The Challenge of the atm

Designing and operating the manned solar observatory, the Apollo Tele­scope Mount, presented a challenge of epic proportions for the atm team composed of principal investigators who remained on the ground, the instru­ment designers, ground control personnel, and the nine Skylab crewmen who operated the observatory in flight. Like other such challenges, it proved to be highly demanding, rewarding, and just plain enjoyable, especially for those fortunate enough to operate the observatory in flight.

Skylab, and atm in particular, served as an illuminating milestone to both the test pilots and scientists in the astronaut corps: “Hey, even scientists have major contributions to make,” and “Even test pilots can actually learn sci­ence.” Enough lively kidding and chain pulling by both groups took place in training to field a cohesive, capable, and dedicated team of observers on each of the three missions.

Unlike most stellar observations, the detail visible on our nearest star demanded that crews be prepared to continuously make operational decisions with each instrument in space (instrument pointing), time (times of opera­tion and film exposures), and wavelength (use of different instrument oper­ational modes that covered the spectrum from visible light all the way down to x-rays). Our mother star is rich in a variety of features including granu­lation, supergranulation, sunspots, active regions, filaments, bright points, and coronal structure. Solar events also cover a wide range of the required time resolution from its eleven-year activity cycle down to flares, which are solar explosions that can rise within seconds. It was the challenge of the atm team to put instruments in orbit with cutting-edge observational capabili­ties and operate them in the way that maximized further understanding of known solar features and events and discoveries of new phenomena.

But just how does one meet this challenge? Basically, there were four essential components to the atm team’s approach:

Place in orbit state-of-the-art instruments with cutting-edge capabilities.

Provide the in-flight observers with real-time, appropriate feed­back on relevant features and events on the sun to enable them to make the best choices in space, time, and wavelength for observation.

Ensure each operator has the background and training to effectively operate the atm observatory.

Ensure the flight plan has the flexibility to accommodate optimum ground scheduling and observer real-time modifications.