OV-104/ATLANTIS: An International Vehicle for a Changing World
Atlantis: the first last orbiter of the Shuttle fleet:
Construction of the 4th and originally final Space Shuttle orbiter for NASA’s fleet began on January 29, 1979 when NASA awarded the contract to build OV-104 (Orbiting Vehicle 104) to Rockwell International – the same company that received the contracts to build Enterprise (OV-101), Columbia (OV-102), Challenger (OV-099), and Discovery (OV-103).
Start of structural assembly of OV-104’s crew module began on March 30, 1980. Over a year and a half later, engineers began assembling the various manufactured components that would eventually comprise the new orbiter’s aft fuselage on November 23, 1981 – just a few days after the completion of the second flight of the Space Shuttle Program (SSP).
In June 1983, the new orbiter’s tell-tale Delta wings arrived on-dock at her Palmdale, CA construction facility after shipment from the Grumman manufacturing facility in New York.
Seven months later, on December 2, 1983, engineers at Palmdale began final assembly of OV-104’s constituent parts – a procedure which was complete on April 10, 1984.
After an additional full year of end-to-end testing of all of her systems, construction was complete, and on April 6, 1985 the new Space Shuttle orbiter ATLANTIS was rolled out of her construction facility for her first moment in the public eye.
The 4th operational orbiter of NASA’s fleet, Shuttle Atlantis was named, like her sisters, after previous Earth-bound vessels of exploration. However, unlike her three operational sisters to come before her, Atlantis was named after only one ship and is the only Shuttle orbiter named after a 20th century Earth-bound sailing ship. Atlantis is also the only Shuttle orbiter named after an Earth-bound American research vessel, and is the ONLY Shuttle orbiter named after a still-in-service research vehicle.
Specifically, the orbiter Atlantis takes her name from the 1930-1966 two-mastered boat that served as the primary research vessel for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute of Massachusetts.
That Atlantis, built in Denmark, carried 17 crewmembers and five scientists who worked in two on-board laboratories, examining water samples and marine life. The crew of this Atlantis also used the first electronic sounding devices to map the ocean floor.
In 1966, this Atlantis was transferred from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to Argentina’s CONICET, where she was renamed El Austral and registered under the Argentine National Registry of Ships.
By this point, the Atlantis, now El Austral, had completed nearly 300 scientific campaigns and spent a yearly average of 260 days at sea – solidifying her place as one of the most premiere scientific research vessels in history.
After service under the name El Austral, the vessel was removed from service but not retired. An extensive refit and refurbishment was then undertaken and the Atlantis’s/El Austral’s name changed to Dr. Bernardo Houssay – the man who first procured her delivery to CONICET from Woods Hole.
To this day, the Atlantis/El Austral/Dr. Bernardo Houssay is the most-traveled sea fairing vessel in the world – with more scientific research-based miles to her name than any other ship in history.
And perhaps in one of the most fitting twists of history, the newly restored Dr. Bernado Houssay was re-launched from her refit in the first step to put her back into full active service on June 29, 2011 – just 9 days before Space Shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to launch on her retirement flight for the Space Shuttle Program.
Three days after Shuttle Atlantis’s rollout ceremony at Palmdale, she was transported overland to Edwards Air Force Base, CA where final preparations were made for her cross-country ferry flight – culminating in delivery to the Kennedy Space Center on April 13, 1985: 4 years and one day after the very first Shuttle flight.
Few could have expected on the day of Atlantis’s delivery to Kennedy that she would not only ALWAYS call the Kennedy Space Center home (even in her pending retirement), but also that she would be selected as the vehicle to fly the upcoming final mission of the Space Shuttle Program.
Upon delivery to the Kennedy Space Center, Atlantis weighed a total of 151,315 lbs – 3.5 tons lighter than her eldest sister Columbia.
After being demated and removed from the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, orbiter Atlantis was rolled from the Shuttle Landing Facility into an OPF on April 14, 1985 for initial receiving inspections and “dummy” Forward Reaction Control System (FRCS) and Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pod removal.
On May 10, Atlantis was moved into the VAB for storage in order to make room in one of the two OPFs for one of her sister orbiters.
On May 28, she was moved back into an OPF where receiving inspections continued and maiden voyage processing began. Atlantis was once again moved to the VAB for storage on July 18. She was returned to an OPF on July 30 where full-up pre-mission processing for her maiden voyage continued.
