Unhealthy Environment: Remembering the Shuttle’s “Frog and Prince” Mission, OTD in 1985


Unhealthy Environment: Remembering the Shuttle’s “Frog and Prince” Mission, OTD in 1985

On this day in 1985, shuttle Discovery launched on an international, multi-faceted mission. Photo Credit: NASA

On this day in 1985, shuttle Discovery roared into space with the largest number of nations ever represented, the largest number of satellites ever orbited by a crew-carrying vehicle and more than its fair share of political controversy. Aboard Mission 51G—the fourth of nine shuttle flights in the year prior to Challenger’s untimely loss—were NASA’s Dan Brandenstein, John “J.O.” Creighton, Shannon Lucid, John Fabian and Steve Nagel, plus Frenchman Patrick Baudry and Saudi Arabia’s first man in space, and the first “royal” astronaut, Prince Sultan Salman Abdul Aziz al-Saud.

But in the dark, politically incorrect corners of NASA’s Astronaut Office, Mission 51G drew the disparaging nickname of “The Frog and Prince Flight”.

Video Credit: NASA, via National Space Society (NSS)

As America’s confidence in the shuttle grew in the early 1980s, NASA began to fly politicians, commercial engineers and foreign nationals as “payload specialist” crew members. If a customer’s satellite or experiment filled above a set volume, an accompanying seat for a human observer was offered.

Mission 51G’s haul of payloads included the French Echocardiograph Experiment (FEE) and an Arabsat communications satellite, so it came as little surprise when Baudry and al-Saud drew crew spots on the flight. As a member of the Saudi royal family, al-Saud became the first person of blue blood to travel into space. “It was obvious to us all,” said Creighton in a NASA oral history, “that Prince Sultan had grown up in different financial circles than the rest of the crew!”

Arabsat-1B departs Discovery’s payload bay, early in the flight. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

But Fabian disliked the idea of flying passengers on the shuttle. “This was an unhealthy environment,” he said. “We were taking risks that we shouldn’t have been taking.

“We were shoving people onto the crews, late in the process, so they were never fully integrated into the operation of the shuttle and there was a mentality that we were simply filling another 747 with people and having it take off from Chicago to Los Angeles,” he added. “This was not that kind of vehicle, but that’s the way it was being treated.”

The 51G crew, from left, Shannon Lucid, Steve Nagel, John Fabian, Salman Abdul Aziz al-Saud and Patrick Baudry, with Dan Brandenstein kneeling left and John “J.O.” Creighton kneeling right. Photo Credit: NASA

Discovery’s crew was tasked to deploy three communications satellites—Telstar-3D, the French-built, Saudi-owned Arabsat-1B and Mexico’s Morelos-A—as well as releasing and later retrieving a small scientific platform called “Spartan” for two days of independent astronomical observations.  

On the night before launch, the crew spent time with their spouses at the “beach house” on Cape Canaveral’s Neptune Beach waterfront, enjoying a barbecue dinner and private seclusion. Creighton recalled seeing Discovery in the distance, brilliantly bathed in 800-million-candlepower of xenon floodlights. The astronauts and their families toasted the success of their mission with a bottle of wine, then parted.

Video Credit: NASA

“NASA has everything scripted right down to the minute,” Creighton said, “and they wake you up about four hours and 45 minutes before launch and you…take a quick shower and get dressed and go in, still half-asleep, into breakfast, and a bunch of photographers run in and take your picture and they bring out a big fancy cake with your patch on it.”

After suiting-up, the astronauts departed the Operations & Checkout Building into a blaze of flashbulbs so bright that Creighton wondered if he would get to the Astrovan without getting blinded. Out at historic Pad 39A—the same launch site from which the first Moon voyagers had departed, two decades before—the crew was astonished by the ethereal silence, punctuated only by the creaking and groaning of gaseous propellants boiling off from the External Tank. To Creighton, ascending the elevator and boarding the vehicle was an eerie experience.

Commander Dan Brandenstein leads his crew out to the launch pad on the morning of 17 June 1985. Note Patrick Baudry, sporting a traditional French beret. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Only Brandenstein and Fabian had flown before; the others were “rookies”. As Nagel took his seat on the flight deck, behind Brandenstein and Creighton, Fabian offered him a few final words before liftoff. “Nagel,” he said, “you’re in for one hell of a ride!”

Ignition of Discovery’s three main engines got underway at T-6.6 seconds, silencing any chatter between the astronauts. “The whole vehicle starts rumbling and shaking,” said Creighton, “and you can’t believe that these big bolts are still holding you to the ground. It feels like it’s trying to rip itself off the ground.”

Discovery spears for space in the opening moments of Mission 51G. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Nagel looked forward at Brandenstein and Creighton and they both seemed to be visibly vibrating in their seats as first the main engines and then, at T-0, the twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) ignited. “I was just mentally behind,” Nagel said later. “I think I was left on the launch pad, with my mind trying to keep up. It just all happened so fast. There was such a rush of events and the sights and sounds…were almost overwhelming!”

As Discovery left the ground at 7:33 a.m. EDT, Creighton caught a fleeting glimpse of Pad 39A’s tower passing his window and vanishing from sight. But as the shuttle gained speed and reached the edge of space, he could not believe how quickly the sky changed from blue to deep indigo to pitch black.

By the end of his seven days in space, Sultan Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud had given up looking for his own country, or even his own continent, and came to realize that all humans belonged to just “One World”. It is a message which continues to resonate today. Photo Credit: NASA

SRB separation came with a bright flash in the cabin, engulfing Discovery’s forward cockpit windows in flame for a half-second, before the remainder of ascent continued with electric smoothness under the push of the main engines. At 7:41 a.m., eight minutes after liftoff, three times the force of terrestrial gravity—akin to having a gorilla on one’s chest—suddenly was gone, to be replaced with the call “Main Engine Cutoff”, yelps of joy from the crew…and weightlessness.

The next seven days would be busy ones, with Arabsat, Morelos, then Telstar deployed sequentially every 24 hours for the first half of the mission. Then Lucid grappled Spartan with Discovery’s 50-foot-long (15-meter) Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanized arm and released it into space. Creighton pulsed the thrusters to move the shuttle to a safe distance and for two days Spartan performed medium-resolution mapping of X-ray emissions from extended sources and regions in the universe.

The Spartan spacecraft, seen here during its maiden voyage on Mission 51G in June 1985, was a retrievable vehicle capable of housing a wide variety of astronomy, solar physics and technology instruments. Photo Credit: NASA

But its retrieval did not go wholly to plan, as Spartan was out-of-attitude and a couple of Discovery’s steering jets failed. It was, remembered Brandenstein, “a bit of an eye-opener” when they had to replan part of their rendezvous on the fly, but when Fabian finally snared the satellite, he let out a whoop of joy that almost scared his crewmates to death.

Spending a week in a volume no larger than a minivan was not pretty. Brandenstein and Creighton slept in their seats in the cockpit, Fabian behind them. Downstairs on Discovery’s middeck, al-Saud tied his sleeping bag to the forward wall of lockers, Baudry and Nagel opted for a side wall and Lucid jammed herself into the tiny airlock.

Discovery touches down at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on 24 June 1985. Photo Credit: NASA

Returning to Earth on 24 June 1985 to land at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Brandenstein was most impressed that he had secured the shortest distance—only 7,400 feet (2,250 meters)—from Main Gear Touchdown to wheelstop. And for Baudry, a French Air Force fighter pilot, there was a measure of disappointment that Discovery was the first time he’d flown an airplane for the first time and he was not in control.

“Well,” Brandenstein replied with a grin, “at least we were able to walk away from it!”

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