Seven astronauts, including a native Washingtonian who became the first black to take the controls, sped into space aboard the shuttle Challenger today on the most intensive science mission yet and promptly ran into a series of minor but annoying glitches.
For the next seven days, astronauts will work in 12-hour shifts in the $1 billion European-built Spacelab fitted into Challenger's cargo bay, attempting to complete 15 experiments ranging from crystal growing to atmospheric observations.
Accompanying them are two squirrel monkeys and 24 rats.
Launched 17 days after sister-ship Discovery left the same launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center, Challenger roared into space at 12:02 p.m. EDT, delayed two minutes when two computers on the ground monitoring shuttle systems stopped speaking to each other.
Co-pilot Frederick D. Gregory, 44, was heard from just twice, both times in pilot talk, reading numbers off fuel cells and passing on technical information.
But in a pre-flight interview, the Air Force Academy graduate was in the highest spirits. "I'm so enthusiastic about flying that sometimes even the rest of the crew can't stand me," he said.
The flight -- carrying Spacelab for the second time along with three scientists, two doctors, Commander Robert F. Overmyer and Gregory -- began on a sour note when the planned launch of two satellies went awry.
A diamond-shaped satellite was successfully dropped by the crew into space to calibrate air traffic control radars on the ground. But shortly afterward, a second satellite refused to budge from Challenger's cargo bay despite repeated signals to trigger deployment. It was designed to help the U.S. Navy locate drifting weather buoys in any of the world's seas.
"The first deploy went fine but we tried everything on the second one and it's just sitting there inside the can with its antennas sticking out," said astronaut Norman E. Thagard.
"You did all the right stuff," astronaut Michael Mullane replied from the Mission Control Center in Houston. "We don't know why it didn't deploy."
A little later, the crew had to deal with a problem that was potentially more serious. Just before sitting down to their first meal, Overmyer and Gregory discovered they had no fresh water from their galley faucet.
Complained Overmyer: "We're not even getting a trickle here."
Replied Mullane: "We don't see anything of any concern here."
Overmyer responded quickly: "You guys can work this water problem anytime you want to."
After a few terse exchanges between Overmyer and Mullane, the crew was told to bypass the faucet and reconnect themselves to their water supply using an all-purpose hose carried for such emergencies. It worked.
"I hooked up our hose," said Thagard, who seemed to act as the crew handyman today, "and we got water out of it so we're starting to drink."
Other problems ranged from an overheated hydraulic system power unit to a urine collection device that one crew member said sprayed water "all over the place."
Flight director Cleon Lacefield later told reporters that the liquid was urine.
By 7 tonight, things were settling down aboard the spaceliner. Even the two dozen rats and the two squirrel monkeys making the first flight of primates in space with humans acted unconcerned about the problems, typical of those that seem to pop up on the first day of every shuttle mission.
"The monkeys appear in good shape, one of them even came up and greeted me," astronaut William E. Thornton told Mission Control after he had moved into the Spacelab. "The rodents are all in good shape."
Four of the rats have surgical implants in their hearts to record changes in heartbeat and blood flow.
The others are testing cages and equipment for future animal experiments.
The monkeys -- known only as "3165" and "384-80" to avoid humanizing them, Thornton said -- are on a shakedown flight to see how they tolerate living in orbit. If the monkeys do not get frightened and respond well to weightlessness, they will fly again with surgical implants to test such items as space motion sickness to changes in heart rate.
Challenger and its crew, which includes Shanghai-born physicist Taylor G. Wang and Netherlands native Lodewijk van den Berg, survived its hypersonic ascent through the atmosphere and into space in apparently good shape.
Overmyer reported to Mission Control that he had seen what appeared to be ice crystals rushing by his cockpit window in a cloud of haze as they sped away from Earth. Once in orbit, Overmyer said the tiles that protect the shuttle from the heat of reentry appeared damaged on the starboard engine pod at the aft end of the spaceliner.
"The port pod is as clean as a whistle, like it came out of the factory," Overmyer said, looking out his cockpit window at Challenger's two rear engine pods.
"But the starboard pod looks kind of beat up, like maybe there are five or six tiles damaged back there."