Houston — The Ace Satellite Repair Company - alias the Challenger astronauts - did more than perform a brilliant technical feat during the recent shuttle mission. It also provided a live space drama.
As the photos reproduced here illustrate, the ''cliffhanger'' rescue of the Solar Max observatory was breathtaking.
There were no maurading aliens. And the stately ballet of the rendezvous with , and retrieval of, Solar Max lacked the frenetic action of a shoot-em-up arcade game. But this drama was for real. As the Solar Max controllers coaxed the satellite's dying batteries back to life and as mission commander Robert Crippen eeked out his critically short fuel supply, rocket burst by rocket burst, there was many a sweaty palm here at mission headquarters.
The astronauts were very much aware of this when they had to abandon the first retrieval effort. So, too, were mission controllers and the anxiously waiting press corps.
When the first attempt to retrieve Solar Max failed April 8, everyone here knew that those five astronauts were at a critical juncture both for their mission and for the shuttle program as a whole. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has emphasized the role of the shuttle in refurbishing expensive satellites on orbit. It plans a new era of space operations in which such retrieval and refurbishment is crucial. To botch the first highly publicized attempt would have been a serious setback to the shuttle program.
Things got off to a good start with a perfect launch at 8:58 a.m. Eastern standard time April 6 - a launch timed to the second to facilitate the rendezvous with Solar Max. Success continued the following day with the exquisitely touchy launching of the long-duration exposure facility (LDEF) satellite. The most massive (21,600 pounds) and largest (big as a school bus) object yet handled by the shuttle, it had to be released in exactly the right orientation - vertical, and with its designated leading edge facing forward - and with virtually no wobbling or spinning. As shown in the photograph, the astronauts accomplished this with the shuttle arm, in an operation that was near perfection.
However, as part of the new era of space research that NASA is touting, LDEF is to be retrieved next year and returned to Earth by another shuttle mission. Only then can its 57 experiments be analyzed. Thus even the success of the tricky LDEF launch underscored the disappointment that failure to retrieve Solar Max would arouse.
That possibility loomed large when George ''Pinky'' Nelson tried and failed to dock with Solar Max. When he approached, as shown here, he set the satellite wobbling and spinning faster than had been anticipated. This prevented Robert Crippen and mission specialist Terry Hart from later being able to grab the observatory with the shuttle arm.
It was a grimly determined Solar Max repair project manager who faced the press that day. Frank Cepollina - speaking for the whole mission control team - simply refused to accept the prospect of failure. If the US space people were quitters, he said, ''we would have quit with Vanguard,'' the first United States satellite launching attempt, which failed dramatically over a quarter of a century ago.
Things looked bleak. No one knew whether or not the satellite batteries had the energy reserve to stabilize its motions for a second attempt at grabbing it. However, by early Monday morning, sunlight had fallen on the observatory's solar cells, the batteries were recharging, and the spinning and wobbling were under control.
Later, when Astronaut Crippen reported, ''O.K. We got it,'' the cheering and applause that broke out in the mission control room and in the press room drowned out his further report that Solar Max was being safely stowed in the shuttle bay. When asked about it later, seven news people had seven radically different version (all wrong) of what he had said. After long hours of tense waiting, even these veteran observers momentarily lost their cool.