Encyclopedia Astronautica

STS-27 Atlantis, Orbiter Vehicle (OV) 104, lift-off
Credit: NASA
STS-27 Atlantis, OV-104, crewmembers repair 3/4 inch video reel on middeck
Credit: NASA
STS-27 crewmembers perform balancing act on middeck
Credit: NASA
STS-27 crewmembers surrounded by net stowage bags on middeck
Credit: NASA
Crew: Gardner Guy, Gibson, Mullane, Ross, Shepherd. Manned military mission, five crew. Robot arm used to deploy a classified satellite. At T+85 seconds a large piece of SRB nose cone struck the shuttle. The orbiter took 707 hits; one tile was knocked off. The crew was unsure if they would survive reentry.

Manned five crew. The robot arm was used to deploy a classified satellite. Orbits of Earth: 68. Landed at: Runway 17 dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, . Landing Speed: 359 kph. Touchdown miss distance: 447.00 m. Landing Rollout: 2,171.00 m. Payloads: DoD Mission.

The second flight after the STS-26 return-to-flight mission after the Challenger disaster. The only releasable film from the mission was horsing-around footage of astronauts catching floating M&M's in their mouths after being batted at long-range across the mid-deck. NASA vetoed release of even this, since the press had ignored the 'glorious' footage of the TDRS deployment on STS-26 and instead just run the 'horsing around' stuff, which they felt made the space program look like a multi-billion dollar junket for spoiled astronauts. A leak in the left inboard tire forced NASA to keep the belly of the shuttle pointed at the sun in the hopes the heat would raise the pressure and seal the tire. This deprived the crew of viewing-the-earth time after the primary mission, the satellite deployment, had been completed.

In a preview of the Columbia disaster, a review of launch video showed that the nose fairing of the right SRB had broken off during ascent and hit Atlantis. The crew was asked to make an unplanned RMS robot arm session to view the right underwing of the shuttle as good as possible. Even with the poor quality of the video, the crew could see that hundreds of tiles had been damaged, and the damage beyond the range of the camera was unknowable. NASA seemed remarkably unconcerned. The crew couldn't decide if Houston was hiding deadly information that they couldn't do anything about (a la John Glenn's mission) or were merely incompetent. Either way they were infuriated. Finally crew commander Gibson told everyone "No reason to die all tensed up", so the crew spent the remainder of the mission looking at the earth out the windows and trying not to think about the fiery death they were pretty sure awaited them.

During the ride down, Mullane stayed on the upper deck until the shuttle reached Mach 22, 220,000 feet, and 0.5 G during reentry. He was entranced by the view out the window, the pulsating plasma of the reentry shroud, the clouds skimming by at impossibly fast speeds at 40 miles altitude. His legs, after days of zero-G, were unable to hold his body anymore, and he collapsed to the floor. He crawled to the ladder, and then down to his seat in the windowless middeck. However the landing went uneventfully. But after landing, the crew - and NASA - finally saw the real damage to the belly tiles. It was massive - 700 tiles were damaged along half the length of the belly. One had completely dislodged, but it was fortuitously over an antenna mounting, with a thicker-than-average aluminum skin. If the missing tile had been elsewhere, the hot plasma might have entered the interior of the wing structure, and Atlantis might have disintegrated during reentry, as Columbia would during STS-107 fifteen years later. It was later found that the nose cone had failed during ascent due to a change in the manufacturing process of the ablative material that protected the SRB's during launch. The engineers had broken some fundamental principles - "Better is the enemy of good enough" and "If it ain't broke don't fix it".

During the flight a horrific earthquake hit central Armenia. Warped humor featured it in the post-flight debriefing. Gibson told the assembled astronauts "I know you were very curious about our classified payload". The attention of the group was riveted. "All I can say is that Armenia was our first test target - and we only had the weapon set to stun". Again because of the deep black nature of the flight, the crew had no news conferences, no invitations to the White House (leading other astronauts to dub it the "Grissom Flight", after the scene in the film The Right Stuff where Betty Grissom sobs "You mean, I won't get to meet Jackie?" In classified briefings, the crew presented a photograph of the classified payload to the unit commander for the mission, with the inscription "Suck on this, you Commie dogs". The crew later briefed the Joint Chiefs of Staff directly on the mission and received the National Intelligence Medal. And a final treat for the crew was representing NASA at Super Bowl XXIII and hobnobbing with Christie Brinkley, Frankie Avalon, and Annette Funicello. Brinkley was gorgeous, but Mullane found Funicello intelligent and captivating.

