Above & Beyond: No Way Out

Above & Beyond: No Way Out

Further into the shuttle flight, Thomas Jones and Tammy Jernigan could almost laugh about their predicament. (NASA)
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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.

NASA quickly imposed new inspections and tests to prevent future hatch problems. And to our great relief, chief astronaut Bob Cabana promised he’d do his best to get us another shot at an EVA. Tammy Jernigan broke on through in 1999, with nearly eight hours of construction work outside the International Space Station. As for me, a little over four years after the turn of our screw, I opened Atlantis’ hatch on STS-98 and floated gingerly out into the brilliant sunlight in the shuttle’s payload bay. It was a grand entrance, one to be savored for a lifetime. Fittingly, on my office wall today hangs a photo of Tammy and me in our suits—mounted next to my half of the offending screw.

—Thomas D. Jones

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