Twenty-six years ago this month, the Space Shuttle Discovery and her five man crew landed on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base to successfully complete the Return-to-Flight (RTF) mission of STS-26. The flight signaled a resumption of the Space Shuttle Program after a 32-month hiatus in manned spaceflight resulting from the Challenger disaster.
Well chronicled is the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and its crew of seven on Tuesday, 28 January 1986. Following lift-off at 16:38 UTC from Cape Canaveral’s LC-39B, the launch vehicle distintegrated 73 seconds into flight. The presidentially-appointed Rogers Commission concluded that the primary cause was failure of an O-ring seal in a field joint of the right Solid Rocket Booster (SRB).
While the SRB O-ring failure was the physical cause of the Challenger mishap, the Rogers Commission brought to light a more fundamental and disturbing reason for the tragedy. Specifically, the very decision to launch Challenger on that unusally cold January morning in Florida was fundamentally flawed.
As chillingly delineated in Dianne Vaughan’s “The Challenger Launch Decision”, a culture of deviance with respect to Shuttle flight safety issues had slowly developed at NASA. Pressure to launch, scarce resources and organizational disconnects contributed to NASA management’s blind spot when it came to Shuttle flight safety. The SRB contractor was culpable as well and for the same reasons.
Following redesign and testing of the SRB field joints and the implementation of a myriad of other fixes, NASA prepared to return the Shuttle to flight. The mission was designated as STS-26. To the Space Shuttle Discovery would go the honor of and the responsibility for flying the RTF mission. STS-26 was to be a five day orbital mission.
A five-member crew was selected by NASA to fly STS-26. Each crew member had spaceflight experience. You remember their names. Mission Commander Frederick H. “Rick” Hauck, Pilot Richard O. Covey, and Mission Specialists John M. “Mike” Lounge, George D. “Pinky” Nelson and David C. Hilmers.
Discovery and her brave crew lifted-off from at 15:37 UTC on Thursday, 29 September 1988 from the very same location that Challenger did; LC-39B at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Millions watched that day. Some were in the big crowds that formed in and around the Cape complex. Most observed the event on television. Many prayed.
All who watched Discovery lift-off that day could not forget the previous Shuttle flight. Indeed, they remembered what happened just after the CAPCOM’s call: “Challenger, go at throttle-up.” (Ironically, Richard Covey was the CAPCOM who made that very call.) Today, they heard a similar call over the Shuttle communications network: “Discovery, go at throttle-up.” A collective breath was held. After throttle-up, Discovery continued all the way to orbit. YES!!!
The mission itself seemed to be anti-climatic. A Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) was deployed from Discovery’s payload bay to replace the one lost in the Challenger explosion. A multitude of space experiments was conducted by the crew. Fairly standard stuff. Only deboost, the rigors of reentry and the typical dead-stick landing lay ahead.
Discovery landed on Runway 17 at Edwards Air Force Base on Monday, 03 October 1988. Main gear touchdown occurred at 16:37 UTC. Approximately, 450,000 American’s witnessed Discovery’s landing in person. A few who did had witnessed its launch in person as well.
The emotion that attended Discovery’s landing in October 1988 was simply overwhelming. Indeed, the experience was an integral part of the healing process for a Nation that still grieved the loss of Challenger and her crew. A Time magazine cover page headline the following week excitedly read: “Whew! America Returns to Space” And indeed it had.