On August 12, Atlantis was moved to the VAB, connected to the hoisting/mating crane, lifted up, and mated to External Tank 25 (ET-25). Eighteen days later, on August 30, Atlantis and the STS-51J stack was rolled out to launch pad 39A, where final pre-launch processing began.
As is customary with any new Space Shuttle orbiter, Atlantis spent her first week at the launch pad being prepared for her Flight Readiness Firing (FRF).
On September 5, 1985, the launch control team convened and performed the standard wet countdown dress rehearsal – which culminated in the 20-second firing of Atlantis’s three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs).
The FRF was a complete success and no issues were detecting, allowing NASA managers to certify Atlantis’s Main Propulsion System (MPS) for flight.
With this test complete, preparations began in earnest for Atlantis’s launch on the STS-51J mission. At the standard Flight Readiness Review (FRR), Shuttle managers formally set Atlantis’s launch date for October 3 at 10:53 EDT.
The countdown for STS-51J began right on time and encountered no issues to speak of. On Oct. 3, the launch control team began loading of the ET with 536,000 gallons of liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid hydrogen (LH2).
During the final part of the countdown, a main engine LH2 prevalve close remote power controller indicated a faulty ‘on’ condition.
The launch team quickly worked through this issue, and at 11:15.30 EDT on October 3, 1985 – just 22mins 30secs after the originally targeted launch time – the Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off on her maiden voyage to the cheers of a gathered crowd at Kennedy and in Titusville.
Liftoff of Atlantis on STS-51J marked her official entrance as an operational orbiter into the Space Shuttle Program and the first time that a Space Shuttle orbiter launched on her maiden voyage on the very first launch attempt.
STS-51J was the first flight of Atlantis, the 21st overall flight of the Space Shuttle Program, the 33rd space launch conducted from launch pad 39A (an ironic twist as Atlantis will end her career with 33 missions to her name), and the second completely classified Department of Defense (DoD) flight for the Space Shuttle Program.
While classified at the time, Atlantis was launched into a 28.5-degree inclination orbit.
After deploying her classified DoD payload, Atlantis returned to Earth, landing at Edwards Air Force Base, CA at 13:00.08 EDT on runway 23 on October 7.
Atlantis was returned to the Kennedy Space Center on October 12 and moved directly into an OFP where post-flight deservicing and pre-flight processing took place simultaneously.
After only 26 days in the OPF, a record fast processing flow and one that was never attempted again in the history of the Space Shuttle Program, Atlantis was rolled to the VAB on November 7 and mated with her ET and SRB stack for STS-61B.
The entire 61B stack was rolled out to launch pad 39A on November 12, and after a flawless pad flow and countdown, Atlantis lifted off on her 2nd mission on November 26, 1985 at 07:29.00 EST.
STS-61B was the 23rd Space Shuttle mission, the second night launch of the Shuttle Program, and the 9th and final flight of 1985. It was also the quickest turnaround of a Shuttle orbiter from launch to launch in history – just 54 days between Atlantis’s launch on STS-51J and her launch on STS-61B.
STS-61B also marked the first flight of astronaut Jerry Ross who would go on to fly five of his record seven Shuttle missions on Atlantis. The mission also carried the only person of Mexican nationality to fly in space to date.
After safely reaching orbit, Atlantis’s seven-member crew successfully deployed three communications satellites for Mexico (MORE LOS-B), Australia (AUSSAT-2), and Americom (SATCOM KU-2).
The crew also performed two spacewalks during the mission to test the assembly of erectable structures in microgravity. These two experiments were the Experimental Assembly of Structures in Extravehicular Activity and Assembly Concept for Construction of Erectable Space Structure.
An IMAX camera flew in Atlantis’s payload bay to document the satellite deployments and EVAs (spacewalks) on this mission.
Middeck payloads on this flight included the Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System, Diffusive Mixing of Organic Solutions, Morelos Payload Specialist Experiments, and Orbiter Experiments.
One Getaway Special canister stored in Atlantis’s payload bay carried a Canadian student experiment involving the fabrication of mirrors in microgravity and whether they have a higher performance than ones manufactured on Earth.
Atlantis also carried with her on STS-61B a checkered racing flag for NASCAR. The flag is now on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.
After 6 days 21 hours 4 minutes and 49 seconds, Atlantis landed safely on concrete runway 22 at Edwards Air Force Base, CA on December 3 at 16:33.49 EST. Rollout distance on landing was 10,759 feet lasting 78 seconds.
