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5 Min Read NASA’s Psyche Delivers First Images and Other Data
This mosaic was made from “first light” images acquired Dec. 4 by both of the cameras on NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. The star field lies in the constellation Pisces. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU The mission team has celebrated several successes since its launch from Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 13. The latest is the operation of the spacecraft’s cameras.
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft is on a roll. In the eight weeks since it left Earth on Oct. 13, the orbiter has performed one successful operation after another, powering on scientific instruments, streaming data toward home, and setting a deep-space record with its electric thrusters. The latest achievement: On Monday, Dec. 4, the mission turned on Psyche’s twin cameras and retrieved the first images – a milestone called “first light.”
View the full images here Already 16 million miles (26 million kilometers) from Earth, the spacecraft will arrive at its destination – the asteroid Psyche in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter – in 2029. The team wanted to test all of the science instruments early in the long journey to make sure they are working as intended, and to ensure there would be plenty of time to calibrate and adjust them as needed. The imager instrument, which consists of a pair of identical cameras, captured a total of 68 images, all within a star field in the constellation Pisces. The imager team is using the data to verify proper commanding, telemetry analysis, and calibration of the images.
Psyche’s “first light” images make up this mosaic showing a starfield in the constellation Pisces. A version of the mosaic annotated with the names of the stars shown is at bottom.NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU “These initial images are only a curtain-opener,” said Arizona State University’s Jim Bell, the Psyche imager instrument lead. “For the team that designed and operates this sophisticated instrument, first light is a thrill. We start checking out the cameras with star images like these, then in 2026 we’ll take test images of Mars during the spacecraft’s flyby. And finally, in 2029 we’ll get our most exciting images yet – of our target asteroid Psyche. We look forward to sharing all of these visuals with the public.”
The imager takes pictures through multiple color filters, all of which were tested in these initial observations. With the filters, the team will use photographs in wavelengths of light both visible and invisible to the human eye to help determine the composition of the metal-rich asteroid Psyche. The imager team will also use the data to create 3D maps of the asteroid to better understand its geology, which will give clues about Psyche’s history.
Earlier in the mission, in late October, the team powered on the magnetometer, which will provide crucial data to help determine how the asteroid formed. Evidence that the asteroid once had a magnetic field would be a strong indication that the body is a partial core of a planetesimal, a building block of an early planet. The information could help us better understand how our own planet formed.
See the Psyche spacecraft in 3D on NASA's Eyes on the Solar System Shortly after being powered on, the magnetometer gave scientists an unexpected gift: It detected a solar eruption, a common occurrence called a coronal mass ejection, where the Sun expels large quantities of magnetized plasma. Since then, the team has seen several of these events and will continue to monitor space weather as the spacecraft travels to the asteroid.
The good news is twofold. Data collected so far confirms that the magnetometer can precisely detect very small magnetic fields. It also confirms that the spacecraft is magnetically “quiet.” The electrical currents powering a probe of this size and complexity have the potential to generate magnetic fields that could interfere with science detections. Because Earth has its own powerful magnetic field, scientists obtained a much better measurement of the spacecraft magnetic field once it was in space.
In the Zone
On Nov. 8, amid all the work with the science instruments, the team fired up two of the four electric propulsion thrusters, setting a record: the first-ever use of Hall-effect thrusters in deep space. Until now, they’d been used only on spacecraft going as far as lunar orbit. By expelling charged atoms, or ions, of xenon gas, the ultra-efficient thrusters will propel the spacecraft to the asteroid (a 2.2-billion-mile, or 3.6-billion-kilometer journey) and help it maneuver in orbit.
Less than a week later, on Nov. 14, the technology demonstration built into the spacecraft, an experiment called Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC), set its own record. DSOC achieved first light by sending and receiving optical data from far beyond the Moon. The instrument beamed a near-infrared laser encoded with test data from nearly 10 million miles (16 million kilometers) away – the farthest-ever demonstration of optical communications.
The Psyche team has also successfully powered on the gamma-ray detecting component of its third science instrument, the gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer. Next, the instrument’s neutron-detecting sensors will be turned on the week of Dec. 11. Together those capabilities will help the team determine the chemical elements that make up the asteroid’s surface material.
More About the Mission
Arizona State University (ASU) leads the Psyche mission. A division of Caltech in Pasadena, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is responsible for the mission’s overall management, system engineering, integration and test, and mission operations. Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California, provided the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis. ASU leads the operations of the imager instrument, working in collaboration with Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego on the design, fabrication, and testing of the cameras.
JPL manages DSOC for the Technology Demonstration Missions program within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and the Space Communications and Navigation program within the Space Operations Mission Directorate.
Psyche is the 14th mission selected as part of NASA’s Discovery Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at Kennedy, managed the launch service.
For more information about NASA’s Psyche mission go to:
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Last Updated Dec 05, 2023 Related Terms
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“Trying to do stellar observations from Earth is like trying to do birdwatching from the bottom of a lake.” James B. Odom, Hubble Program Manager 1983-1990.
The discovery after its launch that the Hubble Space Telescope’s primary mirror suffered from a flaw disappointed scientists who could not obtain the sharp images they had expected. But thanks to the Hubble’s built-in feature of on-orbit servicing, NASA devised a plan to correct the telescope’s optics during the first planned repair mission. The agency assigned one of its most experienced crews to undertake the complex tasks, naming Richard O. Covey, Kenneth D. Bowersox, Kathryn C. Thornton, Claude Nicollier of the European Space Agency, Jeffrey A. Hoffman, F. Story Musgrave, and Thomas D. Akers to the STS-61 first Hubble Servicing Mission. The first all veteran crew since the STS-26 return to flight mission in 1988 had a cumulative 16 previous missions among them and all had previous spacewalking experience. During their 11-day flight in December 1993, they repaired the telescope during an unprecedented five spacewalks in a single space shuttle mission, rendering it more capable than originally designed.
Left: The STS-61 crew of Kenneth D. Bowersox, sitting left, Kathryn C. Thornton, F. Story Musgrave, and Claude Nicollier of the European Space Agency; Richard O. Covey, standing left, Jeffrey A. Hoffman, and Thomas D. Akers. Middle: The STS-61 crew patch. Right: Endeavour rolls over from Launch Pad 39A to 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The first Hubble servicing mission proved to be one of the most complex up to that time. With that in mind, on March 16, 1992, NASA named Musgrave, an astronaut since 1967 and a veteran of four previous missions including conducting the first spacewalk of the shuttle era, as the payload commander and one of the four spacewalkers for STS-61. On Aug. 28, NASA named Hoffman, Akers, and Thornton as the other three spacewalkers who in teams of two would carry out the five spacewalks on alternating days. Finally, on Dec. 3, NASA named Covey, Bowersox, and Nicollier as the commander, pilot, and flight engineer, respectively, for the mission. Nicollier also served as the prime operator of the Remote Manipulator System (RMS), or robotic arm, with Bowersox as his backup. The seven-person crew trained intensely for the next year preparing for the complex tasks ahead, including simulating the spacewalks at the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and the Weightless Environment Training Facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Meanwhile, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, workers prepared space shuttle Endeavour for its fifth journey into space. They rolled the shuttle, assembled with its external tank and solid rocket booster, to Launch Pad 39A on Oct. 28. However, following a wind storm on Oct. 30 that contaminated the payload changeout room with sandy grit, managers decided to move Endeavour to neighboring Pad B on Nov. 15, in only the second roll around in shuttle history.
Left: Schematic of the Hubble Space Telescope’s major components. Middle: Workers inspect the Hubble Space Telescope’s 94-inch diameter primary mirror prior to assembly. Right: Astronauts release the Hubble Space Telescope in April 1990 during the STS-31 mission.
