Launched 20 years ago this week, STS-55 was a NASA Space Shuttle mission of the orbiter Columbia that had a significant European involvement.
Launched on 26 April 1993, the crew of seven included German astronauts Ulrich Walter and Hans Schlegel. Together with NASA astronauts Steve Nagel, Tom Henricks, Jerry Ross, Charles Precourt and Bernard Harris, they would spend nearly ten days in space.
Hans and Ulrich became the joint fifth German astronauts to fly in space. The mission surpassed the 365th day in space for the Space Shuttle fleet and the 100th day of flight time for Columbia, the fleet’s oldest orbiter on its 14th flight.
STS-55 carried the second reusable German Spacelab Module and an exterior experiment support structure in the Shuttle’s payload bay. The first German Spacelab flight, D-1, flew on Shuttle mission STS-61A in October 1985. Europe and the USA gained valuable experience for future space station operations with these flights that demonstrated international cooperation.
The D-2 mission was part of the microgravity research programme started by the German Space Agency (DARA) with the D-1 mission. The then German Aerospace Research Establishment (DLR) had been tasked by DARA to conduct the second mission. ESA, DLR and NASA, with agencies from France and Japan, contributed to D-2’s scientific programme. Eleven nations participated in the 88 experiments conducted on the flight.
Many of the experiments continued the research of the D-1 mission by conducting similar tests, using upgraded hardware or taking advantage of the technical advancements since 1985. One of the highlights was the first telerobotic capture of a free-floating object by flight controllers in Germany. The crew also conducted the first intravenous saline solution injection in space as part of an experiment to study the human body’s response to direct fluid replacement as a countermeasure for amounts lost during spaceflight.
After the flight, DLR payload specialist Hans Schlegel was one of a number of astronauts from European national space agencies that joined ESA’s single European astronaut corps, created in 1998. In 2008, Hans flew as an ESA Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle STS-122, the mission that carried the Columbus laboratory into orbit and connected it to the International Space Station.
After his spaceflight, Ulrich worked for another four years at DLR but when the German astronaut team was merged into ESA, he did not transfer and went to work at IBM Germany. Since 2003, he has been a professor at the Technische Universität München, in Munich, Germany.