In the Age of Spaceplanes

Stories from the shuttle astronauts, in their own words.


Bob Cenker: This One Was Mine


At the time of our 61-C mission in 1986, the Satcom was the highest-powered communications satellite ever built. It was a three-kilowatt spacecraft, which is tiny now, but at the time was a lot. And this was mine. I had worked on it at RCA for two years—it was the first spacecraft where I had been manager of systems engineering, so I was technically responsible for it.

When we deployed the satellite from the shuttle, I was lying on the ceiling, watching through binoculars, and it was surreal. I just lay there for about 15 or 20 minutes before it went into darkness. I saw the omni antenna go out, and I remember calling back, “We have the omni deployed.” It was this 10,000-pound thing floating free out of the cabin, spinning at around 40 or 50 rpm. To me it all seemed to be in slow motion.

I remember being warned about the sound the satellite makes as it leaves the cargo bay. The first time they did one of these deploys, I’d been told that it scared everybody onboard. Because you mostly have silence in space. I mean, you hear fan noise, but people are attuned to the quiet. And when the satellite is deployed, you’ve got these explosive bolt cutters that release it. The shuttle is an all-metal structure, so the sound just rips through the vehicle. By the time of our flight we had been forewarned, though, so I wasn’t particularly surprised when it happened.

Pictured: A commercial satellite pops up from the shuttle's cargo bay. Later its rocket engines will fire to place the satellite in orbit.

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