Shuttle returns early overcame mission troubles

December 11, 1990|By Luther Young

The space shuttle Columbia returned to Earth early this morning, carrying a battle-tested crew that overcame telescope-pointing problems and a threatening backup of wastewater to squeeze a surprising amount of science from a mission that at times seemed jinxed.

Originally scheduled for 10 days, the Astro-1 mission -- to study invisible ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from stars, planets, comets and other celestial objects -- was cut short by 24 hours TC to avoid rain forecast for California's Edwards Air Force Base. Columbia landed on a floodlit runway at 12:54 a.m. EST.

"Houston, wheels are stopped at Edwards, we're home," said Columbia commander Vance Brand.

Yesterday, Dr. Arthur F. Davidsen, who heads the team that built the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope, said, "There were many times when we feared it [the launch] would never come to pass, and other times when we thought Astro wouldn't work, but it worked spectacularly well."

Last night, scientists reflected on their roller-coaster nine days at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where teams are assembled representing HUT, the Wisconsin Photopolarimeter Experiment, the Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope and the Broad Band X-Ray Telescope.

"For the scientists, we're just beginning" to study all the exciting data collected, said mission scientist Theodore Gull, who admitted he "broke down" following the emotional conclusion of Astro-1 science activity. "We know we are going to help rewrite the textbooks."

Despite the telescope-pointing problems, which meant only 135 of 250 planned observations were made, the science part of the mission ended on the upswing, with the astronauts targeting a fast-moving comet just minutes before the three ultraviolet instruments were shut down.

And the workhorse Broad Band X-Ray Telescope -- built at Goddard Space Flight Center and pointed independently of the crew from a control room at the Greenbelt center -- operated for several more hours, taking a final look at a distant galaxy.

"We went out with a bang," said Dr. Davidsen. Comet Levy was "a fitting end," since original plans called for Astro to study Halley's Comet after launch in March 1986. The Challenger explosion Jan. 28, 1986, and fuel leaks on Columbia this summer delayed the launch until Dec. 2.

The shortened mission cost the seven astronauts -- including Johns Hopkins University astronomer Samuel Durrance and Burtonsville resident Ronald Parise, also an astronomer -- a chance later today to contact in orbit the Soviet cosmonauts aboard space station Mir.

But they did get to chat with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who was visiting Johnson Space Center in Houston with U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III. NASA said it was the first communication ever between a Soviet official and a space shuttle.

Other Astro-1 crew members are Mr. Brand, the commander, at 59, the oldest person to fly in space -- pilot Guy Gardner, and mission specialists Jeffrey Hoffman, John Lounge and Robert Parker.

Problems showed up soon after Columbia reached its 218-mile-high orbit, with the failure of the automated Instrument Pointing System on which the three ultraviolet telescopes were mounted.

That same day, an on-board computer terminal for operating the telescopes overheated and shut down, followed Thursday by the failure of the only other terminal capable of doing the job. Lint was found blocking the first computer's air vents.

And -- just as NASA had devised a remarkably effective method of pointing the telescopes, combining ground commands and manual help from the crew -- a clogged wastewater line threatened the mission before a rapidly filling tank was drained into collection bags.

Scientists last night unanimously expressed hope that NASA would reconsider its decision not to schedule any more missions with the Astro observatory. Originally, there were to have been multiple flights.

"That's the one aspect that's frustrating," Dr. Davidsen said. "If I were the [NASA] administrator, my solution would be to leave Astro in Columbia's cargo bay and just fill the tanks and go again."

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