In 1984, a rescue mission took place in space — ultimately saving a spacecraft that went on to make some of the most detailed observations we have of solar flares during a highly active solar cycle. Now, more than three decades later and thanks to some clever recalibration, we’re still reaping the rewards.
A Dramatic Rescue
STS-41-C astronauts George Nelson (right) and James van Hoften (left) repair the SolarMax satellite in the Challenger shuttle’s open payload bay. [NASA]In the first-ever attempted repair of an orbiting satellite — almost a decade before the first Hubble servicing mission — the crew of space shuttle mission STS-41-C were tasked with capturing the Solar Maximum Mission (SolarMax) spacecraft in orbit so that they could repair its fine-pointing system and several instruments.
The attempted retrieval process was anything but smooth. The astronauts’ jetpack-powered space-walk rendezvous with SolarMax (pictured above) — during which they intended to dock with the satellite and slow its gentle rotation — failed, with the spacecraft entering an uncontrolled tumble after an astronaut tried to slow it by grasping a solar panel. Unable to point its panels at the Sun, SolarMax’s batteries started to drain, and the astronauts were forced to retreat ...