The first concrete plan for placing an optical telescope in space, above the obscuring and distorting effects of the Earth’s atmosphere, originated with Princeton University astronomer Lyman S. Spitzer in 1946. In 1972, NASA first proposed a plan to launch a Large Space Telescope (LST) and five years later Congress approved the funding. As envisioned, the LST would contain a 94-inch diameter primary mirror and launch on the space shuttle, then still under development, in 1983. With an expected on-orbit lifetime of 15 years, the LST’s instruments would make observations primarily in the visible and ultraviolet parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. In 1983, managers abandoned the original plan to use the space shuttle to return the telescope to Earth for refurbishment and relaunch in favor of in-orbit maintenance and upgrades by astronauts during spacewalks in the shuttle’s payload bay. The same year, NASA renamed the LST after astronomer Edwin P. Hubble and set the launch for October 1986. The Challenger accident in January 1986 delayed the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope until April 24, 1990, during Discovery’s STS-31 mission. The shuttle flew to an unusually high 380-mile orbit to ensure that Hubble would operate above as much of the Earth’s atmosphere as possible. After initial on-orbit activation and checkout of the telescope’s systems, it was time for the much-anticipated “first light” images. The initial images, however, puzzled scientists as they showed stars not as single well-focused points of light but as blurred and fuzzy. Investigators learned that the telescope’s primary mirror suffered from a production error, its edges too flat by 0.003 mm, resulting in an optical problem called spherical aberration. While this significantly degraded the capability of several of Hubble’s instruments to return exceptionally detailed photographs, the telescope still produced some good images. NASA put in place a plan to fix the Hubble’s optical problems without resorting to repairing the mirror. With the spherical aberration well-defined, engineers designed a set of mirrors that astronauts could place aboard Hubble during the previously planned first servicing mission.
Left: Liftoff of space shuttle Endeavour on the STS-61 mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Middle: The Hubble Space Telescope as seen from Endeavour during the rendezvous, with the end of the Remote Manipulator System (RMS), or robotic arm, visible at lower right. Right: On the shuttle’s flight deck, European Space Agency astronaut Claude Nicollier operates the RMS to grapple Hubble.
Planning for the first servicing mission to Hubble began in 1988, two years before the launch of the telescope. With the post-launch discovery of spherical aberration, the scope of the first servicing mission changed dramatically. The primary goal now focused on correcting the telescope’s optics to ensure that its onboard instruments could function as planned. Engineers developed the Corrective Optics Space telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR), a tool to correct Hubble’s blurry vision, consisting of five pairs of corrective mirrors placed in front of the Faint Object Camera, the Faint Object Spectrograph, and the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph (GHRS) instruments. Installing COSTAR required the removal of the High-Speed Photometer, the sacrifice of one instrument outweighed by the saving of the other three. The astronauts also replaced the original Wide Field Planetary Camera (WFPC) with the more advanced WFPC2 to improve the telescope’s ultraviolet performance. The WFPC2 carried its own corrective optics. The astronauts also replaced fuses and the telescope’s two solar arrays, one of which imparted vibrations that prevented precise pointing. On Dec. 2, 1993, space shuttle Endeavour lifted off from Pad 39B at 4:27 a.m. EST, after a one-day weather delay. Following insertion into an unusually high 360-mile orbit to reach Hubble, the astronauts began their initial on-orbit operations by opening the payload bay doors. The next day, Covey and Bowersox performed several engine burns as part of the rendezvous maneuvers. The astronauts checked out the rendezvous radar, the Ku-band antenna, the Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) or robotic arm, and the spacesuits, and reduced the pressure inside the shuttle from 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi) to 10.2 psi in preparation for the upcoming spacewalks to reduce the pre-breathe time required to prevent decompression sickness or the bends.
Left: Endeavour continues its approach to the Hubble Space Telescope. Middle: Hubble secured onto its flight support structure in Endeavour’s payload bay. Right: The STS-61 crew poses on Endeavour’s flight deck, with Hubble visible through the windows.
