Launch of Atlantis; in-flight photography on this Department of Defense support mission is limited
|Mission type||Satellite deployment|
|Mission duration||4 days, 9 hours, 5 minutes, 37 seconds|
|Distance travelled||2,916,252 kilometres (1,812,075 mi)|
|Spacecraft||Space Shuttle Atlantis|
|Payload mass||14,500 kilograms (32,000 lb)|
|Start of mission|
|Launch date||2 December 1988, 14:30:34UTC|
|Launch site||Kennedy LC-39B|
|End of mission|
|Landing date||6 December 1988, 23:36:11UTC|
|Landing site||Edwards Runway 17|
|Perigee altitude||437 kilometers (236 NM)|
|Apogee altitude||447 kilometers (241 NM)|
Back row, L-R: Shepherd, Mullane. Front row, L-R: Gardner, Gibson, Ross.
STS-27 was the 27th NASA Space Shuttle mission, and the third flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis. Launching on 2 December 1988 on a four-day mission, it was the second shuttle flight after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of January 1986. STS-27 carried a classified payload for the U.S. Department of Defense, ultimately determined to be a Lacrosse surveillance satellite. The vessel's heat shielding was substantially damaged during lift-off, impacting the right wing, and crew members thought that they would die during reentry. This was a situation that was similar to the one that would prove fatal 15 years later on STS-107, but compared to the damage that Columbia had sustained on STS-107, despite Atlantis experiencing more extensive damage than Columbia had sustained, the damage was over less critical areas and the missing tile was over an antenna which gave extra protection to the wing. The mission landed successfully, although intense heat damage needed to be repaired.
|Commander||Robert L. Gibson|
|Pilot||Guy S. Gardner|
|Mission Specialist 1||Richard M. Mullane|
|Mission Specialist 2||Jerry L. Ross|
|Mission Specialist 3||William M. Shepherd|
Crew seating arrangements
Seats 1–4 are on the Flight Deck. Seats 5–7 are on the Middeck.
The Space Shuttle Atlantis (OV-104), at the time the youngest in NASA's shuttle fleet, made its third flight on a classified mission for the United States Department of Defense (DoD). It deployed a single satellite, USA-34. NASA archival information has identified USA-34 as Lacrosse 1, a side-looking radar, all-weather surveillance satellite for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The mission was originally scheduled to launch on 1 December 1988, but the launch was postponed one day because of cloud cover and strong wind conditions at the launch site. Liftoff occurred from Launch Complex 39, Pad B (LC-39B) at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on 2 December 1988 at 09:30 EST. Atlantis touched down on 6 December 1988 on Runway 17 at Edwards Air Force Base, California, at 18:35 EST. The total mission elapsed time at wheels-stop was 4 days, 9 hours and 6 minutes. Atlantis was returned to the Kennedy Space Center on 13 December and moved into an OPF on 14 December 1988.
There has been speculation that an EVA was conducted during this mission. Interviews with members of the crew several years after the flight confirmed there had been a problem with the satellite upon release, whereupon a rendezvous with the satellite was effected and repairs performed. These unspecified repairs could have necessitated a spacewalk, likely performed by Ross and Shepherd. As a classified DoD mission, details or confirmation of such an EVA remain unreleased.
The day after Atlantis landed, the 1988 Armenian earthquake killed tens of thousands in the Soviet Union. At an astronaut meeting Gibson said, "I know many of you may have been very curious about our classified payload. While I can't go into its design features, I can say Armenia was its first target!" As military astronauts laughed and civilians cringed, Gibson continued, "And we only had the weapon set on stun!"
Atlantis' Thermal Protection System tiles sustained extensive damage during the flight. Ablative insulating material from the right-hand solid rocket booster nose cap had hit the orbiter about 85 seconds into the flight, as seen in footage of the ascent. The STS-27 crew also commented that white material was observed on the windshield at various times during ascent. The crew made an inspection of the shuttle's impacted starboard side using the shuttle's Canadarm robot arm, but the limited resolution and range of the cameras made it impossible to determine the full extent of the tile damage.
