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Columbia Launched To Put Spy Satellite in Orbit

August 8, 1989

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Columbia rejoined NASA’s fleet of active space shuttles Tuesday, blasting into orbit with five astronauts to put a 10-ton spy satellite on a path over the Soviet Union, China and the Middle East.

Columbia, the oldest shuttle, had been grounded for 3 1/2 years while it was stripped and overhauled from its toilet system to its outer skin. Its performance during the countdown and at liftoff was as troublefree as any of the previous 29 shuttle flights.

″As good as new,″ said Bob Sieck, the launch director. ″It’s going to be a gem of a vehicle.″

The Air Force, which booked the entire five-day flight from the civilian space agency, said nothing about the cargo in the shuttle’s 60-foot-long hold. Neither did NASA, which shut down its public announcement network, except for periodic ″all’s well″ reports.

By custom, shuttle crews launch satellites as early in the flight as possible to have the mission accomplished should they need to return home early. If that practice was followed on this mission, the satellite would have been released about seven hours after liftoff, or about 4 p.m. EDT.

There was no word, however, from NASA or the Air Force.

The mission is expected to end Sunday with a landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California about 10:30 a.m. EDT.

The shuttle’s path, almost perpendicular from its seaside launch pad, was a confirmation of pre-launch reports that it would travel on a north-northeast course instead of heading eastward.

The resulting high-latitude orbit takes it over Poland, the Soviet Union, Mongolia, China, and parts of the Middle East not normally covered by eastward-bound shuttles. The satellite is designed to take highly detailed photographs of troop movements, military installations and other targets of interest.

Sources close to the program said the satellite can make small adjustments to its orbit, a flexibility that would enable it to respond to changing conditions on the ground.

The cargo bay reportedly holds a package of scientific instruments for military research, possibly for the ″Star Wars″ missile defense project.

Columbia, a veteran of seven flights, ended its last mission in January 1986, 10 days before the Challenger exploded with a loss of seven lives.

″Any time a vehicle is down for a long period of time it’s a little worrisome,″ said J.R. Thompson, deputy administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. ″There were really no problems of any significance. The weather was good to us.″

Columbia’s return restored the shuttle fleet to three ships. Atlantis is scheduled next for launch on Oct. 12, carrying the Galileo probe to Jupiter, and Discovery is scheduled for another military mission in November. A replacement for Challenger, the Endeavour, is to join the fleet in 1992.

Mission control said Columbia’s trajectory was ″right down the middle of the pike,″ - a perfect path. The two booster rockets floated down on parachutes into the Atlantic Ocean, within sight of recovery ships. Launch was 8:37 a.m., delayed about 40 minutes by ground fog.

Not a word was heard publicly from the five astronauts, who are commanded by Air Force Col. Brewster Shaw, a veteran of two earlier shuttle flights, including a 1983 trip on Columbia. The other crew members are Navy Cmdr. Richard Richards, Navy Cmdr. David Leestma, Army Lt. Col. James Adamson and Air Force Maj. Mark Brown.

″We had a completely clean and smooth ascent. There are no problems whatsoever to report,″ said launch commentator Brian Welch. And then a news blackout began. Silence will be broken only if there is a major problem, NASA said. Crew conversation will not be broadcast.

The mission is the fifth shuttle flight since launches resumed last September after a 2 1/2 -year hiatus prompted by the Challenger disaster.

After the accident, NASA concentrated on modifying the newer orbiters, Discovery and Atlantis, pirating parts from Columbia. Discovery and Atlantis each have made two trips into space since post-Challenger flights resumed.

During the flight, the astronauts were to check out the safety modifications made to Columbia, among the 258 changes that were made.

″I think the recovery process is over,″ said Forrest McCartney, director of the Kennedy Space Center. ″We’ve modified all three birds, we’ve flown all three birds now, and that’s something we can be proud of.″

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