Four American astronauts put the United States in the space-hauling business today when they successfully released a massive communications satellite from the space shuttle Columbia and placed it behind them in the vast open seas of space.
Flying Columbia into orbit on its first operations mission after four test flights, astronauts Vance Brand, Robert Overmyer, William Lenoir and Joseph Allen carried with them almost identical twin satellites to serve the television and telephone needs of North America. They deployed the American satellite (the second is Canadian) in precisely the position its commercial owners wanted.
"You've got a lot of happy people down here, Joe," astronaut Michael Coates radioed up to Allen from the Mission Control Center in Houston. "You guys do good work."
"We deliver," replied Allen, who with Lenoir maneuvered the satellite away from Columbia and into space while Brand and Overmyer flew the 100-ton spaceliner. "You should have seen how it looked from here."
Brand and Overmyer piloted Columbia about 18 miles out of range and even out of sight of the free-floating satellite. Forty-five minutes later, a timer started up a rocket engine on board the satellite that sent the five-ton blue cylinder hurtling deeper into space, where it will spend the next 10 years handling telephone and television traffic for the United States.
The four astronauts are due to repeat the same procedures on Friday to deploy the Canadian satellite on a similar flight path.
The flight paths of both the U.S. and Canadian satellites follow an orbit known as geosynchronous that places satellites over the Equator at an altitude of 22,400 miles. There they match the rotational speed of Earth and remain fixed above a spot on the globe.
"This is an outstanding beginning for the shuttle's operational era," said Robert C. Hall, president of Satellite Business Systems of McLean, Va., which owns the satellite deployed today and which paid the space agency $9 million to be the first commercial traveler in space. "This is a great milestone for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and for Satellite Business Systems."
From Columbia's cockpit, the astronauts beamed back a delayed television broadcast of the satellite deployment. It may have been one of the better moments in space television and surely marked today's milestone for the electronic history books.
Against the black seas of space and a brightly lit Earth horizon, the cameras showed the upper torso of the satellite spinning like a top on a cradle in the cargo bay. The spinning maneuver is designed so the satellite doesn't tumble out of control when it springs into space.
At the top of the satellite like a cocked hat was its partially deployed antenna. Suddenly, the huge spinning satellite popped from its perch like a giant Jack-in-the-box, moving away so quickly that it was out of sight of the camera in less than a minute.
"We still have that beautiful satellite in sight," astronaut Allen said as Columbia crossed the South Atlantic on its sixth Earth orbit. "It's traveling just below us."
While the satellite moved away from Columbia at its own speed, Brand and Overmyer fired thruster engines on the spaceliner to back still farther away from the freely moving satellite. They wanted to put as much distance as possible between them because the satellite's rocket exhaust could contaminate the spaceliner if they were any closer than 10 or 12 miles. In space there is nothing, not even friction, to dissipate or even slow down a chemical contaminant like the exhaust gases of a rocket engine.
Brand and Overmyer positioned Columbia so that they were not looking in the direction of the satellite out of their windows. Even at a distance of 18 miles, they did not want the satellite's engine exhaust to smear their windows.
While everything worked like a digital watch today, another onboard engine must fire the satellite on its final destination into geosynchronous orbit on Saturday. As things stand now, the satellite is in an egg-shaped orbit 22,400 miles above Earth at its high point but only 160 miles at its low point. A second engine "burn" on Saturday would "circularize" the orbit so that the high and low points are the same at a 22,400-mile altitude.
From the minute they lifted off precisely on time at 7:19 a.m. Eastern time, Columbia's crew of four, the largest crew ever to take off from Earth at the same time, performed almost flawlessly.
"We had a great launch, very smooth, as smooth as any we've had," launch operations director Alfred D. O'Hara said at the Kennedy Space Center where Columbia lifted off for the fifth straight time. "I think Americans can be very proud that we've taken this giant step into space."
Settling down at once to work, the gang of four readied themselves the entire morning for the task of deploying the first of their two communications satellites.
Feeling none of the motion sickness that three of the first four shuttle crews suffered, the astronauts were so busy preparing for satellite deployment they had no time for chitchat with mission control back on Earth. So intent was the crew on getting its job done that Astronaut Allen took off his shoes and socks to work barefoot inside the spaceliner cabin. Explained Allen: "It's like having four hands."