The mission landed one orbit earlier than planned due to lighting concerns at Edwards.
Atlantis was returned to the Kennedy Space Center on December 7 and moved into an OPF to begin processing for her next mission in 1986.
Sadly, before Atlantis could complete processing for this mission, her sister Challenger was lost during the launch of the STS-51L mission on January 28, 1986.
In the resulting stand-down following the loss of Challenger, NASA greatly revamped its safety culture, mandating widespread and sweeping safety changes and upgrades to the Space Shuttle fleet.
As part of these changes and re-certification of parts of the Shuttle Program, Atlantis was mated to an ET/SRB set in October 1986 and rolled out to Pad-B on October 9 to fit check a new weather protection system.
During her time at the pad, countdown procedure certifications/tests and emergency egress training/rescue with a mock flight crew was conducted on November 18th (countdown) and Nov. 19th and 20th (emergency rescue).
STS-135 Specific Articles: https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/tag/sts-135/
Atlantis was then rolled back to the VAB on November 22, 1986 and returned to an OPF for post-Challenger safety upgrades on March 20, 1987.
Safety upgrades and pre-mission processing proceeded through 1987 and 1988. Following the successful Return to Flight STS-26 mission by sister Discovery in September/October 1988, Atlantis was moved to the VAB on Oct. 22 and mated to a redesigned/safety-improved SRB/ET stack.
Atlantis and the STS-27 stack was rolled out to launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center on November 2. On December 1, the launch was scrubbed due to unacceptable cloud cover and out-of-limit winds at the Kennedy Space Center.
Liftoff of Atlantis and the STS-27 mission occurred at 09:30.34 EST on December 2, 1988. It was the 3rd flight of Atlantis, the 3rd Shuttle mission dedicated completely to a classified DoD mission, the 3rd Shuttle launch from Pad-B, the 27th overall Shuttle mission, the 8th space launch from Pad-B, and the second and final Shuttle launch of 1988.
However, Atlantis’s classified payload turned out to be the least-important or concerning part of the STS-27 mission.
During standard post-launch imagery review, it was discovered that portions of ablative insulation on the right hand Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) nose cone had liberated 85 seconds after liftoff and impacted the right hand side of the Atlantis, causing significant Thermal Protection System (TPS) damage.
During the mission, the crew used Atlantis’s Shuttle Remote Manipulator System robot arm to inspect the damage. However, limited resolution and range of the cameras from the damage locations made it extremely difficult to determine the full extent of the damage.
Further compounding the problem was the fact that the crew was unable to transmit images of the damage to the ground via normal channels because of the classified nature of the mission. Instead, the crew was forced to use a slow, encrypted transmission system that likely degraded the black and white images further and thus prevented ground engineers from realizing the true extent of the damage.
From the images transmitted, it was determined that the damage was no more severe than on previous missions.
Upon landing on December 6, 1988 at 18:36.11 EST at Edwards Air Force Base, CA, over 700 TPS tiles were found to be damage, and one tile was completely missing.
Luckily, and perhaps the only thing that prevented a burn through at the area of the missing TPS tile and the loss of Atlantis and her flight crew was the fact that the missing tile was located over a dense aluminum mounting plate for the L-band antenna – which provided some degree of “added” protection against a burn through.
To date, Atlantis is the most-damaged launch/entry vehicle to successfully return to Earth.
Atlantis was returned to the Kennedy Space Center on December 13 and moved into an OPF on Dec. 14. Once there, technicians got to work removing and replacing all of the damaged TPS tiles and taking detailed inspections of Atlantis while simultaneously preparing her for her next mission: STS-30.
After three months in the OPF, Atlantis was rolled over to the VAB and mated with ET-29 and an SRB set on March 11. Eleven days later on March 22, Atlantis was rolled out to launch pad 39B.
There, the interplanetary probe Magellan was installed into Atlantis’s payload bay and the launch date set for April 28, 1989.
The launch attempt on April 28 proceeded smoothly until the T-31sec mark when the Ground Launch Sequencer refused to hand-off control of the count to Atlantis’s five General Purpose Computers (GPCs) due to a problem with the LH2 recirculation pump on SSME #1 and a vapor leak in the four-inch LH2 recirculation line between Atlantis and her ET.
The launch was scrubbed, repairs were made, and the launch reset for May 4 at 13:48 EDT.
On May 4, launch was delayed until the final five minutes of the launch window due to cloud cover and wind constraints at the Shuttle Landing Facility for RTLS (Return To Launch Site) abort consideration.
At 14:48.59 EDT on May 4, 1989, Space Shuttle Atlantis thundered off Pad-B to begin the STS-30 mission – the first inter-planetary probe deployment mission in Shuttle history and the first manned mission in history to deploy an inter-planetary probe.
Inserted into a 28.8-degree inclination orbit, Atlantis successfully deployed the Magellan probe to Venus on FD-1 (Flight Day 1) of the mission.
The Magellan spacecraft mapped over 90% of Venus’s surface and was the first inter-planetary probe launched by NASA since the Pioneer Orbiter (also to Venus) in 1978.
The Magellan craft created the first (and currently best) near-photographic quality, high resolution radar map of Venus. Magellan’s mission lasted until October 11, 1994 when its orbit was purposefully lowered to deorbit the craft into Venus’s atmosphere.
Other experiments carried by Atlantis on STS-30 – all of which had flown before – included the Mesoscale Lightning Experiment, the microgravity research with Fluids Experiment Apparatus, and the Air Force Maui Optical Site experiment.
During the mission, one of Atlantis’s five GPCs failed, necessitating its replacement with an on-board hardware spare. This marked the first time that a GPC was switched during orbital operations.
After 4 days, Atlantis touched down safely on Runway 22 at Edwards Air Force Base, CA at 15:43.27 EDT on May 8. She was returned to the Kennedy Space Center on May 15 and moved into an OPF on May 16.
She then spent the next three months processing for a nearly identical mission: STS-34 and the deployment of the Galileo inter-planetary probe to Jupiter.
Atlantis was moved to the VAB on August 21 and out to Pad-B on August 29, 1989 for an October 12 launch. The Galileo probe was installed into her payload bay in September.
On October 12, launch was delayed due to a faulty Main Engine Controller on SSME-2. The launch was reschedule for Oct. 17 but was scrubbed on this day due to RTLS weather constraints at the Kennedy Space Center.
Launch on Oct. 18 occurred at 12:53.40 EDT after a 3-minute 40-second hold at T-5mins to update Atlantis’s onboard computers for a change in the TAL (Transoceanic Abort Landing) site from Ben Guerir, Morocco to Zaragoza, Spain. The mission was the 31st of the Space Shuttle Program and the fifth for Atlantis.
After attaining a 34.3-degree 185nm orbit, Atlantis deployed the Galileo probe 6 hours 30mins into the flight – sending the probe on its way to Jupiter.
Among the Galileo probe’s numerous successes and milestones were: first asteroid flyby, discovery of the first asteroid moon, first spacecraft to orbit Jupiter and an outer planet, and first spacecraft to launch another satellite (or probe) into Jupiter’s atmosphere.
Galileo spent 14 years in space and 8 years orbiting Jupiter before it was purposefully deorbited on September 21, 2003 to avoid any chance of it accidentally contaminating Jupiter’s moons.
Aside from Galileo, Atlantis also carried the following experiments on STS-34: a Shuttle Solar Backscatter Ultraviolet experiment, a Growth Hormone Crystal Distribution experiment, a Polymer Morphology experiment, the Sensor a Technology Experiment, a Mesoscale Lightning Experiment, a Shuttle Student Involvement Program experiment that investigated ice crystal formation in zero gravity, and the ground-based Air Force Maui Optical Site experiment.
During the mission, medical doctor Ellen Baker tested the effectiveness of anti-motion sickness medication in space and conducted monitoring experiments on her veins and arteries in her retinal wall to study a possible relationship between cranial pressure and motion sickness.
After 4days 23hours 39mins and 20seconds in space, Atlantis landed at Edwards Air Force Base at 12:33.00 EDT on Oct. 23 – two orbits earlier than planned because of expected high winds at the time of the originally planned landing.
She was returned to KSC on Oct. 29 and moved into an OPF on Oct. 30. Two and half months later, she was moved to the VAB and mated with an ET/SRB stack on January 19. The entire STS-36 stack was rolled out to Pad-A on January 25, 1990.
Launch was originally scheduled for February 22 but was delayed to Feb. 23, Feb. 24, and Feb. 25 due to an illness by one of her crewmembers and poor weather conditions.
This was the first time since Apollo 13 that a crewmember’s illness affected a mission.
Launch on February 25 was scrubbed because of a malfunctioning Range Safety computer. Launch was reset for Feb. 26 but was once again scrubbed due to poor weather conditions.
