Continuing on her streak of missions dedicated to microgravity research, Columbia’s tenure with the Space Shuttle Program throughout the 1990s would be dominated by national and international microgravity flights. And while Columbia would continue to experience ground processing issues and hiccups, she would always surpass all expectations once in orbit.
PART 2: 1994-2003: Columbia’s Legacy:
Following the successful completion of STS-65, Columbia was deserviced at the Kennedy Space Center before being loaded onto the SCA and flown to Palmdale where she underwent her first Orbiter Modification Down Period (OMDP).
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During this time, Columbia went through a major tear-down and overhaul, allowing engineers to inspect many of her systems that were not combed over during standard processing flows due to a lack of accessibility. This multi-month procedure would be one of two OMDPs for Columbia and would return the vehicle to “like-new” condition.
In April 1995, the “like-new” Columbia was returned to the Kennedy Space Center and entered pre-mission processing for STS-73 on April 14. After four months in the OPF (Orbiter Processing Facility), Columbia was rolled to the VAB on August 21 and out to Pad-B on Aug. 28. Launch was targeted for September 28.
The countdown began at 04:00 EDT September 25 and proceeded nominally through the start of ET tanking operations on Sept 28. Shortly after tanking began, a hydrogen leak was detected in SSME-1’s (Space Shuttle Main Engine 1) main fuel valve and the launch was scrubbed. The valve was replaced at the pad the launch rescheduled for Oct. 5.
On Oct. 6, the launch was again postponed prior to ET tanking when it was found that hydraulic fluid had been inadvertently drained from hydraulic system #1 following the SSME-1 fuel valve replacement.
Compressibility tests were conducted and demonstrated that the system was satisfactory for launch. Liftoff was reset for Oct. 7.
The launch attempt on Oct. 7 proceeded nominally until T-20secs when the GLS (Ground Launch Sequencer) initiated a cutoff when Master Events Controller 1 (MEC 1) failed to operate properly.
MEC-1 was replaced and the launch reset for Oct. 14 before being rescheduled to Oct. 15 to allow additional time to inspect the SSME oxidizer ducts as a result of finding a crack in a test-engine oxidizer duct at the Stennis Space Center. During this delay, General Purpose Computer 1 (GPC 1) malfunctioned and was replaced.
On Oct. 15 the countdown proceeded nominally and the launch team picked up the count at the T-9min mark and counted down to T-5mins where the count was held in the hope that the weather (low clouds) would clear. The clouds did not clear and rain entered the area, forcing a scrub.
The launch was then tentatively reset for Oct. 19 pending a successful Atlas launch Oct. 18. The Atlas was then delayed and STS-73 was moved to Oct. 20. On this day, the countdown proceeded nominally until a Range Computer glitch forced a 3-minute delay.
During the 16-day flight, Columbia’s crew worked in two 12-hr shifts to build on the foundation laid by the USML-1 flight (Columbia STS-50) in 1992. To this end, several USML-2 experiments were created/suggested following the USML-1 flight.
Part of the objectives of the USML-2 flight were to increase scientific understanding of basic physical processes on Earth and in space, as well as to prepare for more advanced operations aboard the International Space Station and other future space programs.
After 15 days 21 hours 53 minutes and 16 seconds, Columbia landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center on runway 33 on November 5. Wheels stop occurred at 06:46:16 EST, 55-seconds after main gear touchdown.
She was moved into an OPF later that day and began 2.5 months of pre-mission processing for STS-75.
During Columbia’s first week at Pad-B, a suspect high pressure fuel turbo pump on SSME-1 was removed and replaced.
On February 9, Columbia sailed through the customary Flight Readiness Review (FRR) and launch was officially set for February 22 at 15:18 EST.
On February 13, a faulty wire to one of the pyrotechnic devices at the 17-inch disconnect located between Columbia and her External Tank was replaced and tested successfully. Problems with the crew module hatch were also resolved and final testing was successful.