On the third day, Covey brought Endeavour to within 30 feet of Hubble so Nicollier could grapple it with the RMS. Covey radioed Houston, “Endeavour has a firm handshake with Mr. Hubble’s telescope.” Nicollier berthed the giant telescope onto its turntable-like Flight Support System (FSS) in the shuttle’s payload bay. Nicollier then used the RMS cameras to perform an inspection of Hubble.
First spacewalk. Left: European Space Agency astronaut Claude Nicollier operates the shuttle’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) or robotic arm in support of the spacewalks. Middle: Astronaut F. Story Musgrave works on the Hubble. Right: Near the end of the first spacewalk, Musgrave releases bolts on the replacement solar arrays.
With Nicollier operating the RMS as he did for all five spacewalks, Hoffman and Musgrave conducted the mission’s first excursion on flight day four. They replaced two sets of Rate Sensing Units that contain gyroscopes to orient the telescope and replaced electrical control units and fuse plugs, providing the telescope with six healthy gyroscopes. Musgrave and Hoffman prepared for the next day’s spacewalk by loosening bolts on the replacement solar arrays, stored in the forward part of the payload bay. The pair spent 7 hours and 54 minutes outside on this first spacewalk. The ground commanded the two existing solar arrays on the telescope to retract, and while one did so the second one did not due to a bent support rod.
Second spacewalk. Left: Astronaut Kathryn C. Thornton, on the end of the Remote Manipulator System, releases Hubble’s old solar array that failed to retract properly. Middle: The solar array drifting away from space shuttle Endeavour. Right: Thornton disconnects Hubble’s retracted solar array.
On flight day five, Thornton and Akers stepped outside for the mission’s second spacewalk, lasting 6 hours 36 minutes. The primary tasks revolved around replacing the telescope’s two solar arrays. First, they disconnected the array that would not retract as planned, working only at night since the array generated electricity when exposed to sunlight. With Thornton on the end of the RMS, she released the partially open array as Nicollier pulled her away. Bowersox fired thrusters to separate from the array, the plumes impinging on it causing it to flap like a giant bird. Thornton and Akers then connected one of the new arrays, rotated the telescope on its FSS, disconnected the other array, stowing it in the payload bay for return to Earth, and replaced it with a new one.
Third spacewalk. Left: Astronauts Jeffrey A. Hoffman, left, and F. Story Musgrave have removed the old Wide Field Planetary Camera (WFPC) from Hubble, the black rectangle at upper left shows its former location. Middle: With European Space Agency astronaut Claude Nicollier operating the Remote Manipulator System from inside the shuttle, Hoffman guides the new WFPC2 into position, with Musgrave ready to assist. Right: Musgrave, left, and Hoffman have installed WFPC2, the white triangle in the middle of the telescope, with Hoffman about to pick up WFPC1 temporarily stowed on the side of the payload bay and place it in its permanent location for return to Earth.
On the sixth day, Hoffman and Musgrave took their turn outside for the mission’s third spacewalk. Their primary task involved the replacement of the original WFPC with the more advance WFPC2 instrument. With Nicollier controlling the RMS, Hoffman removed the WFPC1 from the telescope and temporarily stowed it on the side of the payload bay. He then removed WFPC2 from its stowage location and he and Musgrave installed it into the telescope. After stowing WFPC1 in the payload bay for return to Earth, Hoffman replaced two magnetometers, essentially compasses the telescope uses to determine its orientation in space. This third spacewalk lasted 6 hours 47 minutes.
Fourth spacewalk. Left: Astronaut Kathryn C. Thornton works in shuttle Endeavour’s payload bay. Middle: With European Space Agency astronaut Claude Nicollier controlling the Remote Manipulator System, Thornton, top, removes the Corrective Optics Space telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR) from its storage location. Right: Astronaut Thomas D. Akers, inside the Hubble Space Telescope prepares to install the COSTAR.
