Manned five crew. The robot arm was used to deploy a classified satellite. Orbits of Earth: 68. Landed at: Runway 17 dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, . Landing Speed: 359 kph. Touchdown miss distance: 447.00 m. Landing Rollout: 2,171.00 m. Payloads: DoD Mission.
The second flight after the STS-26 return-to-flight mission after the Challenger disaster. The only releasable film from the mission was horsing-around footage of astronauts catching floating M&M's in their mouths after being batted at long-range across the mid-deck. NASA vetoed release of even this, since the press had ignored the 'glorious' footage of the TDRS deployment on STS-26 and instead just run the 'horsing around' stuff, which they felt made the space program look like a multi-billion dollar junket for spoiled astronauts. A leak in the left inboard tire forced NASA to keep the belly of the shuttle pointed at the sun in the hopes the heat would raise the pressure and seal the tire. This deprived the crew of viewing-the-earth time after the primary mission, the satellite deployment, had been completed.
In a preview of the Columbia disaster, a review of launch video showed that the nose fairing of the right SRB had broken off during ascent and hit Atlantis. The crew was asked to make an unplanned RMS robot arm session to view the right underwing of the shuttle as good as possible. Even with the poor quality of the video, the crew could see that hundreds of tiles had been damaged, and the damage beyond the range of the camera was unknowable. NASA seemed remarkably unconcerned. The crew couldn't decide if Houston was hiding deadly information that they couldn't do anything about (a la John Glenn's mission) or were merely incompetent. Either way they were infuriated. Finally crew commander Gibson told everyone "No reason to die all tensed up", so the crew spent the remainder of the mission looking at the earth out the windows and trying not to think about the fiery death they were pretty sure awaited them.
During the ride down, Mullane stayed on the upper deck until the shuttle reached Mach 22, 220,000 feet, and 0.5 G during reentry. He was entranced by the view out the window, the pulsating plasma of the reentry shroud, the clouds skimming by at impossibly fast speeds at 40 miles altitude. His legs, after days of zero-G, were unable to hold his body anymore, and he collapsed to the floor. He crawled to the ladder, and then down to his seat in the windowless middeck. However the landing went uneventfully. But after landing, the crew - and NASA - finally saw the real damage to the belly tiles. It was massive - 700 tiles were damaged along half the length of the belly. One had completely dislodged, but it was fortuitously over an antenna mounting, with a thicker-than-average aluminum skin. If the missing tile had been elsewhere, the hot plasma might have entered the interior of the wing structure, and Atlantis might have disintegrated during reentry, as Columbia would during STS-107 fifteen years later. It was later found that the nose cone had failed during ascent due to a change in the manufacturing process of the ablative material that protected the SRB's during launch. The engineers had broken some fundamental principles - "Better is the enemy of good enough" and "If it ain't broke don't fix it".
During the flight a horrific earthquake hit central Armenia. Warped humor featured it in the post-flight debriefing. Gibson told the assembled astronauts "I know you were very curious about our classified payload". The attention of the group was riveted. "All I can say is that Armenia was our first test target - and we only had the weapon set to stun". Again because of the deep black nature of the flight, the crew had no news conferences, no invitations to the White House (leading other astronauts to dub it the "Grissom Flight", after the scene in the film The Right Stuff where Betty Grissom sobs "You mean, I won't get to meet Jackie?" In classified briefings, the crew presented a photograph of the classified payload to the unit commander for the mission, with the inscription "Suck on this, you Commie dogs". The crew later briefed the Joint Chiefs of Staff directly on the mission and received the National Intelligence Medal. And a final treat for the crew was representing NASA at Super Bowl XXIII and hobnobbing with Christie Brinkley, Frankie Avalon, and Annette Funicello. Brinkley was gorgeous, but Mullane found Funicello intelligent and captivating.
NASA Official Mission Narrative
Mission Name: STS-27 (27)
Pad 39-B (8)
27th Shuttle mission
3rd Flight OV-104
Robert L. Gibson (3), Commander
Guy S. Gardner (1), Pilot
Richard M. Mullane (2), Mission Specialist 1
Jerry L. Ross (2), Mission Specialist 2
William M. Shepherd (1), Mission Specialist 3
OPF - March 20, 1987
VAB - Oct. 22, 1988
PAD - Nov. 2, 1988
December 2, 1988, 9:30:34 a.m. EST. Launch set for Dec. 1 during classified window lying within launch period between 6:32 a.m. and 9:32 a.m., postponed due to unacceptable cloud cover and wind conditions and reset for same launch period on Dec. 2. Launch Weight: Classified.
Inclination: 57.0 degrees
Duration: 4 days, 9 hours, 5 minutes, 37 seconds.
Distance: 1,820,000 miles
ET : 23/LWT-16
MLP : 1
December 6, 1988, 3:36:11 p.m. PST, Runway 17, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Rollout distance: 7,123 feet. Rollout time: 43 seconds. Orbiter returned to KSC Dec. 13, 1988. Landing Weight: 190,956 lbs.
Third mission dedicated to Department of Defense.
First Launch: 1988.12.02.
Last Launch: 1988.12.06.
Duration: 4.38 days.