Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Shuttle mission STS-2 featured the only all-rookie crew in space shuttle history -- except one of them was already an astronaut. Wait, what?

Mission patch for STS-2 Space Shuttle missionImage via WikipediaOn November 12, 1981, the space shuttle Columbia launched its second mission -- the first and last shuttle flight with an all-rookie crew. Neither Commander Joe Engle nor Pilot Richard Truly had ever flown in space before mission STS-2; NASA hadn't sent an all-space-novice team into orbit since Skylab 4 in 1973 and has never sent one since.

Before you jump to conclusions, the performance of the STS-2 team is not the reason NASA informally banned subsequent all-rookie spacecraft lineups. While Engle and Truly did violate NASA orders during the mission, their performance was both laudable and daring. And if that seems counter-intuitive, wait until you realize that one of these two NASA rookies already earned his US astronaut wings before he ever entered the space program.

How did NASA send up an all-rookie crew on STS-2 if one of the crew members was already an astronaut?

Commander Joe Engle was in fact a NASA rookie -- he had never flown a conventional space mission before STS-2 -- but Engle originally entered NASA after serving as a pilot for the X-15 program that pioneered hypersonic flight. As an X-15 pilot, Engle flew at altitudes that earned him his US Air Force astronaut wings.

Thus, Engle was both a NASA rookie and an astronaut, simultaneously.

Engle was also a flying badass. Truly, too.

STS-2 was originally scheduled as a five-day mission, primarily to test Columbia's robotic arm, but a failure of one of the shuttle's three fuel cells forced NASA to recall the spacecraft after just two days in orbit. Rather than give up, Engle and Truly skipped a scheduled sleep cycle, waited until Columbia was out of contact with mission control, then conducted the robot arm tests without permission on their own. Engle and Truly completed 90 percent of STS-2's mission objectives despite losing more than half their planned time in orbit.

Engle's legend doesn't stop there. His X-15 experience is just one of the reasons NASA overlooked its policy of insisting all shuttle mission commanders have previous spaceflight experience. Engle was scheduled to be the Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 17 but was bumped in favor of Jack Schmitt after NASA revised down the total number of planned moon landings. Engle stuck with NASA despite the snub, and NASA made sure that Engle was rewarded with a worthwhile mission. STS-2 was the first time a manned spacecraft was flown into space twice -- welcome to history, Commander Engle -- but the mission profile also required a veteran hypersonic pilot.

After Columbia's maiden flight, STS-1, verified the shuttle's automated landing and guidance systems, NASA wanted to test the full stress tolerance of the spaceframe. That meant manually flying the shuttle during reentry -- you want a human hand at the controls in case something goes wrong -- and pushing the vehicle outside the ideal flight conditions. Joe Engle is not simply the only man to ever manually fly a shuttle through its complete Mach 24 reentry and landing -- he did it while performing 29 separate extracurricular maneuvers designed to stress-test the spacecraft.

Not bad for a rookie. Good thing he was already an astronaut.

That's not just an oxymoronic orbiter operator, it's an ironically illustrious instance of the Truly Trivial.

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