Artifact Spotlight

Artifact spotlight: satellite rescue

Satellites have captured the imagination of popular culture ever since Sputnik beeped its way across the sky. At times, they have popped a house full of popcorn in the movie Real Genius; inspired the visual motifs of ‘60s-era diners, motels and gas stations; and menaced the entire planet in many James Bond films.

Satellites also have made our digital age possible, along with a helping hand or two from the Space Shuttle Program. Never was that more apparent than on mission STS-49, the maiden flight of shuttle orbiter Endeavour.

747-B Click to enlarge

During this nine-day mission, NASA astronauts retrieved an Intelsat VI satellite that had failed to reach its intended orbit. Intelsat is a communications satellite provider founded in 1964 that operates one of the world’s largest fleets of commercial satellites. The VI satellite Intelsat 603 was built by Hughes Aircraft Company and launched in 1990.

During that launch, the upper stage failed to separate from the satellite, leaving the two attached. That meant the perigee kick motor, used to boost the satellite to its proper orbit, could not fire.

Enter STS-49, whose astronaut team went on a record-breaking spacewalk to track down the satellite, attach a new upper stage booster and place it to its proper geosynchronous orbit. Mission specialists Richard Hieb, Thomas Akers and Pierre Thuot spent more than eight hours capturing the wayward satellite and attaching the booster May 13-14, 1992.

It was the first time three astronauts had been on an extra-vehicular activity (EVA) together and stood as the longest duration EVA until STS-102 crewmembers broke it in 2001.

You can see an artifact of this mission up close inside shuttle replica Independence’s payload bay in Independence Plaza. There sits the cradle that carried the booster motor for STS-49’s mission.

It’s one of many artifacts flown in space that you can experience at Space Center Houston, where the thrilling future and inspiring past of space exploration comes alive.

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