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STS-93: The Wild Story of the Space Shuttle Mission That Hauled the Heaviest Payload
By virtue of its nearly unparalleled power and speed, it's easy to make the correlation between the American Space Shuttle and an exotic supercar like a Ferrari or a McLaren. But if you asked an ex-NASA Shuttle Program engineer which automotive comparison they find the aptest for the Shuttle, they'd probably say something like a heavy-duty pickup truck.

STS-93: The Wild Story of the Space Shuttle Mission That Hauled the Heaviest Payload

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More specifically, a Ford F-350 or a Silverado/Ram 3500 dually. Why? Because the Shuttle was the definition of heavy duty. In truth, the Shuttle didn't always fly close to fully loaded because it didn't need to. But in July 1999, NASA needed every pound of thrust, every kilogram of payload capacity, and every ounce of ingenuity the Shuttle program had at its disposal to help get a brand new, state-of-the-art space telescope into Low Earth Orbit safely.

The Chandra X-ray Observatory (CXO) was the third LEO space observatory launched under the Astrophysics Division of NASA's Flagship-Class large strategic science missions. While the Hubble Space Telescope surveyed the observable universe in the visible light spectrum, Chandra's focus on the X-ray energy spectrum promised a glimpse of the cosmos not possible by Hubble or even space telescopes in other energy spectrums.

With 5,860 kg (12,930 lb) of mass at launch, CXO was packed to the gills with sensors, solar arrays, and electrical generators, putting out 2,350 Watts. The only launch vehicle remotely capable of handling this payload was the Space Shuttle. Its combined 7.2 million lbs (3.5 million kg) of thrust at launch from twin solid rocket boosters and three RS-25 liquid-rocket main engines could realistically haul a maximum payload of 65,000 pounds (32.5 tons, 29,000 kg) of material into Low Earth Orbit, depending on the specifics of said orbit.

Coming in at roughly 25 tons (22,679 kg) while sitting at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex, even the heaviest combined payload in Shuttle program history didn't truly test the limits of its abilities. With a crew of four Americans and one Frenchman, STS-93 would be commanded for the first time by a woman, Eileen Collins of Elmira, New York. With the Chandra Telescope mounted inside, the Shuttle Orbiter Columbia lifted off on July 23rd, 1999, after scrubbing the launch twice the previous two days.

One of those scrubs came a mere seven seconds before launch. Problems with a metal pin holding one of the oxidizer feed lines to the main engine (right) main engine knocking loose, causing a leak in the hydrogen fuel tank just after liftoff, wasn't enough to keep Columbia from making it safely to orbit with a Perigee altitude and apogee altitude of 260 kilometers (160 mi) and perigee of 280 kilometers (170 mi).

The satellite was deployed from Columbia's main cargo bay later that day. Once the mighty satellite was freed from its enclosure, it was easier to see how the Shuttle's empty cargo bay looked remarkably like the bed of a pickup truck with its doors open.

Aside from space telescope deployment, the typical swath of scientific experiments took place over the next four days and 22 hours, and 49 minutes of the flight. Everything from observing the metamorphosis of butterflies and the growth of small-scale vegetation in the microgravity of space to gathering data about the physiological effects of spaceflight on the bodies of the flight's crew members. Astronauts even took time communicating with civilians on the ground through short-wave radio through the Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment (SAREX).

On the morning of day six, the final day before re-entry, "A Little Traveling Music" by Barry Manilow serenaded the crew of STS-93. That evening, the famed American spacecraft de-orbited and decelerated from over 20 times the speed of sound down to zero in the span of fewer than 20 minutes.

Though Columbia was tragically lost in 2003, the Chandra X-ray Observatory continues to operate almost 20 years after its planned mission duration. It wouldn't have been possible without the mighty Shuttle.

 
 
 
 
 

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