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Recorder Failure Mars Discovery Flight, But Other Research Going Well

April 29, 1991

SPACE CENTER, Houston (AP) _ Discovery’s astronauts conducted ″Star Wars″ experiments today as ground controllers struggled to fix two data recorders whose failure caused some other tests to be scrapped.

The crew observed atmospheric light, or aurora, with an instrument unaffected by the problem.

Air Force Capt. Lindley Johnson, a program director, said 80 percent to 85 percent of the planned experiments for the set of five scientific instruments still could be achieved even if the recorders cannot be fixed.

″The tape recorders only record data from our secondary experiments,″ Johnson said. ″It is a little disappointing to our secondary experimenters, but as far as overall success ... we’re still quite happy with the data that it looks like we’re getting.″

Four attempts to get the tape recorders working failed Sunday night, NASA said. Engineers continued working on the problem today as the astronauts proceeded as planned with experiments involving the unaffected instruments.

The trouble began hours after Discovery thundered into orbit early Sunday on an eight-day mission devoted mostly to tests aimed at helping Pentagon scientists develop sensors for tracking and destroying missiles.

Johnson said both recorders turned on and worked as planned for four hours, then mysteriously failed. He said engineers have traced the problem to the recorders and not related equipment.

The first exercise canceled, on Sunday, was an observation of the Crab nebula, a huge gas cloud in space. Five observations set for today also were called off, said Air Force Capt. Marty Hauser. He said officials were unsure whether the sightings would be rescheduled for later in the flight, which would cause other experiments to be bumped from the schedule.

The recorder failure affects three research instruments. Two other related instruments, including the device considered most important by the Pentagon, were unaffected by the problem.

Program managers will make observations with the three affected instruments later in the mission as planned regardless of whether the recorders are fixed, Johnson said. The data will be transmitted instantly from a computer monitor in the flight deck to ground controllers when possible, but some of the data will be lost, he said.

″We’re still trouble-shooting. We haven’t given up hope on them yet,″ flight director Rob Kelso said early today. Engineers are ″still in the back scratching their heads.″

Flight director Ron Dittemore said the recorders were to be used to gather data from three of five scientific instruments in one of the main payloads.

The two other instruments, including the most important one, were not affected, and the most important device began taking data on atmospheric lights early today, Mission Control’s Burney DeCamp reported.

″You have a lot of happy guys down here right now,″ DeCamp told the astronauts after the instrument began working.

All the devices are designed to study natural phenomena such as atmospheric lights, or aurora, that could mask a missile’s path.

No problems were reported with the other main cargo, a spacecraft that will be released in orbit to study the shuttle’s exhaust plumes and chemical and gas clouds that can be used to camouflage missiles.

The flight is the first non-secret shuttle mission for the Pentagon.

NASA considers this one of the most complex shuttle flights because of the tricky, split-second turns required. Discovery’s engine nozzles must be pointed right at the spacecraft during the plume observations.

Commanded by Navy Capt. Michael Coats, the astronauts are splitting 12-hour shifts to get as much work done as possible. The other crew members are L. Blaine Hammond Jr., Donald McMonagle, Gregory Harbaugh, Guion Bluford Jr., Richard Hieb and Charles Lacy Veach.

Discovery’s launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., was delayed a half-hour after one of two on-board flight data recorders turned on prematurely. The countdown resumed after engineers concluded the shuttle computers were working properly.

The spaceship roared from its seaside launch pad at 7:33 a.m. EDT, climbing through a fairly clear sky flushed by the rising sun.

Once Discovery was settled in its 161-mile-high orbit, Coats told Mission Control: ″We’ve got a bunch of kids in the candy store up here having a ball.″ It’s the first trip into space for five of the astronauts.

″How sweet it is,″ gushed Michael Harrison, a research official for the Strategic Defense Initiative, known as the Star Wars program.

The flight already was delayed seven weeks because of faulty shuttle parts.

It first was postponed for six weeks to replace cracked hinges on two doors on the belly of the shuttle. The doors shut tightly after the big external fuel tank dropped away during ascent Sunday, flight director Lee Briscoe said.

Liftoff last Tuesday was scrubbed when an engine sensor failed. A new one was installed.

Sunday’s blastoff was the 40th shuttle launch and the second this month. The first was Atlantis’ trip to put an observatory in orbit.

NASA last launched two shuttles in the same month in January 1986. Challenger, the second spaceship launched, exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven aboard.

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