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Science & Exploration

N° 14–1996: International Shuttle mission ends

11 March 1996

The 15-day international flight of the space shuttle Columbia came to an end on Saturday 09 March 1996 with a successful landing at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. During the mission, the crew of seven, which includes three European astronauts, deployed the Italian tethered satellite and watched over a variety of microgravity experiments.

Columbia touched down on the 4.8-kilometre long concrete runway at the Florida spaceport at 14:58 CET, after an hour long descent through the atmosphere. Since blasting off on 22 February, Columbia has travelled 10.5 million kilometres. The landing was 24 hours later than planned due to bad weather in Florida.

European Space Agency mission specialists Claude Nicollier and Maurizio Cheli and Italian Space Agency payload specialist Umberto Guidoni, accompanied NASA astronauts Andrew Allen, Scott Horowitz, Franklin Chang-Diaz, and Jeffrey Hoffman. It was the third space flight for Swiss Nicollier and the first time in space for Italian Cheli.

During the landing, Cheli served as the shuttle's flight engineer, sitting behind and between commander Allen and pilot Horowitz on the flight deck. He helped monitor the orbiter's systems throughout the descent and landing.

The highlight of the mission was the deployment of the Italian tethered satellite on 26 February. The ball-shaped satellite reached a distance of 19.7 kilometres from the shuttle before its thin tether unexpectedly broke, flinging the satellite into a higher orbit. Despite the setback, project scientists are pleased with the science they achieved. Following the tether break, scientists were able to devise a programme of research to make the most of the satellite's free-flight.

After the loss of the tethered satellite, the astronauts work centred on a round-the-clock programme of microgravity research. They monitored a battery of experiments, the US Microgravity Payload (USMP-3), mounted towards the rear of the shuttle's payload bay and performed combustion experiments using a special glovebox in the shuttle's middeck area.

USMP-3 included MEPHISTO, an experiment co-sponsored by NASA, the French space agency CNES and the French atomic energy commission. The French leading scientist for this experiment, Jean-Jacques Favier, will be a payload specialist on the next shuttle mission (STS-78) with major ESA involvement. This Life and Microgravity Sciences mission, scheduled for late June, includes five ESA experiment facilities. ESA astronaut Pedro Duque is a back-up payload specialist for this mission.