The $100-million communications satellite launched by Discovery was responding perfectly to commands from the ground Friday as the five astronauts aboard the shuttle enjoyed such a leisurely voyage that they found themselves with little to do.
There were a few nagging, minor problems to deal with, but Milton Heflin, a flight director at the Johnson Space Center here, conceded that the astronauts are not exactly overloaded with chores.
“The commander and the pilot and the other folks will be doing Earth observations,” Heflin said. That is NASA-speak for looking out the window.
Primarily a Test Flight
But he added quickly that that is appropriate because this is primarily a test flight for a vastly redesigned system. Later flights, he said, will require more from the crew.
“But you get the lid off the bucket and you go on from there,” he said.
Several experiments aboard the orbiter were turned on by mission specialist George D. Nelson, 38, an astronomer, but most of the experiments are similar to others that have flown on longer missions in the past.
Under the command of Frederick H. Hauck, 47, the astronauts spent part of their time fussing with some minor problems, including a faulty cooling system that has left the interior of the shuttle a balmy 84 degrees, Heflin said.
That is a little warmer than normal, NASA officials said, but not too warm for five astronauts who live in Houston.
If the cooler cannot be fixed, some unnecessary electronic equipment will be turned off during descent Monday to keep the cabin from getting too warm, Heflin said. Discovery is scheduled to land at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California at 9:33 a.m. PDT Monday.
The crew also struggled with an antenna that was so wobbly it could not be used. After trying unsuccessfully to steady it, the crew shifted the antenna back into its storage position in the cargo bay and locked it in place for the rest of the flight.
Another antenna aboard the ship will be able to take over its workload, so the loss was not expected to be significant. It could cause some rearranging of the television schedule, however.
The best news of the day for the astronauts was the word that the sophisticated satellite they deployed six hours into their flight seemed to be “100% healthy,” Heflin said.
The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite “is where it’s supposed to be and doing what it’s supposed to be doing,” he added.
The 2 1/2-ton satellite, built by TRW Space & Technology Group, Redondo Beach, Calif., is the largest and most complex communications satellite in orbit. With solar panels that unfurl to 57 feet, it can generate 1,700 watts of electric power. And, with seven antennas, including twin 16-foot-diameter dishes that open like giant umbrellas, the satellite is capable of transmitting 300 million bits of information per second. That is equivalent to sending 100 volumes of an encyclopedia every second.
This is the third satellite of that type that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has attempted to put into high Earth orbit 22,250 miles above the ground, and it is the first to go there without any problems.
The two-stage solid rockets that carry the satellites to their higher orbit failed on the first satellite in 1983, and it had to be boosted slowly up with its tiny maneuvering jets. But that two-monthlong journey used up a lot of its fuel, thus reducing its life expectancy.
The second in the series was aboard Challenger, and it was destroyed in the explosion on Jan. 28, 1986.
But the third had no problems blasting from Discovery to its position over the Pacific Ocean. Ground controllers began a monthlong series of tests Friday to check out its systems and get it ready for service.
Deployment of the satellite was considered essential for a number of NASA programs, including the Hubble Space Telescope that is to be launched into orbit in 1990.
The worrisome booster rockets that carried the shuttle flawlessly at the start of its journey were towed into Port Canaveral, near the launch site, apparently showing no sign of the leaks that doomed Challenger 32 months ago.
“The divers report the boosters are in perfect condition,” Rocky Raab, a spokesman for booster manufacturer Morton Thiokol, told the Associated Press.
He said the divers, who fished the rockets from the Atlantic for inspection and refurbishment, “would see evidence if the joints were leaking. They would see soot and the weather seals would be blown off.”
“There was none of that,” he said.
The crew will spend today working with the balky equipment, but Heflin said the fact that the problems are so minor speaks well for the redesigned shuttle.
“The systems on the orbiter are doing quite well,” he said. “It’s just super.”
The other members of the crew are pilot Richard O. Covey, 42, and mission specialists John M. Lounge, 42, and David C. Hilmers, 38.