The countdown began right on time at 16:00 EST Feb. 19 and Columbia’s payload bay doors were closed for flight. Later that night, a neutralizing agent was accidentally spilled over the left hand SRB (Solid Rocket Booster) and ET.
The Mission Management Team quickly determined that the spill was of a non-toxic agent and was not a concern to people or flight hardware.
About 4-secs after liftoff, Commander Andy Allen reported that his instruments showed that one of the SSMEs was operating at only 45% of its normal power level. Flight controllers in Houston quickly responded that all engines were performing nominally. The engines throttled as expected about 1-minute into the launch, and operated nominally all the way to Main Engine Cutoff (MECO).
Flying aboard Columbia on STS-75 were the Tethered Satellite System (being re-flown on this flight following the failure of the system during the Atlantis/STS-46 mission in 1992) and the U.S. Microgravity Payload 3 (USMP-3)
During STS-75, the Tethered Satellite System (TSS) was to be deployed to a distance of 12 miles to place the TSS into the rarefied electrically charged layer of the atmosphere known as the ionosphere.
It was hoped that the TSS would generate high voltage and electrical currents as it moved through the ionosphere and across the magnetic field lines of Earth. This, in turn, would allow scientists to learn more about the electrodynamics of a conducting tether system and to deepen understanding of physical processes in the near-Earth space environment.
Deployment of the TSS proved successful at first. But just before the TSS reached full deployment, the tether snapped and the TSS was lost. It remained in orbit for several weeks before finally reentering Earth’s atmosphere.
Despite this failure, the USMP-3 portion of the flight was a smashing success, with four major experiments mounted on two Mission Peculiar Experiment Support Structures in the payload bay, as well as three middeck experiments.
STS-75 marked the first time that a Linux kernel-based operation system was used on the Space Shuttle.
Columbia landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center on March 9 after 15 days 17 hours 41 minutes and 25 seconds in space.
That day, she entered processing for STS-78. After 2.5 months in the OPF, Columbia rolled to the VAB on May 20 and out to Pad-B on May 29/30. Launch was set for June 20. Again, Columbia sailed through her FRR, and the countdown began on June 17 at 04:00 EDT.
The following day, the Mission Management Team ordered Columbia’s aft reopened in order to X-ray the Power Drive Units (PDU) for the her ET umbilical well doors after the units were suspected of having possible loose screws in their terminal circuitry boards. This concern arose after inspections to sister Atlantis’s PDUs found loose screws.
After the X-rays were developed, it was verified that all suspect screws are secure and properly installed. The aft compartment was closed out again for flight.
During this time, routine power-up of the MECs (Master Events Controller) revealed an incorrect BITE (Built In Test Equipment) indication in MEC-1. The MECs, which process signals to arm and safe pyrotechnics and command and fire pyrotechnics during SRB/ET separation and Orbiter/ET separation, are a critical vehicle system.
Investigation into the issue revealed that the software issue was not a concern for flight or other vehicle systems.
At 10:49:00.0075 EDT on June 20, 1996, Columbia lifted off from Pad-B on her 20th mission. Four of her seven crewmembers (all the rookies of the flight) held doctorate degrees at the time of launch.
During the 16 day mission, Columbia’s crew executed the Life and Microgravity Spacelab (LMS) mission to help set the stage for the International Space Station by studying the effects of long-duration space flight on human physiology and conducting similar experiments to those that would fly on the ISS.
To this end, Columbia was inserted into at 39 degree inclination 173 statute mile high orbit to reduce vibrational and directional forces that could affect on-board microgravity experiments, as well as to allow the crew to maintain the same sleep/wake rhythms they were accustomed to on Earth.
In total, 22 LMS life science and microgravity experiments were carried out by the crew. Thirteen of the life sciences experiments were devoted to the study of the effects of microgravity on human physiology, while six were conducted to produce metallic alloys and protein crystals and study the behavior of fluids and materials processing in the near-weightless environment of space.
STS-78 built upon previous Spacelab Life Sciences microgravity flights 1 and 2 on STS-40 and STS-58, as well as Microgravity Laboratory missions 1 and 2 on STS-42 and STS-65.