No attempt was made to launch on Feb. 27.
On Feb. 28, the launch countdown was uneventful and Atlantis lifted off at 02:50.22 EST on her 6th mission, the 6th Shuttle mission dedicated to the DoD, and the 4th night launch of the Shuttle Program.
This was the only Space Shuttle mission to be flown at an orbital inclination greater than 57-degrees – the standard maximum orbital inclination from Kennedy to ensure that the Space Shuttle does not fly over populated land masses during the launch sequence.
Given the classified nature of the STS-36 payload and the need to place the payload into a 62-degree inclination orbit (an inclination above the maximum 57-degree inclination allowed for KSC launches), special waivers were processed to accomplish land overflight during launch and a special launch trajectory was developed to minimize Atlantis’s land overflight during ascent.
This special trajectory involved launching Atlantis onto an initial 57-degree inclination orbit through SRB powered flight. After SRB separation, Atlantis’s three Main Engines gimbaled, altering Atlantis’s trajectory into a 62-inclination to the equator. The resulting maneuver carried significant vehicle performance hits for Atlantis as well as a hit to the total payload weight she could successfully lift to orbit on that mission.
This is the only instance of a Space Shuttle launching in a dog-legged trajectory, and the classified “important to National Security” payload was the only reason the land overflight rules were suspended for STS-36. The payload remains officially classified to this date.
The mission proved successful and Atlantis returned safely to Earth 4-days later, landing at Edwards Air Force Base, CA on March 4.
Post-flight inspections revealed drops of hydraulic fluid near the right main landing gear wheel well, the LH2 17-inch disconnect, and the Main Engines. All hydraulic operations were nominal throughout the hydraulic-active portions of the flight.
Atlantis was returned to Kennedy and then moved into an OPF on March 14 where she began processing for STS-38.
On June 8, she was moved to the VAB and mated with ET-40 and an SRB stack. The entire STS-38 stack was moved to the launch pad on June 18 for an originally intended July launch date.
However, an LH2 leak found on sister Columbia during the STS-35 countdown coupled with a concern that the leak problem might not be contained to Columbia and her ET prompted NASA to order three Tanking Tests on Atlantis and the STS-38 stack.
These tests took place on June 29, July 13, and July 25 of 1990 and confirmed a LH2 leak on the ET-side of the ET/Orbiter 17-inch quick disconnect umbilical and propellant line.
Since the issue could not be repaired at the launch pad, Atlantis/STS-38 was rolled back on August 9 to the VAB – the 5th rollback of a Space Shuttle stack in Program history. However, all the VAB high bays capable of receiving a Shuttle orbiter were full and Atlantis was forced to wait outside the VAB for a full day before her sister Columbia vacated the VAB during her re-rollout for launch on STS-35.
This created a once-in-a-program photo op – for which Atlantis has been a part of two of three once-in-a-program photo ops – of two fully stacked Space Shuttles side by side on the crawler way.
However, during her wait outside, Atlantis received minor hail damage from a passing thunderstorm. Once back in the VAB, Atlantis was demated from her tank and returned to the OPF for repairs on August 15.
On Oct. 2, she was once again moved to the VAB and mated with her STS-38 ET/SRB stack. During lifting operations in the VAB, a work platform inside Atlantis that should have been removed before OPF rollout fell and caused minor damage.
After the damage was repaired, Atlantis/STS-38 was rolled out to Pad-A on October 12, 1990. A mini-Tanking Test on October 24 confirmed no excessive leakage of LH2 between the Orbiter and the ET. A subsequent Flight Readiness Review set the launch date for November 9, but a payload problem postponed launch until November 15.
Atlantis lifted off on her 7th flight and the 7th Shuttle mission dedicated to the DoD on Nov. 15, 1990 at 18:48.13 EST. At liftoff, STS-38 was the 37th Space Shuttle mission and the 5th night launch of the Space Shuttle.
The mission remains classified to this day.
Landing on November 19 was waved-off due to crosswind violations at Edwards Air Force Base. On November 20, landing was diverted from Edwards, and at 16:42.42 EST, Atlantis glided to a picture-perfect landing at the Kennedy Space Center.
It was Atlantis’s first-ever KSC landing and the first End Of Mission landing at KSC since April 1985 and the 6th overall KSC landing.
Later that day, Atlantis was moved into an OPF where she underwent four months of processing for STS-37. On March 8, she was moved to the VAB, and the entire STS-37 stack was moved to LC-39B on March 15.
