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Hobbes wrote:

The Shuttle was designed for things NASA rarely or never used: [...] The ability to retrieve satellites from orbit was used a few times, but not as often as envisioned.

I wasn't aware that ability was ever used. I know the Shuttle was used in a few repair missions, and possibly it could deorbit (burn) some satellites, but I never heard about it picking a satellite from the orbit and landing it.

What satellites were retrieved and why?

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  • $\begingroup$ Long Duration Exposure Facility was one example. $\endgroup$ – pericynthion May 2 '16 at 7:03
  • $\begingroup$ Question on definitions here. There were many missions when the Shuttle deployed a free-flyer and retrieved it for landing on the same mission. If you include those, the list is much longer. Examples: SPAS (several missions), TSS (1 mission retrieved), Wakeshield (2 missions). $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble May 2 '16 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble: Okay, but not entirely the same thing. What I'm finding most challenging in case of these retrievals - especially for satellites not launched by the shuttle - is how they managed the moorings for the cargo, which was out there in space, and all they had on the ground were blueprints. When nowadays a batch of new trains can't fit into platforms of stations, I really wonder how it went back then. $\endgroup$ – SF. May 2 '16 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ It didn't go well in many cases. They designed adapters on the ground based on blueprints, and then when they got in space, they didn't fit, which led to improvisation. Like an unscheduled 3 man eva to manually grab the damn thing. nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/archives/… $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble May 2 '16 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ ....which was later used as a plot device in the TV show JAG, Season 1, Episode 19 (imdb.com/title/tt0613338), available on Amazon Prime Video, in which the fictional grappling device was sabotaged so they had to get three guys out there to wrestle the satellite into the shuttle cargo bay - They used actual footage. $\endgroup$ – SDsolar Dec 8 '17 at 2:01
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From this list:

STS-41-C (launch) / STS-32R (retrieve): LDEF
STS-41-B (launch) / STS-51-A (retrieve): Palapa B-2 and Westar 6
STS-46 (launch) / STS-57 (retrieve): EURECA
H-II Test Vehicle 3 (launch) / STS-72 (retrieve): Space Flyer Unit

That's fewer than I expected. There were some on-orbit repairs where the satellite was redeployed after the repair.


Let me supply the "why" part from what I found --SF.

LDEF from NASA was more of a container than a satellite in the classic sense; its purpose was to expose a multitude of material samples to space for a long time; recovery was necessary to perform analysis of the samples and how they fared in space.

Both Palapa B-2 and Westar 6 were commercial communication satellites, that ended up in wrong, useless orbits through their boosters misfiring. They were recovered for refurbishing, resold to other parties and put in orbit again, where they serve just fine. (in case of Palapa insurance reasons might have played a role, but I'm not exactly clear as to, how).

EURECA was an European unmanned laboratory, many of its experiments involving material engineering (also, biology). It was recovered to collect the results (products) of the experiments and to be refurbished and resupplied with a new batch of experiments for relaunch (which never happened).

Space Flyer Unit was another laboratory, this time launched by Japan, but containing experiments valuable to NASA and American organizations and corporations. It contained some material engineering related experiments, and one biology-related (hatching an egg). Retrieval of products of the experiments was required.

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    $\begingroup$ What about Solar Max? $\endgroup$ – geoffc May 2 '16 at 19:15
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    $\begingroup$ Solar Max was repaired on-orbit and released. This list only contains the satellites that were brought back from orbit. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes May 2 '16 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ Intelsat 603 was another in orbit repair. $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble May 2 '16 at 21:38

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