Discovery’s First Mission: A Resounding Success, After a Faltering Start

By Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Over 30 years ago, Discovery ascended into space for the first time, after three thwarted launch attempts. Originally scheduled to lift off in June 1984, Discovery finally launched on August 30.

Space Shuttle Discovery Rollout Ceremony by NASASmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Discovery entered service in 1984 as the third orbiter in the space shuttle fleet. Columbia and Challenger had already flown a total of 11 missions as America’s “space truck.”

Image: View of the OV-103 shuttle Discovery roll out ceremony at Palmdale, CA.

Space Shuttle STS-41D Launch (1984) by NASASmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Discovery’s first mission began with drama—three launch delays, the first on-pad abort (just four seconds before liftoff), an invisible hydrogen fire detected on the base of the space shuttle stack, and changes to its final payload.

Image: After three scrubs and one long delay, Discovery finally launched from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Spaceflight Center in Florida on its fourth attempt.

Space Shuttle General Purpose Computer - IBM AP-101Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Launch Attempt 1: Computer Failure

The first launch attempt, on June 25, was scrubbed at T-20 due to error messages from the orbiter’s backup general purpose computer. This is one of five units that held backup flight software.

This IBM AP-101 computer flew on two space shuttle missions before it was transferred to the Museum.

STS-41D pad abort (6-26-84), NASA Video, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
Show lessRead more

Launch Attempt 2: Moments from Disaster

The June 26 attempt ended dramatically two seconds after Discovery’s three main engines ignited. The engines shut down—the first on-the-pad abort—four seconds before the larger solid rocket boosters were to ignite. This would have been disastrous with an under-powered orbiter attempting to launch.

Discovery’s crew felt and heard the main engines ignite and cease. Then they waited to hear whether the solid rocket boosters would ignite or if preventive safety measures would work.

When the time passed and the boosters didn’t ignite, crewmember Steve Hawley cut the tension by quipping, “Gee, I thought we’d be a lot higher at MECO!” (Main Engine Cutoff Upon Reaching Orbit).

The crew considered whether to start escape procedures, but Commander Hank Hartsfield decided to wait for instructions from launch control. It proved to be a good call. Minutes later an invisible hydrogen fire was detected at the base of the shuttle stack.

The view from atop Launch Pad 39A, site of the aborted launch.

Had Hartsfield called for an emergency evacuation the astronauts would have exited Discovery and raced to these escape baskets, designed to whisk personnel to safety. At the time of the abort, the system had yet to be tested by humans.

Launch Pad 39A, Level 195 Escape Baskets

The launch pad safety team arrived to evacuate the disappointed crew. Discovery was rolled back from the launch pad to the Vehicle Assembly Building to have its troublesome main engine replaced.

Recent view inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center.

Space Shuttle STS-41D Launch (1984) by NASASmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Launch Attempt 3: Software Troubles
Discovery returned to the launch pad for an August 29 attempt, but a flight software anomaly at T-7 minutes triggered a one-day postponement.

Launch Attempt Four: Lift Off!
After boarding Discovery for the fourth time, the crew was ready to launch come August 30. The countdown proceeded normally until a private aircraft flew into Cape Canaveral’s restricted air space, causing a delay of almost seven minutes.

At last, at 8:41:50 am the main engines roared to life, the solid rocket boosters ignited, and Discovery leapt off the pad.

Image: Discovery finally launched on its fourth attempt.

Crew of STS-41D, NASA, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
Show lessRead more

The STS-41D crew portrait and mission patch depicted the orbiter with an odd, tower-like feature rising from its payload bay.

STS-41D Crew:
(From Left to Right)
Top: Charles D. Walker and Judith A. Resnik
Bottom: Richard M. (Mike) Mullane, Steven A. Hawley, Henry W. Hartsfield, Jr. and Michael L. Coats.

Space Shuttle STS-41-D Solar Array (1984) by NASASmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

That odd-looking structure in the crew portrait and patch was a ten-story, 13-feet wide, lightweight solar array. The array had accordion pleats for compact stowage and, at the time, was the largest structure ever deployed in space. Crew extended and retracted the array several times to test its operation and stability.

Discovery also released the SBS for Satellite Business Systems, a LEASAT (SYNCOM) for the United States Navy, and finally a TELSTAR for AT&T during its first mission.

Image: Deploying the solar array.

Space Shuttle STS-41D Icicle (1984-09-04) by NASASmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Discovery did well in space. However, one surprise drew attention. An icicle about two feet long and a foot in diameter, composed of wastewater and urine, jutted out from a dump port just beyond the crew hatch. It threatened to damage the open payload bay door.

The crew rotated the orbiter to expose the icicle to direct sunlight and then tapped it gently with the robotic arm to break it loose.

The successful STS-41D mission confirmed the shuttle’s versatility as a delivery vehicle, technology test bed, and research environment.

Today, Discovery holds a place of honor at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA, the massive companion facility to the Museum in Washington, DC.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Space Shuttle Discovery
Explore an icon of the shuttle era through its accomplishments, passengers and groundbreaking firsts
View theme
Google apps