The Flight Readiness Review set the mission’s launch date for April 5, 1991 at 09:18 EST. Liftoff was delayed 4mins 44secs due to low-level cloud cover. At 09:22.44 EST April 5, 1991, Atlantis lifted off on her 8th flight and the 39th mission of the Space Shuttle Program.
During the near-6day mission, Atlantis deployed the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory – the second of the Great Observatories program – on FD-3 of the mission.
Prior to deployment of the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, the observatory’s high-gain antenna failed to deploy. This resulted in an unscheduled contingency EVA by Atlantis crewmembers Ross and Apt. The spacewalk was successful in manually deploying the antenna.
This was the first unscheduled EVA since April 1985. Likewise, the mission also featured the first planned EVA since November 1985. During this planned EVA, Ross and Apt tested means for astronauts to move themselves and equipment about while conducting construction and maintenance operations on then-Space Station Freedom – later the International Space Station.
Additionally, Atlantis carried Crew and Equipment Translation Aids for the scheduled six-hour spacewalk by astronauts Ross and Apt; an Ascent Particle Monitor; the Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment II; a Protein Crystal Growth experiment; the Bioserve/instrumentation Technology Associates Materials Dispersion Apparatus; Radiation Monitoring Equipment III; and the Air Force Maui Optical Site experiment.
Landing on April 10 was delayed one day due to adverse weather conditions at Edwards and Kennedy. Landing on April 11 occurred at 09:55.29 EDT at Edwards Air Force Base, CA.
While not obvious to TV viewers or viewers on the ground at Edwards, an incorrect call about the winds aloft created a significant underspeed for Atlantis while she rolled around HAC (Heading Alignment Circle). This resulted in an inability – despite an excellent effort on the part of Atlantis’s Commander – to reach the prescribed touchdown location on the dry lake bed at Edwards.
As a result, Atlantis touched down 623 feet shy of the runway threshold – an event which proved to not be a serious incident because Atlantis was landing on the dry lake bed runway at Edwards. For perspective, had the same thing occurred at Kennedy, Atlantis would have touched down on the 1,000ft over/under runs at the end of the runway.
After returning to the Kennedy Space Center, Atlantis spent exactly two months in the OPF before moving to the VAB on June 19 for mating with her ET/SRB stack for STS-43.
The entire vehicle was moved to LC-39A on June 25, 1991 for a July 23 launch.
A faulty integrated electronics assembly responsible for controlling orbiter/ET separation after launch forced a one day delayed to the launch.
On July 24, the launch was scrubbed approximately 5hrs before launch due to a faulty Main Engine Controller on SSME-3. The controller was removed, replaced and retested and launch reset for August 1.
On Aug. 1, launch was delayed from its scheduled 11:01 EDT time to 12:28 EDT due to an out-of-limit cabin pressure vent valve reading. Launch was eventually scrubbed due to RTLS abort weather constraints.
Liftoff of Atlantis and STS-43 finally occurred on August 2, 1991 at 11:01.59 EDT. It was the 9th flight of Atlantis, the 42nd Space Shuttle mission, and the 41st space launch from LC-39A.
During the nine day mission, Atlantis deployed TDRS-E (Tracking and Data Relay Satellite #5) into geosynchronous orbit on FD-1. Upon deployment TDRS-E became the 4th operational member of the TDRS cluster (the 2nd TDRS was lost with Shuttle Challenger in the STS-51L accident).
Over the course of the remainder of the mission, Atlantis carried numerous experiments, including the Space Station Heat Pipe Advanced Radiator Element II; the Shuttle Solar Backscatter Ultra-Violet instrument; Tank Pressure Control Equipment, and Optical Communications Through Windows experiment.
Moreover, Atlantis performed the Auroral Photography Experiment Protein Crystal Growth Ill experiment; the Bioserve/Instrumentation Technology Associates Materials Dispersion Apparatus experiment; Investigations Into Polymer Membrane Processing experiment; the Space Acceleration Measurement System experiment; the Solid Surface Combustion Experiment; the Ultraviolet Plume Imager experiment; and the Air Force Maui Optical Site experiment.
After nearly 9days in orbit, Atlantis performed the first scheduled KSC landing since STS-61C/Columbia in January 1986 – though that mission diverted to Edwards because of weather.
Atlantis landed safely on runway 15 at the Kennedy Space Center on August 11, 1991 at 08:23.25 EDT.
