WASHINGTON — Donald H. Peterson Sr., an astronaut who served on the maiden voyage of the space shuttle Challenger and performed a spacewalk to test the ability of repairing the vehicle while it orbited 170 miles above the Earth, died Sunday at his home in El Lago, Texas. He was 84.
An Air Force veteran, Mr. Peterson joined NASA’s astronaut corps in September 1969, two months after Neil Armstrong led the historic first landing on the moon. Fourteen years later, Mr. Peterson joined the crew of the sixth space shuttle mission — and Challenger’s first flight. (The shuttle exploded in 1986 while on its 10th mission.)
Soviet and American astronauts had conducted spacewalks since 1965, but the ability to exit the shuttle was an important step toward being able to perform repair and maintenance work on it. Mr. Peterson and fellow mission specialist Story Musgrave dressed in 250-pound white spacesuits with attached backpacks that allowed for greater mobility.
For about four hours, they appeared to move ‘‘like underwater swimmers’’ as the shuttle orbited the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour, the Washington Post reported.
The men were roped to the shuttle’s cargo bay while they tested their ability to carry a weighted bag and other tasks. During a test involving a handwinch, Mr. Peterson’s suit started to leak.
‘‘Story stopped what he was doing and came over,’’ Mr. Peterson recalled. ‘‘We were trying to check what was going on, and the seal popped back in place and the leak stopped.’’ They then finished the procedure.