After six days in space, the space shuttle landed on Earth safely and is reported in super condition for the seventh consecutive time, and it earned some money for the U.S. government along the way.
The shuttle demonstrated its flexibility Friday by diverting from a Florida touchdown and landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California when fog and rain closed its primary landing site at the Kennedy Space Center here. This was the second time the shuttle was waved off a landing because of weather.
For the seventh time, the shuttle fulfilled just about everything it was asked to do in Earth orbit. The four men and one woman who made up the crew of Challenger deployed two $40 million communications satellites for Canada and Indonesia, each of which paid the United States $11 million for the service.
What's more, the astronauts seriously exercised the 50-foot robot arm for the first time, deploying and retrieving 180 miles up in space a 3,200-pound satellite, which carried eight free-flying experiments as far as a thousand feet from the shuttle at least four times in two days.
The West German aerospace firm of Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm, which built the Shuttle Pallet Satellite, sold space on it to the West German government for the eight experiments it carried and paid the United States $8.5 million for freight charges, said all of the experiments were run beautifully.
The man who runs the shuttle program for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration could not hand out enough praise to astronauts Sally K. Ride and John M. Fabian, the two astronauts who did most of the arm exercises. Air Force Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson said he was hoping Ride and Fabian could work the arm to an accuracy of between 1 and 2 degrees of arc as they moved it around the shuttle cargo bay. They were able to work the arm to an accuracy of less than 1 degree of arc.
For the first time since the second shuttle flight, none of the crew members suffered space sickness, which is of such serious concern that NASA included a doctor, Norman E. Thagard, in the crew to seek clues to its cause. Said Abrahamson: "I'm delighted. We don't think anybody was inconvenienced the entire time, and I think you would see that from their performance."
Now, the bad news. By failing to land at Kennedy, the space agency loses as much as $16 million and eight days in the time it takes to "turn around" the shuttle, get it aboard the back of a Boeing 747 jetliner at Edwards Air Force Base and fly it home to the Kennedy Space Center for its next launch.
The shuttle's eighth flight, which had been scheduled for Aug. 16, is now set for Aug. 24. The landing at Edwards not only delays the eighth flight, but might postpone the ninth flight, now scheduled for Sept. 30.
NASA wants to reduce the turnaround time between shuttle flights to between 25 and 30 days. Flight by flight, the space agency has reduced turnaround time and expected that turnaround time to be cut by 50 days between the seventh and eighth flights. The landing in California Friday means the time between the seventh and eighth flights will be stretched to at least 58 days.
The majority of shuttle flights starting next year will be targeted for landings at Kennedy, which demonstrated on the first try that its unpredictable weather may turn out to be the shuttle's worst enemy. Flight directors don't want to land the shuttle in fog, rain or even low-lying clouds, all of which were present Friday when Challenger was scheduled to land in Florida.
Shuttle managers were disappointed in their inability to land the shuttle in Florida. Saturday's weather in Florida was perfect for landing, one that could have been made if the Challenger crew had been able to extend its mission one day.
The trouble was that one of three Auxiliary Power Units (APU), a mechanism that drives the controls during liftoff and the ailerons and elevons on the tail and wings to maneuver the spaceliner during landing, failed the day before touchdown. A second APU showed a sharp drop in hydraulic pressure Friday morning. Harrington said that mission rules called for three "up and running" APUs to extend the mission a day.
The APUs have given flight directors trouble before.
The failure of one before the launch of the second space shuttle in 1982 caused an eight-day postponement so technicians could replace the failed device. Another overheated on the fourth flight of the shuttle last year during reentry.
This week, the failure of still another caused flight directors to bring the shuttle home and killed any chance they had of making their first landing in Florida. CAPTION: Picture 1, A $40 million communications satellite owned by the government of Indonesia is deployed on 7th flight of space shuttle Challenger. Picuture 2, The West German satellite is suspended away from the space shuttle's cargo bay in exercises that tested the 50-foot robot arm. Photos by AP