For Akers and Thornton, the primary tasks of the fourth spacewalk on the mission’s seventh day focused on the removal of the HSP instrument and replacing it with the COSTAR system to correct the telescope’s optics. Akers opened the telescope’s shroud doors and with Thornton removed the HSP, temporarily stowing it on the side of the payload bay. Nicollier then maneuvered the RMS with Thornton to pick up COSTAR from its storage location and translate them to Hubble where Akers awaited to help with the installation. After closing the door and stowing the HSP, and installing an electronics package with additional computer memory, Akers and Thornton finished the 6-hour 50-minut spacewalk.
Fifth spacewalk. Left: Remote Manipulator System operator European Space Agency astronaut Claude Nicollier translates Jeffrey A. Hoffman and F. Story Musgrave to the top of the Hubble Space Telescope. Middle: The second of two solar arrays unfurls as Hoffman and Musgrave continue working. Right: Hoffman celebrates the first Hannukah in space, with a spinning dreidel floating nearby.
On the morning of the eighth day, Bowersox used Endeavour’s thrusters to slightly raise and circularize Hubble’s orbit. Hoffman and Musgrave stepped outside for the mission’s fifth and final spacewalk. When the two newly installed solar arrays failed to deploy after ground commanding, they manually deployed them, and the arrays unfurled without incident. They next replaced the solar array drive electronics and fitted an electronic connection box on the GHRS instrument. Hoffman and Musgrave’s final task involved installing covers, manufactured by Bowersox and Nicollier on board the shuttle, on the telescope’s magnetometers. The final spacewalk lasted 7 hours 21 minutes, bringing the mission’s total spacewalk time to 35 hours 28 minutes. Once back inside Endeavour, Hoffman celebrated the first Hanukkah in space during a televised broadcast, displaying a traveling menorah, unlit of course, and a spinning dreidel.
Left: European Space Agency astronaut Claude Nicollier grapples the Hubble Space Telescope, with its high-gain antenna deployed, just prior to release. Middle: After its release, Hubble slowly drifts away from Endeavour. Right: A distant view of Hubble, right, with a crescent Moon.
On flight day nine, Nicollier grappled Hubble with the RMS for the final time and lifted it above the payload bay. Ground controllers commanded its aperture door to open, and Nicollier released the telescope. Bowersox fired Endeavour’s thrusters to slowly back away from the telescope. The next day, the astronauts enjoyed a well-deserved day of rest. They returned the shuttle’s cabin pressure to 14.7 psi and tidied up the spacecraft. On the mission’s 11th day, Covey and Bowersox tested Endeavour’s flight control surfaces and practiced touchdowns using a laptop computer, all in preparation for deorbit, entry, and landing the following day.
Left: Astronaut Richard O. Covey guides Endeavour to a landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Middle: Workers at KSC continue to safe Endeavour following its landing. Right: Images of M100 galactic nucleus before, left, and after the first servicing mission showing the improved optical qualities.
On Dec. 13, 1993, their 12th and final day in space, the astronauts donned their pressure suits and prepared for the return to Earth. Due to predicted worsening weather conditions at KSC, Mission Control elected to bring them home one orbit earlier than planned. Covey guided Endeavour to a smooth landing at night at KSC, concluding a flight of 10 days, 19 hours, 59 minutes. They circled the Earth 163 times. Within a month, new images from Hubble indicated the repairs returned the telescope to its expected capabilities, providing astronomers with a unique observation platform. The lessons learned from planning and executing the complex series of spacewalks, with extensive coordination with teams on the ground, proved highly useful not only for future Hubble servicing mission but also for the difficult spacewalks required to assemble and maintain the International Space Station.
Left: Timeline of the Hubble Space Telescope’s instruments and their replacements during servicing missions. Right: Hubble as it appeared after its release during the final servicing mission in 2009.
