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Ship had a flawed yet storied record

Columbia had only five trouble-free flights, but it contributed to science, entertainment and national defense.

By CHUCK MURPHY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2003

To former astronaut Winston Scott, who flew aboard Columbia in 1997, the nation's oldest active space truck was a reliable way to get into orbit, not the temperamental beast that troubled some in NASA.

"It was the oldest orbiter, and it was the heaviest orbiter, but it was a good orbiter," Scott said Saturday.

Scott's fond memories of Columbia, which broke apart Saturday morning over Texas, are a result of his unusually good experience on the craft.

While flying on Columbia, Scott, now an associate vice president at Florida State University, caught a satellite to help save the mission. And he happened to be on board during one of just five trouble-free flights Columbia made in 28 trips to space.

When Columbia was delivered to the Kennedy Space Center in 1979, pilot William McCool, who died Saturday, was a senior at Coronado High School in Lubbock, Texas.

As McCool was earning his wings at the Naval Academy on his way to the astronaut program, Columbia was gaining a reputation for launch pad delays and in-flight bobbles.

Its first launch, set for April 10, 1981, was postponed for two days after a timing malfunction was noted on the launch pad. When Columbia finally lifted off from Kennedy's Pad A, 16 of the orbiter's heat-shielding tiles fell off and another 148 were damaged. NASA determined that the water cannons used to reduce the sound of the engines were to blame.

From there, Columbia's launch and flight history reads like the maintenance records for a 1973 Chevy Vega:

Its second flight was delayed for more than a month while NASA troubleshot a litany of problems including a chemical spill, high oil pressures in the hydraulic lines and an over-pressurized booster tank.

After a 1983 flight, Columbia returned to earth on fire when fuel in two auxiliary power units leaked and ignited. The power units are used to provide fluid for the hydraulics that steer the orbiter as it glides to a landing. The fire wasn't discovered until the day after landing.

On two occasions, Columbia's launches were delayed six times, a NASA record. One of those delayed launches came in 1986, when Columbia finally lifted off with then-U.S. Rep. Bill Nelson aboard just weeks before Challenger exploded. One of those scrubs occurred just seconds before takeoff when NASA realized Columbia didn't have enough fuel to make the trip to space.

"One person told me we would have gone into a lower orbit than intended," Nelson recalled in 1986. "Others said we would have run out of fuel before achieving orbit and would have had to make an emergency landing on a 10,000-foot strip in Dakar, Senegal, which you don't want to do in a fully loaded shuttle."

Despite those problems, and a congressional investigation that revealed some of Columbia's flaws, NASA managers defended the orbiter's integrity Saturday even as its pieces were being discovered in two states.

"Columbia was an amazing machine," said NASA shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore. "I don't think age is a factor."

For all its problems, the work that took place on board Columbia contributed greatly to science, entertainment and the nation's defense.

For starters, without the shakedown flights Columbia made in 1981 and 1982, the shuttle fleet may never have gotten off the ground. Each time the orbiter, known officially to NASA as OV-102, made a trip, the contractors that built the fleet learned from their mistakes.

The RCA satellite Columbia carried in 1986 helped pave the way for today's DirectTV and Dish Network programming. It stayed above the earth, relaying television signals for more than a decade until it was taken off line in 1997.

Another satellite, this one deployed from Columbia in 1990, allowed U.S. Navy ships to communicate safely. The Australian Navy now uses that satellite.

Science experiments taken on board Columbia have allowed researchers to learn more about the human circulatory and nervous systems. Crystal growth experiments carried to the weightlessness of space have produced more efficient medicines with applications for treatment of cancer and diabetes.

Last year, astronauts on Columbia made critical repairs to the Hubble space telescope, allowing it to see to the edge of the universe.

Just last week, astronaut David Brown captured the first-ever photographs from space of an electrical phenomenon known as an "elf," a luminous, red object that appears above a thunderstorm for just a fraction of a millisecond. Those photos were transmitted before Saturday's disaster, allowing study to proceed long after Columbia is gone.

Though it was the oldest, Columbia was not the most experienced of the fleet. Discovery has flown two more times. Like the other three orbiters, Columbia, named for the Boston sloop that explored western North America and circumnavigated the globe in 1790, has undergone a series of overhauls through the years.

The most recent came in 1999, when Columbia was returned to California to be outfitted with new electronic display system and more than 100 modifications.

While acknowledging that all the orbiters have some "wear," Dittemore on Saturday noted the retrofits of Columbia and declared that it was fit to fly when it left Kennedy.

"The (shuttle) vehicles are kept in pristine shape," Dittemore said. "A lot of tender, loving care goes into our machines."

-- Times staff writer David Ballingrud and researchers Kitty Bennett and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.

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