The first space voyage of a black American astronaut, the space shuttle's first night launch and the first planned night landing of a manned spacecraft will highlight the eighth shuttle flight, scheduled to begin early Tuesday.
The Challenger and its five-man crew are scheduled to leave Earth at 2:15 a.m. EDT Tuesday, the first night launch of a manned American spacecraft since Apollo 17 left for the moon just after midnight on Dec. 7, 1972, a takeoff that was visible to residents of the Great Smoky Mountains 500 miles away.
If skies are clear, as forecasters predict, the bright orange flames of Challenger's two solid-fueled booster rockets should be visible as far away as South Carolina and Cuba.
For 2 1/2 minutes before its liquid hydrogen engines take over, the Challenger is expected to light up the sky in the middle of the night as if it were daylight for people along Florida's east coast.
Challenger is to spend six days in space and return to Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert next Monday at 3:43 a.m. EDT. It is to be the first planned manned landing from space ever attempted in the dark.
Three Soviet cosmonauts made an emergency night landing in a Siberian blizzard almost 10 years ago. They were so far off course that it took a rescue team two days to find them huddled inside their spacecraft while packs of wolves howled at them from the snow.
Challenger's third flight will be commanded by Navy Capt. Richard H. Truly. He was the co-pilot to astronaut Joe Engle in November, 1981, on the second mission of Challenger's sister ship, Columbia.
The rest of the crew includes Navy Cmdr. Daniel C. Brandenstein, pilot, and three mission specialists, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dale A. Gardner, Dr. William E. Thornton and Air Force Lt. Col. Guion Steward Bluford II, who will become the first black American astronaut in space. A Cuban, Amaldo Tamayo Mendez, became the first black in space when he flew with two Soviet cosmonauts in 1980.
Bluford follows on the heels of Sally K. Ride, who became the first American woman in space in June. For Bluford, 40, special pressure is building as the launch approaches.
A fighter pilot in the Vietnam War, Bluford is perhaps the most reluctant of the four blacks in the astronaut program to talk publicly about his role.
"The four of us never talk about my being first," Bluford said. "We all recognize that somebody's got to play this role, just like Sally had to be the first woman. It's never been something I've been running after, and it may even be better to be second or third, because then you can enjoy the experience a little more."
Bluford's job is to help deploy a $43 million communications and weather satellite built by Ford Aerospace Co. for the government of India. The satellite is scheduled to be pushed out of the shuttle's cargo bay into orbit at 3:21 a.m. Wednesday as Challenger crosses the equator over the south Atlantic Ocean.
An on-board motor is to rocket the satellite into a higher orbit where it should come to rest early next month 22,400 miles above the Indian Ocean. It is to match the Earth's rotation speed and hover over the same place for the next 10 years.
The Indian satellite, Insat-1B, would be the second communications and weather satellite to be sent into space by the United States. The first reached orbit but ran out of maneuvering fuel so rapidly that it never reached its proper position. It became useless three days after being launched.
Insat-1B is intended to allow the Indian government to broadcast radio and television to more than 100,000 villages. It also will permit telephone communications for the first time among remote regions of northern and southern India.
On their last four days in space, the astronauts are expected to perform a variety of experiments, including exercising the shuttle's 50-foot robot arm, which is built to deploy and retrieve satellites in space.
On this flight, the arm's elbow, wrist and shoulder joints are supposed to manipulate a huge aluminum structure, the Payload Flight Test Article. The PFTA, which weighs 8,500 pounds and looks like the world's largest dumbbell, is designed to demonstrate how well the arm can move heavy payloads in space.
The astronauts also are scheduled to conduct the first space communication with the $100 million Tracking and Data Relay Satellite left in orbit last April on the sixth shuttle flight.
The TDRS communications satellite must be found in working condition if the $1 billion Spacelab built by the European Space Agency is to fly on the next shuttle flight, which is scheduled for Oct. 28. So many astronomical instruments aboard Spacelab will need a rapid flow of communications to and from Earth that only the TDRS will be able to accommodate them.
Flying for the fourth time in the shuttle mid-deck will be an experiment called the Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System, an intricate and expensive device built by McDonnell-Douglas for Johnson & Johnson Co. to find out what drugs and vaccines can be made in space that cannot be produced on Earth.
If Challenger returns on schedule, it will be the first shuttle landing that the public will not be allowed to see. NASA does not want shuttle pilots to be confused by automobile headlights as they attempt to zero in on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base.
The shuttle has no landing lights because they would be burned up by the heat of re-entry. Pilots Truly and Brandenstein will have only the bright xenon runway lights to home in on as they fall toward Earth at a speed of 10,000 feet a minute.