Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth—Andy Ott

Greg Jarvis began working on Leasat in 1978 when the Navy held a competition for the next generation UHF Communications Satellite Constellation to provide worldwide communications capability for their entire fleet. Although Greg was reassigned to work on classified programs during several stops and restarts of the Leasat program caused by shuttle development delays (1980 to 1982), he returned to Leasat once the program was fully restarted. Greg was the Leasat Bus Systems Engineer from early design development to time of his selection to become a Payload Specialist (June of 1984) when both F1 and F2 were undergoing System Integration and Test in the Hughes Hi-bay facilities. Please see other sections of this blog about the Payload Specialist selection process (600 Hughes applicants) and the training that Greg and the other three Hughes Payload Specialists (Bill Butterworth, John Konrad and Steve Cunningham) went through in preparation for their scheduled missions.

NASA originally assigned the Hughes Payload Specialists to fly on Discovery in March 1985 (STS 51-D) and August 1985 (STS 51-I) to launch the third and fourth Leasat Spacecraft. Greg was prime for STS 51-D, Bill was his backup and also went through the required NASA training. In addition to monitoring Leasat F3 deployment from the shuttle, Greg was to conduct experiments in fluid dynamics to illustrate fluid motion in sealed containers and their interaction with spacecraft (in this case Shuttle) maneuvers – the well known but poorly understood fuel slosh phenomena that all spacecraft propulsion systems have to operate within.

BUT, politics trumped technology and Greg was re-assigned to Columbia (STS 61-C), the flight scheduled immediately prior to Challenger. Senator Jake Garn of Utah flew on the Discovery 51-D flight that Greg was originally assigned to in April of 1985 and was witness to all the activities when Leasat F3 failed to activate after shuttle deployment. This included constructing a “flyswatter” from on-board materials and rendezvous with the stranded on-orbit F3 Leasat. The flyswatter was mounted to the shuttle Remote Manipulator Arm and used to “swat” (actually more like a nudge) a lever protruding from the satellite, which was hypothesized to possibly be “hung-up” (very low probability but the only thing that could be done at that time). Unfortunately, as many expected, this did not work.

EVA Installing FlySwatters to Shuttle Remote Manipulator Arm

EVA Installing FlySwatters to Shuttle Remote Manipulator Arm

FlySwatter Ready to Swat Slowly Spinning LEASAT

FlySwatter Ready to Swat Slowly Spinning LEASAT

Congressman Bill Nelson of Florida was assigned to the Challenger flight scheduled for January1986. He had originally requested to be on the Columbia flight that Greg was assigned to (STS 61-C, 12/18/1985) that was scheduled to launch an RCA built spacecraft. NASA felt the Congressman needed more training so they re-assigned him to Challenger to get additional training.

There was a problem discovered in orbit with two Hughes spacecraft that was at the time considered a generic problem that could potentially affect Leasat as well. (Are there any Hughesites that remember what this problem was???). Hughes requested a short delay in the launch of Columbia so they could better analyze the in-orbit problems. Columbia was rescheduled to January 12, 1986 even though it was shortly determined by Hughes that the in-orbit problem was not a constraint to launch Leasat F3. The Columbia delay allowed Congressman Bill Nelson additional training time so Greg was bumped from Columbia onto Challenger. Challenger’s payload consisted of a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRSS B) built by TRW and the crew included Christa McAuliffe – Teacher In Space.

Challenger was originally scheduled for launch January 22, 1986 but delays in the previous mission (Columbia) caused a delay to January 23. Due to bad weather at Kennedy Space Center and then the Abort Landing Site in Senegal, launch was again scrubbed on January 24 and 25. Then two days before liftoff, due to problems with the shuttle exterior hatch, Greg had to wait another two days. Although forecasts for January 28 predicted an unusually cold morning with temperature of 28 to 30 deg F (31 deg F was the minimum NASA permitted temperature for launch) and the coldest previous shuttle launch was 53 deg F, NASA allowed actual liftoff to occur at 11:38 EST on January 28, 1986. Seventy three seconds after liftoff Challenger disintegrated and the rest is history. One can only wonder; what was going through Greg’s mind as he was going through the emotional turmoil with all of the mission re-assignments and then the delays and scrubs? The Hughes Leasat team also had a very special interest in the “ping-ponging” of Payload Specialists and multiple scrubs due to one of its own being one of them.

Art Jones, who was the Kennedy Space Center launch interface engineer for Leasat burst into the building S1 conference room where the Leasat F4 and F5 Integration and Test Team was conducting their daily system integration coordination meeting with the news that Challenger had blown up. After the initial shock, the meeting dispersed and participants went to different conference rooms to see what happened on television. Emotions ran extremely high; many broke down in tears, including several executives. The conference rooms were filled again when NASA broadcast the memorial from Johnson Space Center 3 days after the disaster; once again many tears, especially when President Reagan said “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them…and… they slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God” and he hugged Greg’s wife Marcia. The Hughes internal Memorial service performed in the patio area between buildings R1 and 366 a few days later was also very much appreciated and emotional.

Greg had finished the course work required for a Masters Degree in Business Management at West Coast University. Greg mailed a handwritten copy of his thesis to the University the day before the launch. The University had planned to award the degree while Challenger was in orbit, making Greg the first person to have his degree conferred while in space. His thesis was titled “In Search of Excellence” and described Hughes Space and Communications Group character, culture and management style. The manuscript was postdated January 29, 1986 and Greg was posthumously awarded the Masters Degree at the spring 1986 commencement Ceremony of West Coast University.

The Challenger Astronauts:  back row left to right El Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik; front row left to right Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair.

The Challenger Astronauts: back row left to right El Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik; front row left to right Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair.

The following comment was submitted by Steve Dorfman.

Andy, your input is very accurate and well written. It recalls some painful times for me since I was instrumental in arranging for Hughes employees to fly on the Shuttle. It was a good idea but had a terrible outcome. I do believe Greg died doing what he loved doing.

I draw a blank on what Hughes in orbit problems might have led to Shuttle delay. I just don’t recall any such problem. You might consider excluding that part since it isn’t important to the story. The major incident is NASA bumping Greg twice for congressmen. I was the person who had to swallow that pill though I wasn’t given any choice.

The selection process was based on strong system engineering background, not necessarily Leasat though Greg had a Leasat background. It turned out that NASA didn’t really want the Hughes payload specialist to have anything to do with Leasat and hence bumping him to a non-Leasat launch made logic from their standpoint. They viewed the Hughes payload specialist as more Shuttle marketing than Shuttle engineering. I was bitterly disappointed when that became clear.

Your effort to record history is appreciated. I wish we had more SCG people step up and make the effort to contribute.


One thought on “Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth—Andy Ott

  1. I agree with Steve. We need SCG people step up and make the effort to contribute, rather than just read the blog.