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Columbia’s Costly Flight Ending A Day Early On Thursday

January 15, 1986

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Columbia’s astronauts, 25 days late in going into space, are coming home a day early Thursday from a costly trip NASA twice considered canceling.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said Tuesday the shuttle will return home after only four days in space instead of five, citing the rush to prepare the craft for its next mission and the possibility of bad landing weather later in the week.

″Don’t shoot the bearer of this message,″ Mission Control communicator James Weatherbee begged Columbia’s seven-man crew as he told them the shuttle would land here at 8:28 a.m. EST Thursday, the first ship landing at the Florida spaceport in nine months.

″We copy,″ said mission commander Robert Gibson, a hint of regret in his voice. ″You’re going to bring us home early.″

It came as no surprise. The astronauts were told before they were launched Sunday that they might be brought back early to avoid jamming up NASA’s ambitious schedule of 15 shuttle flights this year.

The failure of several of the experiments and the weather forecast cemented the decision to shorten the mission, which netted NASA about $14.3 million in revenue, $14.2 million of it for launching an RCA communications satellite.

The flight itself cost NASA $150 million plus about $1.5 million worth of lost rocket fuel and overtime pay because of seven launch postponements.

The space agency likes to have back-to-back good weather days for landing in case the shuttle is waved off one day for mechanical reasons. The forecast is favorable for Thursday and Friday, but not Saturday.

Flight director Jay Greene said today that despite some experiment problems, ″I feel we had a good flight.″ He said he was particularly pleased with the performance of Columbia, which recently completed an 18-month overhaul.

″We were all anticipating unknowns in Columbia because of the massive modifications done on it,″ he said. ″But it’s as trouble-free a vehicle as we’ve seen.″

There was hardly any radio conversation from the spacecraft today as the astronauts, including Florida Rep. Bill Nelson, wrapped up their experiments, stowed away gear and checked the flight controls in preparation for the first shuttle landing here since Discovery blew a tire and damaged its brakes while rolling down the runway nine months ago.

Franklin Chang-Diaz, the first Hispanic-American astronaut, was to speak later today with the president of his native Costa Rica, Luis Albert Monge.

The postponements of Columbia’s launch since Dec. 18 had put NASA in a bind with its schedule, which has six more flights than 1985′s record nine.

If there had been an eighth postponement, NASA said it would have seriously considered pulling the shuttle off the pad to prepare it for a higher priority flight, a March 6 astronomy and Halley’s comet mission with a tight three-day launch period.

Columbia’s delays already had forced a one-day slip, until Jan. 24, of Challenger’s next launch with schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe as a passenger. Officials expect that flight will be held up another day or two.

Columbia originally was to carry two satellites in its cargo bay, one for RCA and the other for Hughes Communications, which canceled its plans for this mission after a similar payload failed in August.

Facing the ambitious 1986 schedule, NASA said it considered canceling the flight and assigning the RCA satellite to a future mission.

But Chester M. Lee, the agency’s director of shuttle customer services, saw a chance to get rid of some of his backlog of 200 GAS cans by placing 13 of them in the more than half empty cargo bay.

GAS stands for Get-Away Special, a program in which, for $10,000, student groups, companies or researchers can fly their experiments on the shuttle in canisters about the size of a garbage can.

Other NASA officials suggested adding two materials processing experiments, a camera with a light image intensifier to study Halley’s comet and some medical experiments.

The space agency also said this would be a good trip for Nelson, who had been seeking a shuttle ride since his Senate counterpart, Jake Garn of Utah, made a trip last April. Both head subcommittes that oversee NASA funding.

The agency also was anxious to fly the renovated Columbia, which recently completed an 18-month overhaul.

Several of the added experiments, including the comet camera and both materials processing units, failed. Because some researchers got short-changed on data by the early return, NASA said it would refly their experiments later.