After two months in the OPF, Atlantis was moved to the VAB and mated with her ET/SRB stack for STS-44. The stack was moved to LC-39A on October 23, 1991 for a November 19 launch.
The November 19th launch date was postponed due to a malfunctioning redundant inertial measurement unit on the Inertial Upper Stage booster attached the mission’s primary payload: the Defense Support Program satellite.
The unit was replaced and retest and launch was rescheduled for Nov. 24 at 18:31.00 EDT. Liftoff was delayed 13 minutes to both allow for an orbiting spacecraft to pass by and to allow for ET LOX replenishment after minor repairs to a valve in the LOX replenishment system.
Liftoff of Atlantis’s 10th mission occurred at 18:44.00 EDT 24 November 1991. It was the 44th mission of the Space Shuttle Program and the first unclassified DoD mission flown by orbiter Atlantis.
During the near seven day mission, Atlantis deployed the Defense Support Program satellite.
Additional payloads and experiments included the Interim Operational Contamination Monitor; the Terra Scout; the Military Man in Space; the Air Force Maui Optical System; the Cosmic Radiation Effects and Activation Monitor; the Shuttle Activation Monitor; Radiation Monitoring Equipment III; the Visual Function Tester-1; the Ultraviolet Plume Instrument, the Bioreactor Flow and Particle Trajectory experiment; and the Extended Duration Orbiter Medical Project, a series of investigations in support of Extended Duration Orbiter missions.
On November 30, six days into the 10-day mission, one of Atlantis’s Inertial Measurement Units failed. This mandated the immediate termination of the mission and a reshuffling of the landing location to get Atlantis home the following day.
Landing occurred on December 1, 1991 at 17:34.44 EST on runway 5 at Edwards Air Force Base. Rollout distance was 11,191 feet over 107 seconds – a prolonged rollout due to a minimal brake test.
STS-44 marked the final US-dedicated flight of Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis. Every single one of her remaining 23 missions would be dedicated to international pursuits and the cooperation of nations in space.
This, coupled with her STS-61B international satellite deployment mission, means that 24 of Atlantis’s 33 missions (counting the upcoming STS-135 flight) were dedicated to international efforts.
As such, Atlantis is the most INTERNATIONAL launch and entry vehicle in history and the third most-international space vehicle in history – coming only behind the International Space Station and the MIR space station.
After being returned to the Kennedy Space Center on December 8, Atlantis spent two months in the OPF before moving to the VAB and then out to Pad-A on February 19, 1992 for the STS-45 mission.
Liftoff on March 23 was scrubbed due to an excess amount of LH2 and LOX in her aft compartment during ET tanking operations. Troubleshooting could not re-produce the leak – leading to the conclusion that the main propulsion system was not properly thermally conditioned for the super cold propellants.
Launch of STS-45 occurred on March 24, 1992 at 08:13 EST. It was Atlantis’s 11th mission, the 46th overall Space Shuttle mission, and the 45th space launch from LC-39A.
During STS-45, Atlantis carried the first Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science (ATLAS-1) on Spacelab pallets mounted in her Payload Bay. The non-deployable payload was equipment with experiments from the U.S., France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and Japan.
The purpose of ATLAS-1 was to conduct studies in atmospheric chemistry, solar radiation, space plasma physics, and ultraviolet astronomy.
Six additional middeck experiments, the Shuttle Solar Backscatter Ultraviolet experiment, and one get-away special experiment were also flown on Atlantis on STS-45.
After 8 days 22 hours 9 minutes and 28 seconds in space, Atlantis landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center on runway 33 at 06:23 EST on 2 April 1992.
This was the last flight of the Space Shuttle Program to be conducted solely by the original orbiters in the fleet. The very next mission saw the addition of Atlantis’s only younger sister, Endeavour, to the fleet.
Atlantis continued her international trend on her next flight, STS-46 in July 1992 with a tri-national crew (American, Swiss, and Italian).
Launched right on time on 31 July 1992 at 09:56.48 EDT from LC-39B, STS-46 was the 12th flight of Atlantis, the 49th of the Shuttle Program, and the 20th space launch from Pad-B.
The mission deployed ESA’s (European Space Agency’s) EURECA (European Retrievable Carrier) and attempted to deploy the joint NASA/Italian Space Agency’s Tethered Satellite System (TSS).