NASA Official Mission Narrative

Mission Name: STS-27 (27)
Atlantis (3)
Pad 39-B (8)
27th Shuttle mission
3rd Flight OV-104

Robert L. Gibson (3), Commander
Guy S. Gardner (1), Pilot
Richard M. Mullane (2), Mission Specialist 1
Jerry L. Ross (2), Mission Specialist 2
William M. Shepherd (1), Mission Specialist 3

OPF - March 20, 1987
VAB - Oct. 22, 1988
PAD - Nov. 2, 1988

Mission Objectives:

December 2, 1988, 9:30:34 a.m. EST. Launch set for Dec. 1 during classified window lying within launch period between 6:32 a.m. and 9:32 a.m., postponed due to unacceptable cloud cover and wind conditions and reset for same launch period on Dec. 2. Launch Weight: Classified.
Altitude: Classified
Inclination: 57.0 degrees
Orbits: 68
Duration: 4 days, 9 hours, 5 minutes, 37 seconds.
Distance: 1,820,000 miles

SRB: BI-030
SRM: 360L002
ET : 23/LWT-16
MLP : 1
SSME-1: SN-2017
SSME-2: SN-2030
SSME-3: SN-2029

December 6, 1988, 3:36:11 p.m. PST, Runway 17, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Rollout distance: 7,123 feet. Rollout time: 43 seconds. Orbiter returned to KSC Dec. 13, 1988. Landing Weight: 190,956 lbs.

Mission Highlights:
Third mission dedicated to Department of Defense.

AKA: Atlantis.
First Launch: 1988.12.02.
Last Launch: 1988.12.06.
Duration: 4.38 days.

More... - Chronology...

Associated People
  • Mullane Mullane, Richard Michael 'Mike' (1945-) American test engineer mission specialist astronaut. Flew on STS-41-D, STS-27, STS-36. Author of the frankest astronaut biography ever published. Flew 150 combat missions in Vietnam. More...
  • Gibson Gibson, Robert Lee 'Hoot' (1946-) American test pilot astronaut. Flew on STS-41-B, STS-61-C, STS-27, STS-47, STS-71. Flew combat missions over Vietnam. Was married to astronaut Rhea Seddon. More...
  • Gardner, Guy Gardner, Guy Spencer (1948-) American test pilot astronaut. Flew on STS-27, STS-35. Grew up in Alexandria, Virginia. Flew 177 combat missions over Vietnam. More...
  • Ross Ross, Jerry Lynn (1948-) American test pilot mission specialist astronaut. Flew on STS-61-B, STS-27, STS-37, STS-55, STS-74, STS-88, STS-110. Held world record of seven spaceflights. US record of nine spacewalks. More...
  • Shepherd Shepherd, William McMichael 'Bill' (1949-) American engineer mission specialist astronaut. Flew on STS-27, STS-41, STS-52, ISS EO-1. Shepherd was an ex-Navy SEAL and an expert in underwater demolition. More...

Associated Countries
Associated Spacecraft
  • Atlantis American manned spaceplane. 33 launches, 1985.10.03 to 2011.07.08. The space shuttle Atlantis was the fourth orbiter to become operational at Kennedy Space Center, and the last of the original production run. More...

See also
Associated Manufacturers and Agencies
  • NASA American agency overseeing development of rockets and spacecraft. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, USA, USA. More...
  • NASA Houston American agency overseeing development of rockets and spacecraft. Houston, Houston, USA. More...

Associated Programs
  • STS The Space Transportation System (Space Shuttle) was conceived originally as a completely reusable system that would provide cheap, routine access to space and replace all American and civilian military launch vehicles. Crippled by technological overreach, political compromise, and budget limitations, it instead ended up costing more than the expendable rockets it was to have replaced. STS sucked the money out of all other NASA projects for half a century. The military abandoned its use after the Challenger shuttle explosion in the 1980's. More...

  • Mullane, Mike, Riding Rockets, Scribner, New York, 2006.

Associated Launch Sites
  • Cape Canaveral America's largest launch center, used for all manned launches. Today only six of the 40 launch complexes built here remain in use. Located at or near Cape Canaveral are the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, used by NASA for Saturn V and Space Shuttle launches; Patrick AFB on Cape Canaveral itself, operated the US Department of Defense and handling most other launches; the commercial Spaceport Florida; the air-launched launch vehicle and missile Drop Zone off Mayport, Florida, located at 29.00 N 79.00 W, and an offshore submarine-launched ballistic missile launch area. All of these take advantage of the extensive down-range tracking facilities that once extended from the Cape, through the Caribbean, South Atlantic, and to South Africa and the Indian Ocean. More...

STS-27 Chronology

1988 December 2 - . 14:30 GMT - . Launch Site: Cape Canaveral. Launch Complex: Cape Canaveral LC39B. LV Family: Shuttle. Launch Vehicle: Shuttle. LV Configuration: Space Shuttle STS-27R.
  • STS-27 - . Call Sign: Atlantis. Crew: Gardner, Guy; Gibson; Mullane; Ross; Shepherd. Payload: Atlantis F03 / Lacrosse 1. Nation: USA. Related Persons: Gardner, Guy; Gibson; Mullane; Ross; Shepherd. Agency: NASA Houston. Program: STS. Class: Manned. Type: Manned spaceplane. Flight: STS-27. Spacecraft: Atlantis. Duration: 4.38 days. Decay Date: 1988-12-06 . USAF Sat Cat: 19670 . COSPAR: 1988-106A. Apogee: 447 km (277 mi). Perigee: 437 km (271 mi). Inclination: 57.0000 deg. Period: 93.40 min. Manned five crew. Deployed a classified payload. Orbits of Earth: 68. Landed at: Runway 17 dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, . Landing Speed: 359 kph. Touchdown miss distance: 447.00 m. Landing Rollout: 2,171.00 m. Payloads: DoD Mission.

1988 December 6 - .
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