An amazing image titled “Capturing a Satellite” by NASA: Astronaut Dale A. Gardner prepares to dock with the spinning WESTAR VI satellite during the STS-51A mission. He was wearing a getting his turn in the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU, see notes 1). Gardner used a large tool called the Apogee Kick Motor Capture Device to enter the nozzle of a spent WESTAR VI engine and stabilize the communications spacecraft sufficiently to capture it for return to Earth in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Discovery.
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Capturing a satellite in space
Westar was a fleet of geosynchronous (see notes 2) communications satellites operating in the C band which were launched by the American worldwide financial services and communications company Western Union from 1974 to 1984. There were seven Westar satellites in all, with five of them launched and operating under the Westar name.
Westar satellite system was the first US domestic satellite system. The system relayed data, voice, video, and fax transmissions to the continental U.S., Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Alaska, and the Virgin Islands. Western Union ended its role as a satellite service provider when it sold the Westar satellites to Hughes Communications Inc. in 1988. At the time of the sale, only Westar 3, 4, 5, and satellites were operational, as Westar 1 and 2 had already been retired from service (Westar 1 in April 1983), and Westar 6 had not achieved GEO (see notes 2) following its deployment from STS-10 in February ’84.
Westar 6 was retrieved by STS-51A in February 1984 (Space Shuttle Discovery – “capturing a satellite”) and returned to Earth for refurbishment. Following its return, the vehicle was resold by the satellite’s insurers to the Pan Am Pacific Satellite Corp., who in turn resold it to Asia Satellite, who renamed it AsiaSat 1. The satellite was relaunched in April 1990 aboard a Long March rocket.
The Westar 6S satellite, procured by Western Union as a replacement for Westar 6, was still under development when Western Union was bought out by Hughes. The vehicle was subsequently renamed Galaxy 6.
Dale Allan Gardner (November 8, 1948 – February 19, 2014) was a NASA astronaut who flew two Space Shuttle missions during the mid-1980s.
Gardner was selected as an Astronaut Candidate by NASA in January 1978, reporting to the Johnson Space Center in July 1978. In August 1979, he completed a one-year training and evaluation period, making him eligible for assignment as a mission specialist astronaut.
He subsequently served as the Astronaut Project Manager for the flight software in the shuttle onboard computers leading up to the first flight in April 1981. He then served as a support crew astronaut for the fourth flight (STS-4). He flew as a mission specialist on STS-8 (August 30 to September 5, 1983) and STS-51A (November 8-16, 1984).
Gardner logged a total of 337 hours in space and 225 orbits of the Earth on these two flights. He logged more than 2300 hours flying time in over 20 different types of aircraft and spacecraft.
STS-8 launched from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on August 30, 1983. The crew aboard space shuttle Challenger included Richard Truly (spacecraft commander), Daniel Brandenstein (pilot), and fellow mission specialists Guion Bluford and William Thornton.
This was the third flight of the Orbiter Challenger and the first night launch and landing mission of the Shuttle Program. During the flight, the crew of STS-8 deployed the Indian National Satellite (INSAT-1B), operated and tested the Canadian-build Remote Manipulator System (RMS) robot arm, and performed numerous Earth resources and space science experiments.
STS-8 completed 98 Earth orbits in 145 hours before landing at Edwards Air Force Base, California on September 5, 1983.
STS-51A, the fourteenth flight of the Shuttle Program, launched on November 8, 1984 (his birthday). The crew aboard space shuttle Discovery included Frederick Hauck (spacecraft commander), David Walker (pilot), and fellow Mission Specialists Joseph Allen and Anna Fisher. This was the second flight of Discovery.
During this mission the crew deployed two satellites, Canada’s ANIK D-2 (TELESAT-H) and the Hughes LEASAT-1 (SYNCOM IV-1), now in service with the U.S. Navy.
In a dramatic salvage effort, they also rendezvoused with and returned from space two satellites previously launched into improper orbits, the Indonesian PALAPA B-2 and the Western Union WESTAR VI communication satellites. Gardner and Allen completed two spacewalks totaling 12 hours and flew the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) backpack during the salvage operation (see “capturing a satellite” image above).
STS-51A completed 127 orbits of the Earth before landing at the Kennedy Space Center on November 16, 1984.
Gardner died on February 19, 2014, after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke at his home. He was 65.
- The Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) is an astronaut propulsion unit that was used by NASA on three Space Shuttle missions in 1984. The MMU allowed the astronauts to perform untethered EVA spacewalks at a distance from the shuttle. The MMU was used in practice to retrieve a pair of faulty communications satellites, Westar VI and Palapa B2. Following the third mission, the unit was retired from use. A smaller successor, the Simplified Aid For EVA Rescue (SAFER), was first flown in 1994 and is intended for emergency use only.
- A geosynchronous orbit (sometimes abbreviated GEO or GSO) is an Earth-centered orbit with an orbital period that matches Earth’s rotation on its axis, 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4 seconds (one sidereal day). The synchronization of rotation and orbital period means that, for an observer on Earth’s surface, an object in geosynchronous orbit returns to exactly the same position in the sky after a period of one sidereal day.