STS-49: Endeavour’s Record Breaking First Flight

STS-49 Patch

On May 7, 1992, the Space Shuttle Endeavour lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on its first flight into space. The mission was STS-49, and it would turn out to be a record-breaking mission of many firsts. The Endeavour had been built as a replacement shuttle after the Challenger was lost on January 28, 1986. The contract for construction was awarded in July 1987, but it would be almost five years before Endeavour was ready to take flight. The shuttle was named for the HMS Endeavour, an eighteenth-century sailing vessel used by Captain James Cook. This is why the shuttle uses the English spelling of the word Endeavour. The Endeavour would turn out to be the last shuttle orbiter ever built. 

The main task of STS-49 was to retrieve an Intelsat VI communications satellite which had failed to leave low earth orbit two years earlier. The satellite had originally been launched aboard a commercial Titan III rocket in March 1990 and was intended to be placed into a geosynchronous orbit. The Orbus-21S booster failed to separate from the Titan’s second stage, and as a result was unable to fire, leaving Intelsat 603 stranded in low Earth orbit. The mission required the crew of Endeavour to attach a new upper stage kick motor and relaunch the satellite to its intended geosynchronous orbit.  

STS-49 Crew: Kathryn C.Thornton, Bruce E. Melnick, Pierre J. Thuot, Commander Daniel C. Brandenstein, Pilot Kevin P. Chilton, Thomas D. Akers, and Richard J. Hieb

Crew Members capture Intelsat VI

To attach the kick motor would end up requiring three separate spacewalks. The first was a planned one by astronauts Pierre Thuot and Richard Hieb. They were supposed to attach a capture bar to the satellite from a position on the Endeavour’s robotic arm but were unsuccessful. A second unscheduled attempt was made the following day to attach the capture bar but was also unsuccessful. On the third attempt, Endeavour Commander Daniel Brandenstein carefully maneuvered the orbiter to within a few feet of the communications satellite and it was finally captured by hand by using a team of three astronauts, Thuot, Hieb and Thomas Akers. This marked the first and only time that three astronauts have been on an extravehicular activity (EVA) or spacewalk at the same time. An ASEM, or Assembly of Station by EVA Methods structure was erected in the cargo bay by the crew to serve as a platform to aid in the hand capture and subsequent attachment of the capture bar. The satellite was later released, and the new motor fired to put it into a geosynchronous orbit for operational use. Endeavour landed at Edwards Air Force Base on May 16, 1992 after an 8-day,21-hour mission. 

STS-49 had the first use of the drag chute for landing

The STS-49 mission set many new records for NASA. These included the first EVA involving three astronauts, the first shuttle mission to feature four EVAs, and the longest EVA to date: 8 hours and 29 minutes. Other highlights were the first shuttle mission requiring three rendezvous with an orbiting spacecraft, first attachment of a live rocket motor to an orbiting satellite and the first use of a drag chute during a shuttle landing. STS-49, the first flight of Endeavour, certainly turned out to be one of the most memorable and exciting missions of the Shuttle Program. Endeavour would go on to fly 24 more missions, the last being STS-134 in May 2011. 

The Endeavour Space Shuttle currently resides at The California Science Center in Los Angeles. You can see a Space Shuttle Main Engine Nozzle that flew on the back of Endeavour on mission STS-57, as well as eight other shuttle missions, at the Coca-Cola Space Science Center in Columbus, Georgia.  

The view through the Space Shuttle Main Engine Nozzle at the Coca-Cola Space Science Center

first color image taken on mars