ERUECA was deployed a day later than planned because of a problem with its data handling system. This caused a one day delayed to the TSS deployment as well.
During TSS deployment operations, the tethered satellite reached a maximum distance of 860 feet from Atlantis instead of the planned 12.5 miles. A jammed tether line was the cause of this problem.
Numerous attempts to fix the problem failed, and TSS operations were cancelled and the satellite stowed for reentry.
Other payloads on Atlantis during STS-46 included the Evaluation of Oxygen Integration with Materials/Thermal Management Processes experiment, the Consortium for Materials Development in Space Complex Autonomous Payload, an IMAX camera, a Limited Duration Space Environment Candidate Materials Exposure experiment, the Air Force’s Maui Optical Site experiment, a Pituitary Growth Hormone Cell Function experiment, and the Ultraviolet Plume Instrument.
The mission was extended one day to allow for the successful completion of scientific objectives.
STS-46 also marked a major milestone in human spaceflight exploration: the 150th manned spaceflight.
After 7 days 23 hours 15 minutes and 3 seconds, Atlantis touched down on runway 33 at the Kennedy Space Center on August 8 at 09:11.50 EDT.
Following landing and post-mission deservicing, Atlantis was returned to Palmdale, CA for her first Orbiter Modification Down Period refurbishment. During this time, Atlantis was outfitted with the necessary equipment to allow her to dock with the Russian space station MIR and upgraded with numerous safety features.
For all intents and purposes, Atlantis was returned to the Kennedy Space Center following her OMDP on May 29, 1994 as a brand-new orbiter. She was moved into an OPF on May 30 and processed for her STS-66 mission.
During her OPF flow, her SSMEs were removed and donated to sister Endeavour following the STS-68 pad abort. This created the need to get new SSMEs for Atlantis and thus precipitated a one week delay to the launch date of STS-66.
On October 3, 1994, Atlantis was moved to the VAB and mated with her ET/SRB stack. The entire STS-66 vehicle was moved to Pad-B on October 9.
Following the landing of Endeavour/STS-68, the need to inspect Atlantis’s plumbing arose because of a water leak during the Endeavour/STS-68 landing. No issues were found.
Launch on November 3, 1994 was scheduled for 11:56 EDT. At the customary T-9min and holding “go/no go” poll, two of the three TAL abort sites were completely unacceptable due to weather and one, Ben Guerir, Morocco, was marginal on cross winds.
Since cross winds at Ben Guerir were trended better, the count was resumed at T-9mins and held at T-5mins to assess the weather conditions. After 3mins and 43secs of hold time, cross winds at Ben Guerir had dropped to within acceptable limits and a “go” to proceed was given.
At 11:59.43.060 EDT on November 3, 1994, Atlantis lifted off on the STS-66 mission. It was her 13th mission and the 66th flight of the Space Shuttle program.
STS-66 was the ATLAS-3 flight, dedicated to continuing an ongoing study of the sun’s energy output and its effects on the Earth’s climate and environment. The timing of the flight – when the Antarctic ozone hole was diminishing – allowed scientists to study possible effects of the ozone hole on mid-latitudes and the way Antarctic air recovers from such effects.
The mission also deployed and recaptured the Cryogenic Infrared Spectrometer Telescope – a payload designed to study the variability of the atmosphere and provide complementary measurements to the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite from a 1991 Discovery flight.
During the recapture of the Cryogenic Infrared Spectrometer Telescope, a new approach method for orbiting spacecraft was tested and verified. Dubbed the R-bar approach, Atlantis’s successful test of this procedure paved the way for its implementation on the nine (9) Shuttle/MIR missions as well as numerous ISS construction flights.
STS-66 landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base, CA on November 14, 1994 at 10:33.45 EST on runway 22 after diverting there from Kennedy due to the approach of Tropical Storm Gordon to the space center.
STS-66 marked the final solo (non-rendezvous) flight of Atlantis.
All of her remaining missions would either dock to a Space Station or rendezvous with an orbiting space telescope.
PART II of III of Space Shuttle Atlantis’s tribute will be published on Sunday.
(All article images – bar sailing ship Atlantis (Sky News Italy) – are via L2′s Historical Section – a huge collection of Hi Res (larger than desktop size, average 3mb each, many scanned and restored from hard copies) images, videos, MER reports, etc. For nearly every mission – over 500 gigabytes an growing just for the historical database.
All images used in this article are associated with the mission the article references, via L2’s image database – Click here to Join L2 https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2 ).