Above & Beyond: No Way Out
- By Thomas D. Jones
- Air & Space magazine, July 2002
(Page 2 of 3)
The word went down to Mission Control. We could just imagine the stunned reaction there. Our flight director would be glaring at our instructor, Glenda Laws: “You’re telling me they can’t get the door open?!” As we discussed the problem with Houston, Tammy and I each tried again to exert maximum leverage on the stubborn handle. Nothing. The EVA team on the ground had us try everything they could think of—even the obvious. I could hear the apologetic tone accompanying capsule communicator Bill McArthur’s mandatory question: “Tom, uh, please confirm you’re turning the handle in the clockwise direction?” I’m sure he winced at the impatience in my voice as I snapped, “Affirmative!”
The two of us scrambled for a position that would help us deliver more torque to the handle. Trying for more leverage, I got a boot on the end of the handle and strained against it, bracing my gloved hands against the ceiling, but Houston quickly called me off that technique, fearing that that much force could damage the gears and linkages in the hatch mechanism. Next mission control had us disconnect the handle from the gear housing and inspect it for debris or damage—nothing out of order. Tammy and I were in no danger—we were using Columbia’s oxygen and electricity, and we had hours of carbon dioxide scrubber capacity left—but we refused to admit there was a possibility we would not get the hatch open. No shuttle hatch had ever malfunctioned. Though we’d trained underwater to free a jammed hatch linkage from the outside, we never dreamed we’d be unable to get it open from the inside. Everything we could see from within our closet-size airlock was maddeningly in order, and our crew’s video survey of the hatch exterior showed nothing amiss.
After two hours of futile attempts, and with no obvious avenues of attack to pursue, mission control advised us to hang up our spacesuits for the day.
Thanksgiving dinner aboard Columbia that night was a gloomy affair, all of us struggling to find reasons for optimism while skirting our frustration. Like me, Tammy was deeply disappointed over our mission’s first significant setback. As EVA lead, she felt keenly not only her own lost opportunity but also the impact on our colleagues, who’d worked for months to train us and build the test hardware. The holiday menu of rehydrated shrimp cocktails, Dinty Moore turkey dinners, and warm tortillas couldn’t disguise the bad taste of failure.
Next morning, we expected to wake to news that Houston had found the key to the problem and that we’d be headed outside later in the day. Instead, we spent the day taking measurements around the hatch’s interior surface, looking for a misalignment. Tammy and I fitted makeshift tethers to a crowbar and mallet from Columbia’s toolbox, confident we could “nudge” open the hatch on our second attempt. But Houston’s wake-up music on November 30, the Doors’ “Break on Through to the Other Side,” couldn’t soothe the sting of learning that our mission’s two EVAs had been scrubbed.
NASA managers made the right call. If we’d forced open the hatch and then couldn’t reseal it on the way back in, we’d be marooned on the wrong side of a pressure bulkhead. To save us, our crewmates would have to execute an emergency reentry with us in the airlock, leaving the multi-million-dollar ORFEUS/SPAS ultraviolet spectrometer telescope we’d deployed on launch day stranded in space.
As our 18-day mission wound down, our spirits slowly rebounded. Our two science satellites had performed superbly, and I was in orbit, weightless, blessed with good companions and incomparable views of Earth and space. Thanksgiving had indeed come to Columbia’s crew—just a few days late.
Strapped in for reentry, the one fear Tammy and I still harbored was the embarrassing possibility that once back on Earth, the hatch would open—normally. Just the thought of it made me shiver, despite the furnace-like plasma surrounding Columbia as we plunged back to Earth. It wasn’t until a couple of days after touchdown that we got the welcome word from the Cape—the hatch was still jammed. X-rays showed a small screw missing from the handle’s sealed gear train. When engineers tore down the mechanism, they finally solved the mystery: The loose screw had floated into the gear teeth and remained trapped there in sticky lubricant. The half-inch-long screw had jammed the gears like a chock thrown under an aircraft tire.