Although the STS-61 crew’s work left the Hubble Space Telescope in better condition than originally designed, over the years it required additional servicing to ensure it met its expected 15-year on-orbit life. Four additional shuttle crews serviced the telescope between 1997 and 2009, and today it carries a suite of instruments far more advanced than its original complement. During the five servicing missions, 16 space walking astronauts conducted 23 spacewalks totaling more than 165 hours, or just under 7 days, to make repairs or improvements to the telescope’s capabilities. To summarize the discoveries made by scientists using data from the Hubble Space Telescope is well beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that during its more than 30 years of operation, information and images returned by Hubble continue to revolutionize astronomy, literally causing scientists to rewrite textbooks, and have dramatically altered how the public views the wonders of the universe. On the technical side, the launch of Hubble and the servicing missions to maintain and upgrade its capabilities have proven conclusively the value of maintainability of space-based scientific platforms.
Watch the STS-61 crew narrate a video of their Hubble servicing mission.
Last Updated Dec 04, 2023 Related Terms
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Six years of hard work and dedication paid off in spectacular fashion today, as the Educational Irish Research Satellite, EIRSAT-1, successfully blasted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. Hitching a ride on a Space-X Falcon-9 launcher, the tiny satellite – measuring just 10.7cm x 10.7cm x 22.7cm – has now made history as Ireland’s first satellite!
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On Nov. 28, 1983, space shuttle Columbia took to the skies for its sixth trip into space on the first dedicated science mission using the Spacelab module provided by the European Space Agency (ESA). The longest shuttle mission at the time also included many other firsts. Aboard Columbia to conduct dozens of science experiments, the first six-person crew of Commander John W. Young, making his record-breaking sixth spaceflight, Pilot Brewster H. Shaw, Mission Specialists Owen K. Garriott and Robert A.R. Parker, and the first two payload specialists, American Byron K. Lichtenberg and German Ulf Merbold representing ESA, the first non-American to fly on a U.S. space mission. During the 10-day Spacelab 1 flight, the international team of astronauts conducted 72 experiments in a wide variety of science disciplines.
Left: The STS-9 crew patch. Middle: Official photo of the STS-9 crew of Owen K. Garriott, seated left, Brewster H. Shaw, John W. Young, and Robert A.R. Parker; Byron K. Lichtenberg, standing left, and Ulf Merbold of West Germany representing the European Space Agency. Right: The payload patch for Spacelab 1.
In August 1973, NASA and the European Space Research Organization, the forerunner of today’s ESA, agreed on a cooperative plan to build a reusable laboratory called Spacelab to fly in the space shuttle’s cargo bay. In exchange for ESA building the pressurized modules and unpressurized pallets, NASA provided flight opportunities for European astronauts. In December 1977, ESA named physicist Merbold of the Max Planck Institute in West Germany, physicist Wubbo Ockels of The Netherlands, and astrophysicist Claude Nicollier of Switzerland as payload specialist candidates for the first Spacelab mission. In September 1982, ESA selected Merbold as the prime crew member to fly the mission and Ockels as his backup. Nicollier had in the meantime joined NASA’s astronaut class of 1980 as a mission specialist candidate. In 1978, NASA selected biomedical engineer Lichtenberg of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as its payload specialist with physicist Michael L. Lampton of CalTech as his backup. In April 1982, NASA assigned the orbiter crew of Young, Shaw, Garriott, and Parker. As commander of STS-9, Young made a record-breaking sixth flight into space. The mission’s pilot Shaw, an astronaut from the 1978 class, made his first trip into space. The two mission specialists had a long history with NASA – Garriott, selected as an astronaut in 1965, completed a 59-day stay aboard the Skylab space station in 1973, and Parker, selected in 1967, made his first spaceflight after a 16-year wait. Although the crew included only two veterans, it had the most previous spaceflight experience of any crew up to that time – 84 days between Young’s and Garriott’s earlier missions.
Left: Arrival of the Spacelab 1 long module at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Middle: Workers place the Spacelab module and pallet into Columbia’s payload bay in KSC’s Orbiter Processing Facility. Right: The Spacelab pallet, top, pressurized long module, and tunnel in Columbia’s payload bay.