The problem was compounded by the fact that the crew was prohibited from using their standard method of sending images to ground control due to the classified nature of the mission. The crew was forced to use a slow, encrypted transmission method, likely causing the images NASA engineers received to be of poor quality, causing them to think the damage was actually "just lights and shadows". They told the crew the damage did not look any more severe than on past missions.
One report describes the crew as "infuriated" that Mission Control seemed unconcerned. When Gibson saw the damage he thought to himself, "We are going to die"; he and others did not believe that the shuttle would survive reentry. Gibson advised the crew to relax because "No use dying all tensed-up", he said, but if instruments indicated that the shuttle was disintegrating, Gibson planned to "tell mission control what I thought of their analysis" in the remaining seconds before his death.
Mullane recalled that while filming the reentry through the upper deck's overhead windows, "I had visions of molten aluminum being smeared backwards, like rain on a windshield". Although the shuttle landed safely "The damage was much worse than any of us had expected", he wrote. Upon landing, the magnitude of the damage to the shuttle astonished NASA; over 700 damaged tiles were noted, and one tile was missing altogether. The missing tile had been located over the aluminum mounting plate for the L-band antenna, perhaps preventing a burn-through of the sort that would ultimately doom Columbia in 2003. There was almost no damage present on the orbiter's left side. STS-27 Atlantis was the most damaged launch-entry vehicle to return to Earth successfully. Gibson believed that had the shuttle been destroyed, Congress would have ended the shuttle program given that only one successful mission had occurred between his flight and the loss of Challenger.
A review team investigated the cause beginning with a detailed inspection of the Atlantis TPS damage, and a review of related inspection reports to establish an in-depth anomaly definition. An exhaustive data review followed to develop a fault tree and several failure scenarios. This and other information gained during the review formed the basis for the team's findings and recommendations.
NASA began a tradition of playing music to astronauts during the Gemini program, and first used music to wake up a flight crew during Apollo 15. Each track is specially chosen, often by the astronauts' families, and usually has a special meaning to an individual member of the crew, or is applicable to their daily activities.
|Day 2||Army fight song|
|Day 3||"Rawhide" parody||Dimitri Tiomkin|
|Day 4||"Do You Want to Know a Secret" parody||Mike Cahill|
- Harwood, William (27 March 2009). "Legendary commander tells story of shuttle's close call". Originally written for CBS News "Space Place". Retrieved 1 April 2018.
- Tell Me A Story: Astronaut Hoot Gibson's and Atlantis' Close Call (posted to YouTube on April 25, 2015, by Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex)
- "STS-27". Spacefacts. Retrieved 26 February 2014.
- "NASA – NSSDC – Spacecraft – Details". Nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov. Retrieved 12 August 2010.
- Michael Cassut (1 August 2009). "Secret Space Shuttles". Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine. Smithsonian Institution.
- Ben Evans (1 January 2012). "NASA's Secret Shuttle Missions – Part Two". americaspace.com.
- Ben Evans (9 December 2018). "'Dying All Tensed-Up': 30 Years Since the Troubled Secret Mission of STS-27". AmericaSpace. Retrieved 12 December 2018.
- Evans, Ben (31 January 2012). "Into the Black: NASA's Secret Shuttle Missions – Part Two". AmericaSpace. Retrieved 14 July 2020.
- William Harwood (27 March 2009). "Legendary commander tells story of shuttle's close call". Spaceflight Now. Written for CBS news Space Place.
- "STS-27R OV-104 ORBITER TPS DAMAGE REVIEW TEAM SUMMARY REPORT". NASA. February 1989. Retrieved 3 July 2011.
- "STS-27". Astronautix.com. Archived from the original on 23 July 2010. Retrieved 12 August 2010.
- Mullane, Mike (2006). Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut. Scribner. ISBN 978-0-7432-7682-5.
- Chris Gebhardt (2 July 2011). "OV-104/ATLANTIS: An International Vehicle for a Changing World". NASAspaceflight.com. Retrieved 3 July 2011.
- Fries, Colin (25 June 2007). "Chronology of Wakeup Calls" (PDF). NASA. Retrieved 13 August 2007.
- NASA mission summary
- STS-27 Video Highlights
- STS-27R OV-104 Orbiter TPS damage review team, volume 1