Discovery entered service in 1984 as the third orbiter in the space shuttle fleet. Columbia and Challenger had already flown a total of 11 missions as America’s “space truck.” Discovery’s first mission, STS-41D, followed suit as the crew deployed, for the first time, three communications satellites, but it also signaled how the shuttle could serve as more than a delivery vehicle.
Discovery’s first mission began with drama—three launch delays, the first on-pad engine shutdown (just four seconds before liftoff), a related fire on the launch pad, and rollback from the pad for a major payload shuffle—but after launch it progressed well. All but mission commander Henry Hartsfield were first-time flyers, and mission specialist/remote manipulator arm operator Judy Resnik became the second American woman in space.
The crew released one satellite a day to start the mission: first the SBS for Satellite Business Systems, then a LEASAT (SYNCOM) for the United States Navy, and finally a TELSTAR for AT&T. After each deployment, the orbiter moved away before the time-delayed ignition of a boost motor sent the satellite to its ultimate orbit, some 35,400 kilometers (22,300 miles) high above the equator. The SBS and TELSTAR left the payload bay spinning like tops. The largest of the three, LEASAT was the first wide-body satellite designed for launch from the space shuttle; it rolled out on its side after a spring-loaded trigger pitched it out like a slow-motion Frisbee.
Both the crew portrait and mission patch depicted the orbiter with an odd feature that looked like a tower rising from the payload bay. It was a ten-story, 13-feet wide, lightweight solar array, accordion-pleated for compact stowage – at that time the largest structure ever deployed in space. From the aft flight deck, the crew extended and retracted the array several times to observe its operation and stability. This new technology experiment used the shuttle as a test bed for evaluating large structures needed for a future space station.
NASA offered its corporate customers the opportunity to send their own payload specialist to conduct research in space. The first non-astronaut to fly on the shuttle, test engineer Charles Walker of McDonnell Douglas, tended to a commercial materials processing experiment of interest to the pharmaceutical industry. This program showcased the shuttle’s usefulness for commercial research into the feasibility of manufacturing in space.
Discovery checked out well in space. However, one surprise drew attention: an icicle about two feet long and a foot in diameter, composed of wastewater and urine, jutted out from a dump port just beyond the crew hatch, where it threatened to damage the open payload bay door. The crew rotated the orbiter to expose that side to direct sunlight and reduce the ice mass, then tapped it gently with the robotic arm to break it loose.
The successful STS-41D mission confirmed the shuttle’s versatility as a delivery vehicle, technology test bed, and research environment. More than 20 of Discovery’s 39 missions also involved deliveries, but this orbiter began its career serving multiple purposes at once.
Date: August 30-September 5, 1984 Liftoff at 08:41:50 a.m. EDT
Duration: 6 days, 0 hours, 56 minutes
Profile: 28.5 deg. inclination, 201 miles (175 n. miles / 324 km) altitude, 97 orbits
Landing: Edwards Air Force Base, California at 06:37:54 a.m. PDT
Commander: Henry W. Hartsfield, Jr., USAF, his 2nd of three flights
Pilot: Michael L. Coats, USN, his 1st of three flights, all on Discovery
Judith A. Resnik, electrical engineer, her 1st of two flights
Steven A. Hawley, astronomer-astrophysicist, his 1st of five flights, three on Discovery
Richard M. (Mike) Mullane, USAF, aeronautical engineer, his 1st of three flights
Payload Specialist: Charles D. Walker, McDonnell Douglas, test engineer, his 1st of three flights, two on Discovery
Valerie Neal is the Space Shuttle curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s Space History Department.