1995: The year the future began
The crew traveled aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, which docked two days later with the Russian space station, Mir, forming what at the time was the largest craft ever assembled in space. It was the first East-West space linkup since 1975.
When Atlantis returned to Earth 20 years ago today, it brought home from Mir Dr. Norman E. Thagard, an astronaut-physician who had logged 115 days in space, then an American space-endurance record for a single mission.
Thagard — whom the New York Times referred to as “something of a lab rat for scientists interested in the biomedical effects of long space flights” — also was the first American to fly aboard a Russian spacecraft, at what was a time of studied cooperation between once-rival space programs.
As I note in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, the year’s most improbable development in space flight came about five weeks earlier, on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral.
It was mating season for woodpeckers and the culprits, one or more Northern flickers, punched about 200 holes in the insulation protecting the external fuel tank of the shuttle Discovery.
As the Times observed, the $2 billion spacecraft — “built to withstand the rigors of orbital flight, from blastoff to fiery re-entry” — was driven back to its hangar “by a flock of birds with mating on their minds.”
The damage ranged was as minor as pecks and claw marks to holes four inches across, NASA reported.
One of the astronauts on that flight, Donald A. Thomas, recalled in an interview in 2013:
“A love-crazed male woodpecker grounded our flight for a month. He’d mistaken the 154-foot tall external fuel tank for a dead tree limb and proceeded to tunnel into the foam insulation in order to create a nest and attract a female.”
“[The] Northern flicker nests typically run more than a foot deep, and the insulation was only three inches thick. When his beak hit the metal, he’d just move to another part of the tank. NASA tried patching the holes on the launch pad, but eventually decided to return the shuttle to the Vehicle Assembly Building. The mission became noteworthy for being the only space shuttle mission ever to be delayed by a bird. We even adopted Woody Woodpecker as a mascot; everybody managed to find the humor in it.”
The Associated Press reported that NASA had “used plastic owl decoys, horns and tape-recorded hoots to scare off” the birds, but without success.
So repairs were made and the delayed Discovery mission got off the ground July 13, 1995, six days after the return of Atlantis with Thagard aboard. The six-day turnaround was NASA’s swiftest between shuttle missions, the last of which flew in 2011.
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