A day earlier, he had quite literally felt on top of the world by becoming the first Chinese-born person to fly into space. But now, orbiting Earth on board the Space Shuttle, all of his hopes and dreams, everything he had worked on for the better part of a decade as an American scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, had come crashing down around him.
Wang was the principal investigator of an experiment called the Drop Dynamics Module, which aimed to uncover the fundamental physical behavior of liquid drops in microgravity. He had largely built the experiment, and he then effectively won a lottery ticket when NASA selected him to fly on the 17th flight of the Space Shuttle program, the STS-51-B mission. Wang, along with six other crew members, launched aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in April 1985.
On the second day of the mission, Wang floated over to his experiment and sought to activate the Drop Dynamics Module. But it didn’t work. He asked the NASA flight controllers on the ground if he could take some time to try to troubleshoot the problem and maybe fix the experiment. But on any Shuttle mission, time is precious. Every crew member has a detailed timeline, with a long list of tasks during waking hours. The flight controllers were reluctant.
After initially being told no, Wang pressed a bit further. “Listen, I know my system very well,” he said. “Give me a shot.” Still, the flight controllers demurred. Wang grew desperate. So he said something that chilled the nerves of those in Houston watching over the safety of the crew and the Shuttle mission.
“Hey, if you guys don’t give me a chance to repair my instrument, I’m not going back,” Wang said.
Exactly what happened after that may never be known. But thanks to new reporting, we may…
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