The pressurized module for the first Spacelab mission arrived at KSC on Dec. 11, 1981, from its manufacturing facility in Bremen, West Germany. Additional components arrived throughout 1982 as workers in KSC’s Operations and Checkout Building integrated the payload racks into the module. The ninth space shuttle mission saw the return of the orbiter Columbia to space, having flown the first five flights of the program. Since it arrived back at KSC after STS-5 on Nov. 22, 1982, engineers in the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) modified Columbia to prepare it for the first Spacelab mission. The completed payload, including the pressurized module, the external pallet, and the transfer tunnel, rolled over to the OPF, where workers installed it into Columbia’s payload bay on Aug. 16, 1983.
Left: In the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, workers lift space shuttle Columbia to mate it with its external tank (ET) and solid rocket boosters (SRBs) for the first time. Middle: Space shuttle Columbia’s first trip from the VAB to Launch Pad 39A. Right: In the VAB, workers have disassembled the stack and prepare to reposition the ET with its SRBs.
Rollover of Columbia to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) took place on Sept. 24, where workers mated it with an external tank (ET) and two solid rocket boosters (SRBs). Following integrated testing, the stack rolled out to Launch Pad 39A four days later for a planned Oct. 29 liftoff. However, on Oct. 14, managers called off that initial launch attempt after discovering that the engine nozzle of the left hand SRB contained the same material that nearly caused a burn through during STS-8. The replacement of the nozzle required a rollback to the VAB. Taking place on Oct. 17, it marked the first rollback of a flight vehicle in the shuttle’s history. Workers in the VAB demated the vehicle and destacked the left hand SRB to replace its nozzle. Columbia temporarily returned to the OPF on Oct. 19, where workers replaced its fuel cells using three borrowed from space shuttle Discovery and also replaced its waste collection system. Columbia returned to the VAB on Nov. 3 for remating with its ET and SRBs and rolled back out to the launch pad on Nov. 8.
Left: The STS-9 crew during their preflight press conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Middle: On launch day at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the STS-9 astronauts leave crew quarters to board the Astrovan for the ride to Launch Pad 39A. Right: In the VIP stands to watch the STS-9 launch, Steven Spielberg, left, and George Lucas.
Liftoff of space shuttle Columbia on STS-9 carrying the first Spacelab science module.
Ground track of STS-9’s orbit, inclined 57 degrees to the equator, passing over 80 percent of the world’s land masses.
On Nov. 28, 1983, Columbia thundered off KSC’s Launch Pad 39A to begin the STS-9 mission. The shuttle entered an orbit inclined 57 degrees to the equator, the highest inclination U.S. spaceflight at the time, allowing the astronauts to observe about 80 percent of the Earth’s landmasses. Mounted inside Columbia’s payload bay, the first Spacelab 18-foot long module provided a shirt-sleeve environment for the astronauts to conduct scientific experiments in a variety of disciplines. During the Spacelab 1 mission, the STS-9 crew carried out 72 experiments in atmospheric and plasma physics, astronomy, solar physics, materials sciences, technology, astrobiology, and Earth observations. For the first time in spaceflight history, the crew divided into two teams working opposite 12-hour shifts, allowing science to be conducted 24 hours a day. The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, launched the previous April during the STS-6 mission, and now fully operational, enabled transmission of television and significant amounts of science data to the Payload Operations Control Center, located in the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Left: View of the Spacelab module in the shuttle’s payload bay. Middle: Several STS-9 crew members struggle to open the hatch to the transfer tunnel. Right: Owen K. Garriott, left, Ulf Merbold, and Byron K. Lichtenberg enter the Spacelab for the first time to begin activating the module.
