For the Edwards community who has been actively involved in NASA’s Space Shuttle program since flight testing began in the 1970’s, it was a bittersweet day when Space Shuttle Endeavour arrived one last time Sept. 20, piggy-backed on NASA’s Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.
When the SCA departed the following morning to deliver Space Shuttle Endeavour to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, Calif., it was an appropriate ending to an epic chapter in American and aviation history that happens to be very personal for so many at Edwards.
While Team Edwards gathered around the base to watch the historic arrival and takeoff, unaccompanied Airmen living in the dorms and family members of deployed spouses had the rare opportunity to get up close to the SCA and Space Shuttle Endeavour.
“I enjoyed being a part of something bigger than me, to look up at something that was actually in space and realize the countless hours and effort that went into putting that in motion. That’s what really moved me,” said Airman Michael Day, 412th Communications Squadron. “It was cool to see such an iconic piece of history.”
For the young Airman, the opportunity to see Space Shuttle Endeavour up close reminded Day of how he was inspired as a child watching the space shuttle with his family.
“I remember growing up and watching various shuttle take offs and landings with my grandma and wanting to do that. She always told me to do my best and I can be whatever it is I wanted to be; even an astronaut,” said Day.
Just as Airman Day continues to be captivated by the shuttle program, people from all over the world have marveled at the country’s space program from 1981 to 2011.
While the world looked on in amazement, the Edwards community continued working with NASA to flight test the space shuttle and subsequently functioned as a critical support system when Edwards was picked as the primary alternate landing site.
Programs throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s such as the North American X-15, Northrop HL-10, X-24A and X-24B, tested hypersonic flight; lifting body designs and aerodynamic characteristics; manned atmospheric re-entry and the ability to land a piloted aircraft with no power on a conventional runway.
The first major milestone for the shuttle program at Edwards occurred Aug. 12, 1977 when the Space Shuttle Enterprise successfully launched from the back of the Boeing 747 SCA and landed on Rogers Dry Lake. After four more tests, Edwards personnel had successfully demonstrated the reliability of the shuttle for routine approach and landings.
“Testing was done at Edwards that proved the concept that a space shuttle orbiter could return to Earth, manned and land on a conventional runway,” said Dr. Joseph Mason, Air Force Test Center Chief Historian. “That testing was done at Edwards and it was largely done in cooperation between NASA and the Air Force”.
According to Dr. Mason, the first four missions flown by the orbiter were flight test missions with landings at Edwards. Although the Enterprise was the first full-scale shuttle, it never went into orbit.
It landed on the dry lakebed and then the runway. After that, the first four or so shuttle missions with Columbia were essentially flight test missions for the program and it demonstrated the systems would work.
April 14, 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia successfully completed its first orbital mission and touched down on Rogers Dry Lake. It was the first time in history that an orbital vehicle returned to Earth on wings.
One of the early test missions was flown by Joe Engle, who had flown earlier missions in the X-15, earning his astronaut wings for reaching altitudes in excess of 50 miles.
When flight test concluded, Edwards then stepped up to function as an alternate landing site. When the program finally wrapped up in 2011, 54 shuttle landings occurred at Edwards.
“Joe Engle flew one of those early test missions of the shuttle to Edwards, flying it manually. After the concept had been demonstrated, most landings occurred at Kennedy Space Center and Edwards then served as an alternate location when the weather was bad,” said Mason.
“Not only were the shuttles assembled in the Antelope Valley at Air Force Plant 42 by Rockwell Collins, Edwards was significant in terms of test and development, proving the shuttle’s capability. We were key to both development and operations,” he continued.
As Space Shuttle Endeavour passed over the latest Air Force programs, such as the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II, it offered the community time to reflect on their achievements and instrumental role in the program, but more than that, it provided an opportunity to look towards the future.
“I think it’s significant that personnel at NASA and Edwards who were a key part of this program can see this shuttle on the way to its final resting place,” said Mason.
It may have been bittersweet for the Edwards community to watch the shuttle depart the base for one last time Sept. 21, but it’s only a matter of time before the testing begins on the next generation of the nation’s space program. It’s a time for ingenuity and creativity to create a new program that meets today’s challenges.
“This was such a great experience to see the Space Shuttle Endeavour, but I am really excited to see the innovation of the next generation as we continue moving forward and into the future,” said Day.