Columbia gracefully landed at the Kennedy Space Center on July 7 at 08:37:30 EDT on runway 33.
On October 9, Columbia was then mated to her new ET/SRB stack. Six days later, on Oct. 16, the STS-80 stack was rolled out to Pad-B. Following an APU-1 hot fire on Oct. 17, RSS (Rotating Service Structure) rotation to mate was delayed two days to allow the public to view Columbia on the pad during KSC’s Community Appreciation Day.
The launch date of November 8 was delayed prior to Columbia’s FRR when the Mission Management Team decided more time was need to investigate a nozzle erosion issue seen on STS-79. The issue was eventually cleared.
Then, on November 8, an issue with Columbia’s power-producing Fuel Cells’ regulator diaphragms was discovered and reviewed. Again, this issue was later cleared.
However, during standard leak checks on the Freon line that provides coolant to Fuel Cell #1, a leak rate right at the acceptable limit was detected. The decision was made to drain the Freon and then refill. With this, the issue was fixed for flight.
The 3-day countdown began on November 12 for a Nov. 15 launch at 14:50 EST.
The following day, the launch was postponed by 4 days due to un-resolvable conflicts with the Eastern Range. The countdown clock was reset from T-11hrs and holding to T-19hrs and holding. Launch was now scheduled for 14:53 EST November 19.
On that day, the countdown proceeded nominally. At T-31secs, the countdown was halted due to a Launch Commit Criteria (LCC) violation due to a slight hydrogen leak in the aft.
Per the LCC, the launch team held at the T-31secs mark for 2mins and monitored the concentration of hydrogen. Values were at acceptable limits and the CPROP console recommended proceeding with launch.
With the launch of Columbia, Story Musgrave became the only person to fly on all five space-worthy Shuttle orbiters: Columbia (STS-80), Challenger (STS-6 and STS-51F), Discovery (STS-33), Atlantis (STS-44), and Endeavour (STS-61).
During the mission, Columbia’s crew deployed and recaptured the Orbiting and Retrievable Far and Extreme Ultraviolet Spectrometer-Shuttle Pallet Satellite II (ORFEUS-SPAS II) and the Wake Shield Facility-3. Both of these satellites were on repeat missions to space.
The mission was also supposed to test construction procedures for the International Space Station; however, a problem with Columbia’s airlock forced the cancellation of both mission EVAs (spacewalks).
Columbia’s crew also performed numerous microgravity research experiments for both physical and biomedical purposes.
At 06:49:05 EST on December 7, 1996, Columbia landed at the Kennedy Space Center.
Clocking in at 17 days 15 hours 53 minutes 18 seconds, STS-80 marked the longest flight of Columbia and the longest flight for the Space Shuttle Program.
This record-setting mission duration for a single Space Shuttle mission is one that still stands today. Since there are only three Shuttle flights remaining on the manifest (none of which have the ability to extend out to 18-days in a non-Launch On Need emergency rescue scenario), Columbia will forever hold the distinction of being the orbiter on which the longest Space Shuttle mission was flown.
After three months in the OPF, Columbia was mated to her tank and boosters on March 5, 1997 and moved to Pad-A on March 11 for an April 3 launch.
The countdown began on March 31 at 14:00 EST. The next day, the countdown clock was held at T-19hrs and the launch moved to April 4 at 14:00 EST when the Mission Management Team determined that it was necessary to add more insulation to water coolant lines in Columbia’s payload bay.
On April 4, the T-9min hold was extended to allow the closeout crew extra time to clear the pad due to the need to replace a seal on the crew hatch and perform the cabin leak test.
Once the closeout crew reported back to the Launch Control Center, all stations were polled for launch readiness. SPE was “no go” due to an excess concentration of oxygen in Columbia’s midbody. The gaseous purge was modified and the concentrations decreased.
The teams then all polled “go” and Columbia lifted off on STS-83 at 14:20:31.074 EST on April 4. It was the 60th launch from Pad 39A.
