|STS-27 [Flight # 27]||2-6 December 1988||Atlantis |
Pad: 39-B 
Date: 2 December 1988
Time: 14:30:34 UTC
Inclination: 57 degrees
Duration: 4 days, 9 hours, 5 minutes, 37 seconds
Distance: 1,820,000 miles
Location: Runway 17, Edwards Air Force Base, CA 
Date: 6 December 1988
Time: 23:36:11 UTC
Rollout: 43 seconds (2,171 meters, 7,123 feet)
This was the shuttle flight that could have ended the entire shuttle program. Being the third Department of Defense dedicated mission it was flown in secrecy.
Only 85 seconds after lift-off, insulation came loose from the tip of the right solid rocket booster and impacted the shuttle right side. NASA asked the crew to do a video inspection the next day. Since this was a classified mission to launch a top secret spy satellite, communications between the shuttle and Mission Control were restricted. Mission Control asked for a secure TV transmission to be sent. The encryption process ended up in Mission Control receiving about one (blurred) frame every three seconds. NASA specialists looked at the feed and concluded the crew was seeing shadows and that the damage was not that severe.
Shuttle Commander Robert Gibson did not agree, but also didn't want to argue with Mission Control and replied that it looked worse to them, but you (NASA) people on the ground are the experts, so okay.
Upon landing, there were discovered over 700 damaged tiles, and at least one missing tile, along the right underside of the shuttle.
Re-entry took place over the Pacific, and if the shuttle had been lost the pieces would have fallen into deep water. It is likely the true cause would have never been identified. Being only the second flight after the loss of the Challenger on 51-L, the loss of Atlantis would have most likely resulted in the termination of the shuttle program.
There have also been reports that problems delivering a classified satellite may have resulted in an unconfirmed EVA, most likely by Ross and Shepherd.
|Diagram of tile damage locations
Click to enlarge
|Partially melted metal under a
|Damage being inspected on the