fill the java cup, grab a smoke (in this case the flight director was found outside pacing back and forth smoking a mini-cigar, staring in the glass deep in thought… This was during the last EVA when the crew was trying to capture the satellite with the capture-bar contraption (which didn’t quit work out, and which lead to the 3-man EVA scenario).

    I returned back to my console – alone at first, and to my absolute horror, I noted that the TDRSS satellites had been scheduled in my brief absence by my partner – in reverse!! – East instead of West and vice vers. Heart rate off-scale hi moment. The next event was ok, which meant the momentary AOS (acquisition of signal) on TDRS-West was going to be ok, but after that, not good.

    I did my part in the AOS, and then immediately rescheduled things; partner shows up, asking me what I’m doing – I point to the screen and told her to look and look hard. She got that pasty pale look…

    A potential show-stopper of major proportions became a non-event in the end, but talk about living on a razors-edge. Not even the Sim-Sup could of dreamed up that scenario…..


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