Columbia successfully reached orbit and the crew began preparing for their mission. However, a problem soon developed with Fuel Cell #2. The Fuel Cell was eventually shutdown and the mission terminated per Flight Safety Rules.
Columbia landed at the Kennedy Space Center at 14:33 EDT April 8 after 3days 23hours 12minutes and 39secs in space.
Columbia spent two months in the OPF before being remated to a new ET/SRB stack and returned to Pad-A on June 11 for a July 1 launch at 14:37 EDT.
Once at the pad, 36 TPS (Thermal Protection System) tiles around the Forward RCS pod were placed following concerns that the tiles could crack under flight stress.
On June 30, one day before launch, the launch time was advanced by 47-minutes in the hopes of lowering the chances of weather impeding the afternoon launch. Launch was now scheduled for 13:50 EDT.
On July 1, the 13:50 EDT launch was delayed at T-9mins and holding due to RTLS (Return To Launch Site) abort weather violations. At 13:52:07 EDT, all teams finally polled “go.”
In all, 19 materials science investigations were conducted during the 15th and final Spacelab microgravity flight.
After 15 days 16 hours 46 minutes in space, Columbia landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center on July 17 at 06:47 EDT after 251 orbits of Earth.
Columbia then spent three months in the OPF before moving to the VAB on Oct. 24 for ET mating. The entire STS-87 stack was moved to Pad-B on Oct. 29 for launch on November 19.
The pad flow was uneventful and Columbia lifted off right on time on her first attempt at 14:46 EST on November 19.
Launch of STS-87 marked the 24th flight of Columbia, the 40th launch from Pad-B, and the first time the Shuttle performed a heads-up ascent – a trajectory in which the shuttle orbiter is rolled 180 degrees form the heads-down belly-up position relative to the ET and ground to a heads-up belly-down configuration relative to the ET and the ground about 6-minutes after liftoff (during powered ascent).
The new move allowed for quick acquisition of the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite network and the elimination of the need for the Bermuda station.
STS-87 was the 4th USMP microgravity research flight, conducted two EVAs for ISS construction test objectives, and deployed (although with difficulty) the SPARTAN-201 satellite.
On Nov. 21, Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla used Columbia’s SRMS to release SPARTAN. However, the spacecraft failed to execute a pirouette maneuver several minutes later, suggesting there was a problem with the attitude control system for fine pointing toward solar targets.
Chawla then re-grappled SPARTAN, but did not receive a firm capture indication. When she backed the SRMS arm away once more, a rotational spin of about two degrees per second was accidently imparted to the satellite.
Commander Kregel tried to match the satellite’s rotation by firing Columbia’s thrusters for a second grapple attempt, but this was called off by the flight director.
A plan was then formulated to retrieve SPARTAN via EVA. On Nov. 24, crewmembers Scott and Doi began a 7hr 43min EVA and captured the SPARTAN by hand. During this EVA, Doi became the first Japanese citizen to perform an EVA.
Columbia landed on December 5 at 07:20 EST on runway 33 at Kennedy after 15 days 16 hours 35 minutes 1 second in space. STS-87 marked Columbia’s 3rd flight of 1997 and the 8th and final Shuttle mission of the year.
Columbia then spent three months in the OPF before moving to the VAB and then out to Pad-B for the STS-90 Neurolab mission.
Liftoff was originally scheduled for April 15, 1998, but was delayed prior to the start of ET loading that morning when two Network Signal Processors on Columbia malfunctioned and needed replacement.
STS-90/Neurolab focused on the effects of microgravity on the nervous system. The goals of Neurolab were to study basic research questions and to increase the understanding of the mechanisms responsible for neurological and behavioral changes in space.
To this end, experiments on STS-90 studied the adaptation of the vestibular system, space adaptation syndrome, the adaptation of the central nervous system and the pathways which control the ability to sense location in the absence of gravity, and the effect of microgravity on a developing nervous system.
