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Two Astronauts Finish Repairs, Launch Satellite

September 02, 1985|LEE DYE | Times Science Writer

HOUSTON — In a dramatic exhibition of man over matter, James D. (Ox) van Hoften capped a long wrestling match with a 15,200-pound satellite Sunday and launched it by hand from the space shuttle Discovery, successfully completing a daring salvage operation.

"Goodby," a tired Van Hoften said as he gave the satellite a final push. "There that bad boy goes."

During the tense operation, the 6-foot-4 Van Hoften, who can bench-press 300 pounds, was panting from fatigue. He warned Mission Control repeatedly that he was struggling to control the Syncom 3 Navy communications satellite as he stood on the tip of the Discovery's crippled mechanical arm like an athlete poised for a dive.

'A Heck of a Push'

"If something happens and I'm going to lose it, I'm going to give it a heck of a push and bail out," he warned at one point.

During the rescue operation, Discovery commander Joe Engle, 53, a veteran Air Force fighter pilot, played tag with the satellite, chasing it around the Earth. At the end of the operation, Van Hoften grabbed the errant satellite and attempted to spin it like a merry-go-round. He finally managed to shove it away from Discovery, spinning at three revolutions per minute.

That rate is expected to keep the satellite steady until ground controllers attempt to fire its maneuvering rockets in two months and send it to a permanent orbit 22,300 miles above the Earth.

Although it will be some time before engineers know if the satellite suffered fatal damage during the four months since its launch, there was some good news soon after completion of the 4-hour, 26-minute space walk.

Basic Systems Working

"We've acquired the satellite and commands are being sent," Mission Control told the crew. That meant that the satellite's basic systems seemed to be working, raising hopes of success at Hughes Communications in El Segundo, Calif., which owns the satellite and paid $10 million for the rescue operation. Hughes engineers will collect additional data from the satellite today to help determine its condition.

After its launch from an earlier space shuttle flight in April, the satellite failed to activate itself. It has since orbited the Earth more than 2,000 times, subjecting its delicate electrical components and its rockets to temperatures as low as minus-40 degrees. The real test of whether the salvage operation was a success will come after warmth from the sun has had a chance to warm the satellite's propellant and its solid rocket motor is started. There is fear that the rocket will explode upon ignition because of possible cracks in the fuel tank from the freezing temperatures.

From the astronauts' standpoint, however, the operation was a rousing success. The Discovery's five crewmen are the first astronauts to capture, repair and redeploy a disabled communications satellite.

The two-day salvage operation turned out to be a bit more strenuous than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had anticipated. Van Hoften and William F. Fisher, 39, who "hot wired" the satellite in a seven-hour space walk Saturday by attaching electronic components to allow ground controllers to command the crippled bird, had their hands full.

Balky Mechanical Arm

The shuttle's mechanical arm, a key player in the drama, was partly disabled by an electronic problem that required astronaut John M. Lounge to move each joint individually rather than with the help of a computer, greatly reducing its effectiveness.

But it was clear Sunday that the greatest problem was the mass of the satellite itself, which wobbled back and forth as the astronauts fought to control it, sometimes threatening to bang into the side of the shuttle.

"I'm not sure if I'm fighting the satellite or what," Van Hoften said.

"I'm trying to keep it from hitting the (work) station," Fisher said at another point as he held the satellite overhead while Van Hoften struggled to control it from above, standing on the tip of the mechanical arm.

'Other Force'

"Some other force is acting on it," Fisher told Van Hoften. "You must be doing it and not meaning to."

Flight controller Bill Reeves said later that the "other force" turned out to be the shuttle itself. Engle and pilot Richard O. Covey had to maneuver the shuttle throughout the operation to keep it in the right position.

The only casualty of the entire operation was a power screwdriver that floated out of the shuttle's open cargo bay and became just another piece of space junk.

The Discovery is scheduled to land Tuesday at Edwards Air Force Base at 6:15 a.m.

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