Upon reaching orbit, the crew opened the payload bay doors and deployed the shuttle’s radiators. Shortly after, following a few tense minutes during which the astronauts struggled with a balky hatch, they opened it, translated down the transfer tunnel, and entered Spacelab for the first time. Garriott, Lichtenberg, and Merbold activated the module and turned on the first experiments. For the next nine days, the Red Team of Young, Parker, and Merbold, and the Blue Team of Shaw, Garriott, and Lichtenberg performed flawlessly to carry out the experiments. Young and Shaw managed the shuttle’s systems while the mission and payload specialists conducted the bulk of the research. With ample consumables available, Mission Control granted them an extra day in space to complete additional science. One afternoon, the astronauts chatted with U.S. President Ronald W. Reagan in the White House and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, attending the European Community Summit in Athens, Greece. The two leaders praised the astronauts for their scientific work and the cooperation between the two countries that enabled the flight to take place.
Left: Robert A.R. Parker, left, Byron K. Lichtenberg, Owen K. Garriott, and Ulf Merbold at work inside the Spacelab module. Middle: Garriott preparing to draw a blood sample from Lichtenberg for one of the life sciences experiments. Right: Garriott, front, and Lichtenberg at work in the Spacelab module.
Left: The rotating dome experiment to study visual vestibular interactions. Middle: Owen K. Garriott prepares to place blood samples in a passive freezer. Right: Inflight photograph of the STS-9 crew.
A selection of the STS-9 crew Earth observation photographs. Left: The Manicougan impact crater in Quebec, Canada, with the shuttle’s tail visible at upper right. Middle: Hong Kong. Right: Cape Campbell, New Zealand.
On Dec. 8, their last day in space, the crew finished the experiments, closed up the Spacelab module, and strapped themselves into their seats to prepare for their return to Earth. Five hours before the scheduled landing, during thruster firings one of Columbia’s five General Purpose Computers (GPC) failed, followed six minutes later by a second GPC. Mission Control decided to delay the landing until the crew could fix the problem. Young and Shaw brought the second GPC back up but had no luck with the first. Meanwhile, one of Columbia’s Inertial Measurement Units, used for navigation, failed. Finally, after eight hours of troubleshooting, the astronauts fired the shuttle’s Orbital Maneuvering System engines to begin the descent from orbit. Young piloted Columbia to a smooth landing on a lakebed runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert, completing 166 orbits around the Earth in 10 days, 6 hours, and 47 minutes, at the time the longest shuttle flight. Shortly before landing, a hydrazine leak caused two of the orbiter’s three Auxiliary Power Units (APU) to catch fire. The fire burned itself out, causing damage in the APU compartment but otherwise not affecting the landing. The astronauts safely exited the spacecraft without incident. On Dec. 14, NASA ferried Columbia back to KSC to remove the Spacelab module from the payload bay. In January 1984, Columbia returned to its manufacturer, Rockwell International in Palmdale, California, where workers spent the next two years refurbishing NASA’s first orbiter before its next mission, STS-61C, in January 1986.
Left: John W. Young in the shuttle commander’s seat prior to entry and landing. Middle: Space shuttle Columbia lands at Edward Air Force Base in California to end the STS-9 mission. Right: The six STS-9 crew members descend the stairs from the orbiter after their successful 10-day scientific mission.
Left: Workers at Edwards Air Force Base in California safe space shuttle Columbia after its return from space. Middle: Atop a Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, Columbia begins its cross country journey to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Right: The STS-9 crew during their postflight press conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The journal Science published preliminary results from Spacelab 1 in their July 13, 1984, issue. The two Spacelab modules flew a total of 16 times, the last one during the STS-90 Neurolab mission in April 1998. The module that flew on STS-9 and eight other missions is displayed at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia, while the other module resides at the Airbus Defence and Space plant in Bremen, Germany, not on public display.
The Spacelab long module that flew on STS-9 and eight other missions on display at the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia.
Enjoy the crew narrate a video about the STS-9 mission. Read Shaw’s, Garriott’s, and Parker’s recollections of the STS-9 mission in their oral histories with the JSC History Office.
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