The mission was a joint venture of six space agencies (Canadian Space Agency, France, Germany, the Japan space agency, and the European Space Agency) and seven U.S. research agencies.
Columbia landed safely on STS-90 at 12:09 EDT on runway 33 with a Mission Elapsed Time of 15 days 21 hours 50 minutes 58 seconds from SRB ignition to wheels stops.
After Flight Crew boarding on July 19, Commander Eileen Collins reported a higher than expected temperature in avionics bay #1. A Launch Commit Criteria violation was processed to allow teams to look at the situation. The Mission Management Team eventually determined that the issue was OK for flight.
The countdown picked up and Columbia took control of the countdown at T-31sec.
At T-7secs, just 4-tenths of a second before SSME ignition, the GLS (Ground Launch Sequencer) issued an RSLS (Redundant Set Launch Sequencer) cutoff due to indications of high hydrogen concentrations in the aft.
The reading was later determined to be erroneous and the suspect sensor was replaced.
Launch on July 22 was scrubbed at the T-5mins and holding mark due to weather violations.
Columbia lifted off on July 23, 1999 at 00:31 EDT. STS-93 was the first Shuttle mission to be commanded by a woman and marked the 95th Space Shuttle flight.
However, about 5-secs after liftoff, flight controllers noted a voltage drop on one of Columbia’s electrical buses. The voltage drop triggered the shutdown one of two redundant Main Engine Controllers on two of the three SSMEs.
The redundant controllers on the two affected SSMEs – the center and right engines – functioned normally, allowing the engines to fully support Columbia’s climb to orbit. The left engine was completely unaffected.
(The voltage drop was later traced to an electrical short caused by poorly routed wiring which rubbed on an exposed screw head. This wiring issue led to a program-wide stand down and inspection of the wiring in all four orbiters.)
Concurrently, an oxidizer post, which had been intentionally plugged, came loose inside one of the SSME’s main injectors and impacted the engine nozzle inner surface rupturing a hydrogen cooling line and allowing a small leak.
Because of the leak, the engine’s controller saw an increase in use rate of hydrogen. The controller assumed the extra hydrogen was being burned in the engine (rather than being leaked overboard as it actually was) and increased the oxidizer (LOX) flow to maintain the presumptive mixture ratio
To this end, 1-sec prior to MECO (Main Engine Cutoff), Columbia’s computers issued an emergency shutdown of the SSMEs due to a LOX low-level indication in the LOX (liquid oxygen) tank of the External Tank.
This is the only low-level engine cutoff to date for the Shuttle Program and resulted in a slight (but safe) underspeed for Columbia.
Following this incident, a maintenance practice change was implemented. The change required damaged oxidizer posts to be removed and replaced as opposed to being intentionally plugged.
Columbia and her crew safely achieved orbit and successfully deployed the mission’s primary payload: the Chandra X-ray Observatory.
Several physical and biomedical experiments were performed during the 5-day mission and Columbia landed safely on July 27 after 4 days 22 hours 50 minutes and 18 seconds in space – her shortest planned mission since STS-1.
Columbia was then sent to Palmdale for her second OMDP. During this time, workers performed more than 100 modifications on Columbia. Her most impressive upgrade was the installation of a state-of-the-art, Multi-functional Electronic Display System (MEDS), or “glass cockpit.”
The MEDS replaced traditional instrument dials and gauges with small, computerized video screens. The new system improved crew interaction with the orbiter during flight and reduced maintenance costs by eliminating the outdated and tricky electromechanical displays.
Columbia was then returned to KSC, but her next mission was far from decided. Originally, her next flight was to be STS-107, but continuing delays to ISS construction pushed that mission further and further back on the launch manifest.
Eventually, Columbia’s next flight would be the STS-109 HST SM3b mission to service and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope.
Pad processing was uneventful. On February 27, the launch was pushed to March 1 due to unacceptably cold temperatures expected on February 28.
Launch on March 1 occurred on time at 06:22:02 EST.
After a two-day orbital chase, Columbia rendezvoused with Hubble on March 3.
