40 Years Ago: Five Months Until STS-1 Launch
Preparations for Space Shuttle Columbia’s first mission made significant progress in November 1980, and managers remained optimistic that the initial flight could take place by March or April of 1981. Significant milestones accomplished included the stacking of the vehicle’s major components at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in preparation for rollout to the launch pad before the end of the year. The prime crew for STS-1, John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen, as well as backups Joe H. Engle and Richard H. Truly, participated in integrated tests of the assembled vehicle while strapped into their seats in Columbia’s cockpit. NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston inaugurated a new facility for underwater facility to train space shuttle astronauts for spacewalks.
Left: Workers in the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy lower the external tank before mating it with the two Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) on the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP). Right: The mated external tank/SRB stack on the MLP awaits the addition of the orbiter Columbia. Credits: NASA
Inside Kennedy’s cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), workers continued to assemble the large components of the space shuttle stack to prepare for Columbia’s first flight. They had stacked the twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) on the Mobile Launch Platform in January 1980. Beginning Nov. 2, they lowered the external tank between the two SRBs and bolted them together, an operation that took about two days. In the nearby Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF), engineers reinstalled the three space shuttle main engines onto Columbia and bonded the final 300 heat-resistant Thermal Protection System tiles to the orbiter’s exterior. Prime crew members Young and Crippen thanked workers in the OPF after the tile work was completed.
“We’ve come to pay tribute and give a word of thanks and a hardy well done to the people who worked on this spaceship. It’s a beautiful vehicle,” Young said.
Left: Workers tow space shuttle Columbia from the OPF to the VAB at Kennedy in Florida. Middle: Columbia about to enter the VAB. Right: Columbia in the VAB transfer aisle. Credits: NASA
After a stay of 20 months in the OPF, on the evening of Nov. 24, workers backed Columbia out of the OPF and rolled it over to the VAB, the transfer taking 30 minutes. A large crowd of Kennedy employees cheered the move. The next morning, workers grappled Columbia with a crane and lifted it from the transfer aisle, hoisting it more than 190 feet in the air to transfer it to High Bay 3 before lowering again to join it to the already assembled external tank and SRBs.
By early Nov. 26, workers completed all the connections to Columbia as engineers activated the orbiter to prepare the assembled vehicle for a series of tests. As part of the two-week shuttle interface test, on Dec. 4 engineers powered up the entire stack for the first time. Additional tests ensured that all systems operated as expected in the overall vehicle and ground systems. The prime and backup crews participated in ascent and entry simulations, strapped in their seats in the orbiter. Successful completion of the tests led to the next major milestone, the rollout of Columbia to Launch Pad 39A in late December.
Left: Workers begin lifting Columbia in the transfer aisle of the VAB at Kennedy. Middle: Workers in the VAB continue lifting Columbia from the transfer aisle into High Bay 3. Right: Workers lower Columbia in High Bay 3 to mate it with its external tank and SRBs. Credits: NASA
Left: In High Bay 3 of the VAB at Kennedy, workers lower Columbia to mate it with its external tank and SRBs. Middle: With the crane still attached, workers finish mating Columbia to its stack. Right: Columbia mated with its external tank and SRBs, standing on its Mobile Launch Platform. Credits: NASA
To help space shuttle astronauts train for extravehicular activities, or spacewalks, Johnson inaugurated the Weightless Environment Training Facility (WETF) on Nov. 21, 1980. The WETF, essentially a swimming pool 33 feet wide, 78 feet long, and 25 feet deep, replaced the smaller Water Immersion Facility used to train Gemini and Apollo astronauts. Neutral buoyancy simulations, used by astronauts since 1966, provide a more effective method of training for spacewalks than the short periods of simulated weightlessness afforded by parabolic aircraft flights. The larger size of the WETF allowed astronauts, dressed in training versions of new spacesuits, to practice using full-scale mock-ups of the space shuttle cargo bay. The Extravehicular Mobility Unit, the spacesuit developed for space shuttle missions, improved over previous suits with added flexibility and mobility, making it easier for astronauts to operate in weightlessness. The two-piece suit came in different sizes to better fit the larger range of astronauts selected for space shuttle missions.
Left: The Weightless Environment Training Facility (WETF) at Johnson in Houston, shortly before becoming operational. Right: Engineers lower STS-1 backup Richard Truly into the WETF for a spacewalk training session. Credits: NASA
To be continued …
Significant world events in November 1980:
- Nov. 4 – Sadaharu Oh, all-time pro-baseball homerun record holder with 868, retires.
- Nov. 4 – Republican candidate Ronald W. Reagan is elected president of the United States.
- Nov. 12 – Voyager 1 passes within 78,000 miles of Saturn.
- Nov. 17 – John Lennon releases the “Double Fantasy” album in the United Kingdom.
- Nov. 21 – “Who Done It?” episode of the series Dallas airs on CBS-TV, revealing the identity of J.R. Ewing’s shooter.
- Nov. 25 – Sugar Ray Leonard regains World Boxing Council welterweight boxing crown.