Top Menu

A Tribute to the Shuttle Program and Its Earth Science Payloads – Part 1

by Dale Elizabeth Corey

AtlantisReflection_ingalls9001-364x225In memory of America’s last Space Shuttle on July 8th, 2011 we are providing a four-part series on Shuttle Transportation Systems (STS) earth science payloads, flown from 1981 to 2003. These geoscience payloads provided studies of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, oceans and biosphere, as well as the solid earth.  After the launch of STS-99 in 2000, payload priorities shifted towards the Space Station assembly missions with some rare exceptions.

For this article, we will discuss four earth science payloads flown from 1981 from 1985.  (Main sources:,

STS-2/OSTA-1 (Office of Space and Terrestrial Applications Pallet):  November 12, 1981

Earth Observation Experiments

Mission: OSTA-1 was the Space Shuttle’s first payload.  It primarily provided remote sensing of land resources, atmospheric phenomena and ocean conditions. Incorporated by the OSTA-1 payload were the Shuttle Multispectral IR Radiometer, the Feature Identification and Location Experiment, the Measurement of Air Pollution from Satellites experiment, the Ocean Color Experiment, the Night/Day Optical Survey of Lightning, and the Heflex Bioengineering Test.

Results: “The payload gathered 10 million square kilometers of data over the earth’s oceans, 6 million square kilometers of data over land masses, and global atmospheric data on carbon monoxide concentration.” Images were collected Spain to Australia. The Ocean Color Experiment detected water color for interpretation of major water constituents. The mission was considered to be a success based on the amount of data collected, and scientific and technical insight gained for the development of Shuttle flight instruments (Moore, 1982).

For more information, click here:

STS-9/Spacelab 1:  November 18, 1983

Atmospheric Physics

Mission: Spacelab-1 contained U-shaped unpressurized pallets which remained in the orbiter’s cargo bay during flight.  (Note:  The Spacelab components were flown on 25 shuttle missions.  They were decommissioned in 1998, excluding the pallets).  During the STS-2 mission, 73 separate investigations were carried out including atmospheric physics.  Because of the number of experiments that were flown on Spacelab 1, please use the following link to read the Spacelab Mission 1 Experiment descriptions:

For more information and results of the various atmospheric and earth observation experiments, click here: and….1C

STS-41G/ERBS (Earth Radiation Budget Satellite) and OSTA-3 (Office of Space and Terrestrial Applications-3):  October 5, 1984

Mission: The ERBS, “designed to investigate how energy from the Sun is absorbed and re-radiated by the Earth (ERBS, 2011),” was deployed less than nine hours into the flight. OSTA-3 carried three experiments in the payload bay: a) SIR-B (Shuttle Imaging Radar) Surface tension and viscosity; and materials experiment, b) FILE (Feature Identification and Location Experiment) and G306:  Air Force and U.S. Naval Research Lab and c)  MAPS (Measurement of Air Pollution from Satellite).

Results: The payload bay included the Large Format Camera (LFC) to photograph Earth, another camera called MAPS which measured air pollution, and a feature identification and location experiment called FILE which consisted of two TV cameras and two 70 mm still cameras. The SIR-B effort was an improved version of a similar device flown on the OSTA-l package during STS-2.“ Click here for detailed results of the ERBS payload.  It actually provided scientific data for 20 years+:

For more information about ERBS or OSTA-3, click here: and

STS-51B/ Spacelab 3:  April 29, 1985
Atmospheric Physics

Mission: The primary payload was Spacelab-3. This was the first operational flight for the Spacelab orbital laboratory series developed by the European Space Agency.   Although the primary objective of the STS-51B mission was to conduct materials science experiments in a stable low-gravity environment, important research was conducted in life sciences, fluid mechanics, atmospheric science, and astronomy.

Results: “The Atmospheric Trace Molecule Spectroscopy (ATMOS) experiment was flown on the Space Shuttle STS-51B as part of the Spacelab-3 laboratory to demonstrate the capability to monitor environmental quality by surveying the atmosphere for trace constituents and by identifying their sources, flow patterns, and decay mechanisms. For a detailed description of the results click here:

For more information, click here:,, and

Summary of Installment One:

NASA spinoffs, are a great resource for those that want to know more about all the technologies that were born out of aerospace technology.  For instance, Micro Pulse Lidar (MPL) which was originally developed by Goddard Space Flight Center for Monitoring Earth’s Atmosphere is now available commercially. The system is built to characterize numerous details of the composition and dynamics of the atmosphere, such as atmospheric cloud and aerosol concentration and is suitable for environmental monitoring studies that require full-time, unattended measurements of cloud and aerosol height structure. The system can be equipped with a protective climate-controlled enclosure, permitting placement of the system in field operations where adequate shelter may not exist. Studies of climate dynamics, meteorological research, and environmental monitoring are a few of its possible applications. (Monitoring Earth’s Atmosphere, 2011)

Having personally worked with the payload organization at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, I can attest to the professionalism, enthusiasm and safety consciousness that the personnel dedicated to each and every payload.  There was always a special mark that each space worker gave to these payloads.

It is important to pay tribute to the heartbreaking tragedies of the Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-51L) and Columbia (STS-107) accidents (to be discussed in Installment Four).  These were unfortunate and tragic events.  As we say “Goodbye” to the shuttle program, it is almost painful to imagine the end of the contributions and spin-offs this program could have continue to provide.  We wish the very best for the space program in the future.  As for the Atlantis final flight (STS-135, landing July 21, 2011), quoting Scott Carpenter, we wish you “Godspeed!”

Note:  Click the following link for a summary of every payload ever flown on the shuttle up to STS-88:  Click on this link for detailed information of the missions flown from 1981 to 1999:


Author Unknown.  Atmospheric Trace Molecule Spectroscopy (ATMOS) Data from Spacelab-3.  Accessed 12 July, 2011.

Author Unknown. Cargo Summary.  Accessed 24 June, 2011.

Author Unknown. ERBS.  Accessed 12 July, 2011.

Author Unknown.  FREESTAR on Shuttle Flight STS-107.  Access 4 July, 2011.

Author Unknown.  Missions.  Accessed 24 June, 2011.

Author Unknown.  STS-41G.  Accessed 12 July, 2011.

Craven, P.  Spacelab Mission 1 Experiment Descriptions.  Accessed 12 July, 2011.

Moore, J. W.  OSTA-1 – The Space Shuttle’s first scientific payload.  Accessed 12 July, 2011.….M.


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply