The space shuttle Columbia was scheduled to return home Tuesday after new $1 million spacesuits failed to operate properly today and the first space walk in almost nine years was canceled.
The Columbia crew plans to land in the California desert just after dawn, Pacific time, or 9:34 a.m. EST. The landing will be televised live by the major networks.
Despite today's disappointment, mission directors called the first working mission of the shuttle a success. They said the space walk can be rescheduled for a later flight.
The walk was canceled when the fan in astronaut Joseph Allen's suit that pushes oxygen from the suit's backpack and helps to cool it quit. In addition, the device that maintains oxygen pressure in astronaut William Lenoir's backpack behaved so erratically that flight directors feared it might break down in the middle of his space walk.
Repeated attempts to get the fan in Allen's backpack working were unsuccessful.
"It [Allen's backpack] did the same thing it did earlier," Lenoir said early this afternoon. "It motorboats around [the noise the fan makes when it's straining] for a minute or a minute and a half and quits altogether a few minutes later."
For half the day, Lenoir tried to convince flight directors to allow him to walk in space alone but failed as dismally as Allen's backpack.
Three times, Lenoir suggested that his suit was working well enough for him to go out alone for a short time to test the mobility and integrity of the spacesuit, which is a new model of the one Apollo astronauts wore for the moon walks.
"Good try, Bill," astronaut Robert Stewart said from the Mission Control Center. "Good try, but no cigar."
One reason flight directors refused to let Lenoir walk in space was their strong belief in the "buddy system." If one astronaut gets tangled up in the tethers used to keep him from floating away, if one astronaut gets caught in the foot restraints used to hold him in place, the buddy system means another astronaut is there to help him get loose.
Flight directors also did not want to risk Lenoir being out alone in a spacesuit that was behaving so badly early this morning. If Lenoir's suit started to fail while he was outside, Allen would be unable to go to his aid because his suit was useless. Only two spacesuits were carried on this shuttle flight.
While greatly disappointed, flight directors and program managers did not regard the canceled space walk as a setback for the shuttle program.
"The program is still right on track," program manager Glynn S. Lunney said today at the Johnson Space Center. "This is the kind of thing we can do on any number of subsequent flights."
Spacesuits will be carried on the next three flights for any unexpected problems, such as cargo bay doors that refuse to close. The next flight is due early in February, 1983.
Space walks are scheduled in 1984 on the 11th and 13th flights of the shuttle when plans call for two astronauts to pick up a damaged satellite, repair it in flight and send it back into space.
The trouble began at 4:35 a.m. (EST) today when Allen and Lenoir were in Columbia's airlock, an airtight isolation chamber. They were about to begin breathing pure oxygen at reduced pressure to wash all the nitrogen out of their blood, in order to avoid the "bends," when they came back into the spaceliner's cabin.
The cooling fan feeding oxygen into Allen's suit had suddenly stopped. He restarted it and it stopped a second time, forcing Allen to remove his helmet. Lenoir did the same.
An hour later, Allen said he was getting so hot that he was going to take the suit off. In the spacecraft cabin, he tried to troubleshoot the backpack with the help of Cmdr. Vance Brand and pilot Robert Overmyer. Lenoir stayed behind in the airlock.
But the fan would not keep running. "I can hear it clicking," Allen said at one point. "You can probably hear it clicking down there and it's in the process of dying. It's almost like the fan is hitting something mechanical inside."
Meanwhile, Lenoir was having difficulty in getting his suit to pressurize at its full 4.8 pounds per square inch. The suit failed to even reach a pressure of 4 pounds per square inch.
What apparently bothered flight directors more than the spacesuit failures was the fact that they both failed at the same time.
The Columbia is scheduled to touch down Tuesday about four minutes after sunrise on the concrete runway at California's Edwards Air Force Base. The lake-bed runways that are usually used for shuttle landings are still too wet from the heavy rains in California last week.