Performing five back-to-back EVAs totaling 35 hours 55 minutes, Columbia’s crew installed the new Advanced Camera for Surveys, new rigid Solar Arrays, a new Power Control Unit, a new Reaction Wheel Assembly, and a new Cryocooler for the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer.
After 10 days 22 hours 11 minutes 09 seconds, Columbia landed at the Kennedy Space Center on March 12 at 04:32 EST on runway 33.
Columbia was moved to the VAB on November 18 and mated to her ET/SRB stack. The entire STS-107 stack was then moved to Pad-A in December 2002.
Launch was set for 10:39 EST 16 January 2003. Previous mission launch dates were January 11, 2001, April 4, 2002, and July 11, 2002.
Teams conducting pad processing on Columbia encountered no major issues.
The 43-hr countdown began on January 13 and proceeded nominally. By 09:00 EST on Jan. 16, Columbia’s flight crew – Commander Rick Husband, Pilot Willie McCool, Flight Engineer/Mission Specialist (MS) Kalpana Chawla, MS Laurel Clark, MS Dan Brown, Payload Commander (PC) Michael Anderson, and Payload Specialist (PS) Ilan Ramon – were strapped into their seats.
At 10:39:00 EST on 16 January 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia and her seven-member crew departed Launch Complex 39A on a 16-day research mission.
It was Columbia’s 28th mission, the 113th Space Shuttle mission, and the first flight of an Israeli citizen into space.
Columbia’s mission patch for STS-107 marked the only time in Shuttle Program history that the patch was made in the shape of the Shuttle orbiter.
The seven stars of the Columba constellation each represented one of Columbia’s crewmembers. Six stars had five points and one star had six points like the Star of David, in honor of Ilan Ramon’s presence on the flight.
Columbia’s crew spent the next 15 days working ’round the clock to perform a myriad of microgravity and Earth-science research experiments.
To this day, it is believed that one of the experiments, a video taken to study atmospheric dust, may have detected a new atmospheric phenomenon, dubbed a “TIGER” (Transient Ionospheric Glow Emission in Red).
After an amazingly successful mission (during which some crewmembers gave up their off-duty time to help ensure that the mission’s scientific objectives were accomplished), Columbia initiated her deorbit burn to slow her to sub-orbital speeds at 08:15 EST on 1 February.
Forty-four minutes later at Mission Elapsed Time 15 days 22 hours 20 minutes 22 seconds (08:59:22 EST), 207,135 feet above East Central Texas, Columbia made her final transmission.
Addressing a stunned and saddened nation that afternoon, President George W. Bush said, “My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country. At 9:00 a.m. this morning, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our Space Shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas.
“The Columbia is lost; there are no survivors.
“On board was a crew of seven: Colonel Rick Husband; Lt. Colonel Michael Anderson; Commander Laurel Clark; Captain David Brown; Commander William McCool; Dr. Kalpana Chawla; and Ilan Ramon, a Colonel in the Israeli Air Force.
“These men and women assumed great risk in the service to all humanity.
“In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the Earth. These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life.
“Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more.
“All Americans today are thinking, as well, of the families of these men and women who have been given this sudden shock and grief. You’re not alone. Our entire nation grieves with you. And those you loved will always have the respect and gratitude of this country.
“The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand.
“Our journey into space will go on.
“In the skies today we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see there is comfort and hope.
“In the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.’
“The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.”
In all, Columbia made 28 trips to space travelling 125,204,911 miles and spending 300 days 17 hours 40 minutes 22 seconds in space while completing 4,808 orbits of Earth. She deployed 8 satellites, conducted one mission to service and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope, and carried 160 men and woman into space.
But above all, it is her 17 dedicated microgravity research missions through which she contributed the most to the world community. Her missions and outstanding accomplishments/contributions to the world community are ones of honor and distinction, and ones that will never be forgotten.
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(All Images via L2 Historical Hi Res Image database, NASA.gov and CNN (President Bush image).