Our Spaceflight Heritage: SPARTAN flies high with STS-72

Space Shuttle Endeavour launches on Jan. 11, 1996. Photo Credit: NASASpace Shuttle Endeavour launches on Jan. 11, 1996. Photo Credit: NASA

On Jan. 11, 1996, Space Shuttle Endeavour lifted off from NASA’s Launch Complex 39B at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on STS-72 – a mission, among other things, that was sent aloft to retrieve a Japanese satellite and return it to Earth.

The nearly nine-day mission was commanded by NASA astronaut Brian Duffy, a U.S. Air Force pilot who once served as Director of F-15 Tests at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Also on board were pilot Brent Jett, and mission specialists Leroy Chiao, Daniel Barry, Winston Scott, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Koichi Wakata.

The mission’s launch was delayed for approximately 23 minutes due to communication glitches among some of the ground sites, but otherwise, the countdown to the mission’s start was mostly uneventful.

“It was a terrific mission that went pretty much as planned and it began with a spectacular night launch,” Duffy told SpaceFlight Insider. “There were a few ascent surprises, the first being that when the boosters lit they launched a bunch of water that was a part of the million gallons of water deluge up into the air and it hit my front window just as we were in the roll (about 8 sec. into the flight). I’d never heard of that happening and I wondered ‘where’d that water come from?’”

STS-72 was the first shuttle flight of 1996, the mission’s road to launch was followed by a PBS crew throughout for a documentary entitled Astronauts, hosted by Bill Nye, which aired on PBS on July 17 of the following year.

“Going through Mach 20, I started seeing little pieces of ice going past us and I was thinking, ‘we’re going Mach 20… how can anything be going faster than us?’. I think it was ice coming off the engine nozzles and being propelled forward by the base pressure of the SSME exhaust,” Duffy noted that, for him, returning home was almost as remarkable as the trip uphill. “The night landing was pretty exciting for me as it was my first time to land a space shuttle.”

The primary objective of STS-72 was to retrieve the Japanese Space Flyer Unit (SFU) after its ten months on orbit conducting biological, physics, and materials experiments. SFU had been launched on March 18, 1995, from the Tanegashima Space Center, located off the coast of Japan, on an H-II 3F rocket.

The SFU spacecraft carried an infrared telescope; a 2D array system; HVSA, a solar array which generated electricity to power the onboard experiments; a Space Plasma Diagnostic Package (SPDP) to measure the effect of speed on gravity. Also on SFU was EPEX, which conducted experiments relating to the manufacture and maintenance of fuel in space as well as MEX, which experimented with the behavior of liquid in space. Lastly, there was BIO, which took eggs into space to observe a live specimen hatching in the microgravity environment.

Wakata retrieved SFU using Endeavour’s robotic arm on flight day three. Unfortunately, the satellite’s solar arrays had not properly folded into place, and it was operating on battery power. It was decided to jettison the solar arrays in order to bring the vehicle aboard Endeavour.

Wakata would go on to become the first Japanese commander of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2014. STS-72 was Wakata’s first mission to orbit. He would go on to fly three more times into space – twice on a shuttle and once on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Video courtesy of NASA / Noah Johnson

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