Shuttle astronauts Thomas K. (Ken) Mattingly and Henry W. Hartsfield today conducted what almost surely were the first secret military experiments operated aboard a manned U.S. spacecraft in earth orbit.
Mattingly and Hartsfield operated a battery of U.S. Air Force instruments in the cargo bay of the space shuttle Columbia. Included were a supersecret infrared telescope to follow the engine exhausts of missiles and aircraft on the earth and a space sextant and ultraviolet horizon scanner for navigational use on future spy satellites.
Even as Mattingly and Hartsfield were operating the secret instruments, four Soviet cosmonauts and a Frenchman were circling the earth in a 20-ton Soviet space station named Salyut-7 on one of those rare occasions when Soviet cosmonauts and U.S. astronauts are in space at the same time.
Although in orbit together, the two crews are usually half a world apart and never come any closer to each other than 6,000 miles. Columbia is in an orbit inclined 28 degrees to the earth's equator while Salyut-7 is inclined 51 degrees to the equator, and their paths are so different that the two crews will never see each other's brighly lit spacecraft even in the dark of night.
As happened with the last two shuttle crews, at least one member of this fourth crew did not pass his first day in space without suffering spacesickness.
Space rookie Hartsfield took aspirin and the drug Scopdex, a combination of scopolamine and Dexedrine, and skipped lunch today because he felt queasy, doctors reported today. However, he ate dinner and was feeling better tonight, they reported later.
Mattingly has been untouched by spacesickness, but doctors did not expect him to be ill because he did not become sick when he flew on Apollo 16 a decade ago. They had warned Hartsfield to take Scopdex to ward off motion sickness 30 minutes after Columbia left the ground Sunday morning.
"The crew came back tonight on the radio and said, 'We're ready to go tomorrow,' " Flight Director Chuck Lewis said. "I don't think there's a problem there."
Prior to Hartsfield's lunchtime discomfort, space officials had reported that the astronauts were in excellent health. "They're raring to go, to the point of doing more than we've asked them to do," one said.
Although Columbia's flight is directed from the Mission Control Center in Houston, it is the first manned U.S. space flight also being orchestrated from elsewhere.
No fewer than five times today, Mattingly and Hartsfield were called from the Air Force Control Center in Sunnyvale, Calif., and told how to operate the 2,000 pounds of Air Force instruments suspended from a trussed-up pallet in the cargo bay.
At most times, the conversations between the astronauts and the "paycom" (payload communicators) in Sunnyvale, who were never identified, sounded like gibberish involving nothing more than the reading of dials and setting of switches to operate the instruments.
The conversations, however, indicated that the Air Force instruments were being operated in daylight and darkness around the entire earth. Once, Mattingly and Hartsfield were told to turn on the secret instruments over Australia and another time over the South Atlantic.
As expected, the astronauts did not televise to earth a view of the cargo bay holding the instruments. Instead, they televised a mundane scene inside the cockpit and showed off a device called an electrophoresis instrument. That is a laboratory model of what is hoped will be a pharmaceutical factory in space and is flying aboard Columbia for the first time.
Instead of using the camera on the end of the 50-foot robot arm in the cargo bay to televise what they were seeing on the earth the way other shuttle crews have done, Mattingly and Hartsfield gave only oral descriptions of what they saw from space.
"Do you guys believe we can look straight down and see the launch pad? It's a beautiful day at the Cape," Mattingly said as they flew across the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral this afternoon.
Another time, Mattingly described the weather along the Texas Gulf Coast and sounded amazed at details he could pick out on the ground as Columbia crossed Texas.
"You can even see Scholls Field when you look down at it," Mattingly said as he flew over the municipal airport at Galveston. "The whole thing stands out pretty neatly."
Late today, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that it is appointing a board to determine why the two recoverable solid-rocket booster engines that fell away from Columbia at an altitude of 80 miles sank in 3,500 feet of water in the Atlantic Ocean Sunday.
NASA said a preliminary investigation suggests that the 150-foot-tall boosters sank because their parachutes never opened. Although the drogue chutes that stabilize the boosters opened and were found on the water 150 miles down range from Cape Canaveral, there was no sign of the main parachutes or the boosters.