It has been twenty years since the flight of STS-108 also known as ISS Utilization Flight (UF)-1.
In retrospect, 108 seems just another routine, hum drum, typical ISS resupply/crew change/ assembly mission; there were so many of them on the shuttle manifest. Important at the time, certainly contributed to the success of the ISS, but nothing to really stand out in the record.
But the world has changed, and the comparison is, well, interesting.
In view of the anniversary, it might be helpful to record some of my thoughts about that flight and compare them with today.
I was the Lead Flight Director for STS-108. My third assignment and the last to take that role. The Lead Flight Director always started more than a year in advance of launch date to develop the flight plan. The high-level objectives were always defined by the program office but how to accomplish them became the responsibility of the Lead Flight Director and all the flight design team. A payload commander was also assigned early, and it was always a real team effort to put the flight together. Dom Gorie was a great commander to work with. Sometimes Flight Directors and the Mission Commander have friction; that was never the case here.
My primary assignment was to be an Ascent/Entry Flight Director responsible to get the mission from the launch pad safely to orbit and then back to landing. I served in that role for 28 flights. But all Flight Directors had some responsibility for the on-orbit activities. I was an Orbit phase Flight Director on even more flights. Typically, there were three or four Flight Directors to cover all the shifts on a shuttle flight: also on 108 were Paul Hill, Cathy Koerner, Kelly Beck, and A/E FD Leroy Cain. There were also ISS Flight Directors over in the other control room. We all had to know how to execute a flight. I even took some training as an ISS Flight Director. Events conspired to take me out of the Flight Director office before I could stand for that certification.
I have written about my other two lead flights: my first lead and still favorite flight, STS-77 https://blogs.nasa.gov/waynehalesblog/2010/05/26/post_1274899149308/ and the first logistics flight to the ISS before it was permanently crewed, STS-96 https://blogs.nasa.gov/waynehalesblog/page/12/
It turns out that the most important event on STS-108 really had nothing to do with the flight but only with the timing.
Early on the ISS Program Office asked us to plan to replace the BBRRM (pronounced ‘broom’). The ISS gets all its electrical power from solar arrays that track the sun when it is in view and the charged batteries when its dark. Those solar arrays rotate through the 90-minute orbit to maximize the power production by always pointing at the sun. There is something called an Alpha joint which allows the rotation. The SARJ is the mechanism the actually accomplishes that movement. But over the course of longer time, months, the orbit changes. Much like the seasons at the earth’s surface, the sun angle is lower at sometimes and higher at others; a second joint, the Beta joint, allows smaller, slower rotation to keep the Alpha joint aligned with the sun. Too complex? Don’t worry about it. On the Port Side solar array number 6 the Beta joint mechanism was having problems. Our objective was to replace the Beta Bearing Motor Roll Ring Module BBRRM – the ‘broom’. Not an easy task because it had to be done by EVA crewmembers. At the point the old ‘broom’ was disconnected the solar array would be no longer physically connected to the ISS. It would be totally unrestrained until the new ‘broom’ was installed. Another minor item, the work had to be done at ‘night’ during the half orbit when the ISS was in the Earth’s shadow. When the sun came up the solar array would energize, and the EVA crewmembers would be subject to potential shock hazard. The work had to be done in the dark. In about 45-minute chunks.
Not a little problem to solve.
The crew, the EVA team, and I spent countless hours in meetings, wrangling over the best way to execute this task. Then we went over the NBL – that giant water tank where the crew practiced in simulated free fall. I inhaled lots of chlorine scented air in our months developing the EVA procedures.
Just about the time we got the procedure perfected, the ISS Program Office decided not to execute it.
I don’t know whether I was more disappointed or relieved. All the EVA crew members had to do now was wrap some insulation around the BBRRM which the engineering team determined that would keep it working properly. Linda Godwin and Dan Tani got to do just one short EVA to insulate the BBRRM plus a few other minor assembly tasks.
The mission featured an ISS crew exchange: Yuri Onufrienko, Carl Waltz, and Dan Bursch up for a tour on the ISS; Frank Culbertson, Mikhail Turin, and Vladimir Dezhurov down as their expedition was ending. A very international crew indeed.
Tons of cargo – supplies for the ISS – were transferred using the MPLM (Multipurpose Logistics Module) “Raffaello”. (We all thought the MPLMs were named for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but officially that is a myth). Linda Godwin and Mark Kelly – now the US Senator from Arizona – operated the shuttle RMS to move Raffaello from the shuttle cargo bay to the ISS. And then, much later, back to the shuttle after Raffaello’s cargo was emptied and it was refilled with trash.
External cargo like the Russian Strella ‘crane’ were also transferred and installed.
The only excitement of the mission was the intermittent failure of one of the IMU. Earlier in the shuttle program that would have been cause for early mission termination. Given the shuttle experience at that point, the mission continued and was even extended a day to do some extra work at the ISS.
All in all, it was a pretty typical, routine, hum drum, run of the mill Shuttle mission to resupply the ISS and exchange crew members.
STS-108 was the first flight after that terrible day. And the three month ‘anniversary’ would occur during the flight. Endeavour carried the flag from Ground Zero and much more. Solemn artifacts.
NASA leadership told the Lead Flight Director to provide an appropriate ceremony to mark the time of the ‘anniversary’.
That suddenly became my biggest stress point of the mission. I would have much rather faced an EVA with a loose solar array.
I had to write some appropriate words to read up on the air/ground, arranged for the two national anthems to be played, and insisted everybody to be dressed appropriately – not that dress code was ever relaxed in the MCC anyway.
It must have come off acceptably because I never got any feedback from the NASA leadership. No news is good news in that regard; I expect that if it had not been appropriate, I would have promptly received significant feedback. I have since misplaced my notes from the day, my remembrance is the remarks were pretty bland. The flight crews of shuttle and station seemed to appreciate it. My flight control team certainly gave me positive feedback.
In those days, the whole world was on our side. We had sympathy and support from everywhere it seemed. And especially from our Russian colleagues. The partnership was tight.
Some things have changed since then. I wish that great rapport and support still existed.
After the flight ended, I worked as the Mission Operations Director during the STS-109 Hubble Repair mission, spent a couple of flights assisting the A/E guys as ‘weather flight’, and then got to sit in the center seat as Ascent/Entry Flight Director for STS-113. Did not know that my residence in the Flight Director office would end so soon after STS-108. It was a great mission. One for the history books.
Like so many others.
Except for the remembrance.