In the end it was all smiles and congratulations, but the crew of the space shuttle Challenger and NASA engineers in Houston and at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., were not forgetting how close the Solar Maximum (Solar Max) satellite repair mission had come to being the Solar Max destruction mission. In fact, if it had not been for a late night resuscitation effort by a team of engineers at Goddard and a particularly providential sunrise, the shuttle crew might never have gotten their hands back on the $200 million orbiting solar observatory after a docking attempt on the mission's third day knocked it out of kilter. As it is, thanks to the astronauts' skilled repair work, the satellite is now ready for another 6 years or more of sun watching.
Solar Max had been stranded in space since 1980, the victim of blown fuses in its attitude control system that left four of its seven science instruments without accurate pointing capability. Shortly after the blow out, Goddard technicians had put the satellite in a slow, “coning” spin to keep its solar panels pointing at the sun and the batteries charged up. In this holding pattern, turning at the rate of 1° per second, the first satellite designed to be reserviced in orbit had awaited its rescuers for more than 3 years.