CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Space shuttle Challenger performed like a veteran Monday during the first day of its maiden flight, blasting flawlessly into orbit and launching the most complex switchboard satellite ever built.
Astronauts Paul Weitz, Karol Bobko, Story Musgrave and Donald Peterson faced some tense moments -- but no serious difficulties -- during a work day described as the most demanding ever assigned to a space crew.
With the satellite launched and Challenger flying well, the astronauts had in 10 hours gone a long way toward accomplishing the key goals of a five-day, make-or-break mission to put America's space program back on the track.
Six springs shoved the 2 -ton communications satellite and its 16-ton space tug rocket out of Challenger's cargo bay 177 miles over the Atlantic Ocean at 11:32 p.m. EST.
Folded up like a slim blue-and-gold chrysalis 36 feet long, the $100 million satellite and attached space tug drifted away from the shuttle at a stately one-third of a mile an hour. The tug was to push the satellite into an orbit 22,300 miles above Earth Tuesday.
For a brief while Monday night it appeared the satellite launch might be threatened by failure of two of the five guidance gyroscopes in its space tug. But engineers on the ground radioed a series of commands to the tug to get all of its gyros working in the nick of time.
'Wow!' spacecraft communicator John McBride exclaimed with relief as he reported the effort had succeeded and gave the crew a 'go' for deployment.
Ahead lay the second major assignment of Challenger's debut mission - a spacewalk Thursday by Musgrave and Peterson to test new $2 million spacesuits -- and a series of experiments to test such things as growing food and making super-pure drugs in weightlessness.
Although Challenger was already showing a bit of wear, with two bits of white insulation peeling loose on its tail, the new ship's first hours in orbit demonstrated it a proven second member of America's space freighter fleet.
The astronauts were in high spirits.
Musgrave munched bananas as he worked, and Weitz joked to mission controllers that they would be sick by morning 'if you try to match him banana by banana.'
Deployment of the communications satellite was critical to the future of the shuttle program.
The satellite was designed to forge half of a revolutionary new link between astronauts in space and controllers on the ground. Another like it, scheduled for launch by Challenger in August, will be needed to complete the link and clear the way for an international spacelab flight starting Sept. 30.
Weitz beamed a special telecast earthward to show Mission Control how two pieces of Challenger's white thermal insulation -- part of the ship's protection against the searing heat of re-entry -- had peeled loose during blastoff and were sticking out like open jacket pocket flaps.
Flight Director Jay Green said preliminary analysis showed the loss of the two pieces of insulation on Challenger's tail section, each about 6 inches square and an inch thick, should pose no problem during the ship's return to Earth Saturday.
In a second, scheduled evening telecast the crew showed the comsat nestled in the cargo bay with its golden dish antennas folded into long tubes pointed straight at the cabin.
'Looks like you've got a missile in your bay, pointed right at you,' said spacecraft communicator John McBride.
A shot from a camera in the back of the cargo bay showed Musgrave standing at one of Challenger's rear windows, his bald head glinting in the sun, and Peterson waving through the other window.
The shuttle program's future rode on success of this mission, leaving little room for problems. Few appeared, and they were small - the loose insulation, a broken TV camera switch, smudged front windows and the formation of an 'ice tree' near the ship's tail from excess water dumped overboard.
The astronauts reported seeing construction debris drifting from their new ship's cargo hold. Weitz described it as 'lot of little bits and pieces of trash, old washers and what looks like some buttons off somebody's coat.'
Busy as they were, the four crewmen had time to admire the dazzling spectacle of Earth below.
'The consensus up here is that we heartily recommend this for everybody,' Weitz, looking at the blue-and-white Earth below, told spacecraft communicator Dick Covey in the Houston control center.
'Everything's going tickety-boo so far.'
Challenger's flawless launch at 1:30 p.m. EST put an end to 2 months of delays, caused by a series of engine leak problems, that turned the five-day, $266 million mission into a critical effort to put America's orbital freighter program back on track.
Challenger lifted off under a bright sun and cloudless skies - perfect weather to draw 'birdwatchers.'
Among those watching from the ground was Jean Loup Chretien, 44, a French pilot who in 1982 spent nine days aboard Russia's Salyut-7 orbital station as the first Westerner to fly a Soviet space mission.