This April, it has been 33 years since the first re-usable space vehicle successfully returned to Earth on the wings of an aircraft.
It was April 14, 1981, and that vehicle, which landed on the Rogers Dry Lakebed, was the Space Shuttle Columbia. An estimated 400,000 spectators came to Edwards Air Force Base to witness the event first-hand, and for those who could not be there, the landing was televised.
According to astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen, who piloted the rocket-powered spacecraft, “For those of us who love flight, using wings for our trips to space represents an achievement almost beyond belief, a dream come true.”
What Crippen and Young believed was that the Columbia had demonstrated “beyond any reasonable doubt” the capability for re-usable space vehicles to “revolutionize operations in space.”
Cheryl Middleton, 412th Test Wing Public Affairs systems Analyst, lived in base housing at the time of Space Shuttle Columbia’s first landing. Her husband was serving as a captain in the Air Force, her son attended one of the base schools and she worked as a volunteer in the Family Support Center.
“There were people coming from everywhere,” said Middleton. “I totally remember it for the overwhelming pride that took over me and everyone around me. And the joy and excitement and awe that we collectively felt when we saw that little speck first and said, ‘Is that it? Is that it? That’s it!'”
Middleton described the moment as “completely unforgettable” with crowds of people all “madly” waving their flags.
“It was one of the few experiences I’ve ever had where you know everyone around you is feeling the same thing. That’s very overpowering, that’s wonderful to say the least. We just stood there and I didn’t want to leave.”
Middleton attended almost every shuttle landing at Edwards after that and the experience “never got old.”
But, the event did not happen without years of planning and preparation at NASA with considerable involvement from the Air Force Flight Test Center. In 1976, The AFFTC’s Office of Advanced Manned Vehicles was established to evaluate and support three programs: Space Shuttle Evaluation; Shuttle Support; and the X-24C Lifting Body Program.
Many of the elite group of 12 engineers and technicians had worked on the evaluation of the X-15 rocket aircraft in the 1960s and a series of “lifting body” research vehicles including the M2, HL-10, X-24A and X-24B.
According to the Air Force Flight Test Center History Office, The Office of Advanced Manned Vehicles was “responsible for evaluating the shuttle’s performance, handling qualities, stability derivatives, aerothermodynamics and thermal protection system, guidance and navigation and other subsystems during the shuttle’s nearly hour-long descent from space.”
At the landing, over 500 AFFTC personnel were required to support in astronaut rescue and recovery, medical support, lakebed fire and rescue operations, ground security, weather information, photography and public affairs.
The Shuttle Support manager at the time, once stated that “range, rescue and Security” were the Test Center’s three major areas of concern. Prior to Columbia’s flight, the base personnel participated in a simulated run-through to ensure that everyone was able to carry out their necessary function at the landing.
“I was working as a contractor at the (then new) Ridley Mission Control Center for STS-1, 2 and 3. Since these were orbiter flight test missions, we provided 24-hour coverage of each mission from launch until landing,” said George†Grimshaw,†who still works for NASA†Armstrong Flight Research Center and served as†Shuttle Landing and Recovery manager for the last four years of the program.†”I was a technician in the telemetry ground station in room 142 at Ridley. I worked the 1600 – 0430 shift during STS-1.
As Columbia made it’s pass over California, we received the composite†telemetry signal from buildings 5790 and 5780 on base. Using computer systems and frequency modulated discriminators we reduced the TM signal into individual data parameters, and routed them to strip chart recorders in the mission control rooms for Air Force Engineers to monitor.”
Grimshaw said he didn’t get to witness the landing firsthand because he had to work his normal shift that day.
“Both of my grandmothers were visiting my family at the time and we watched the landing on TV at home in California City. We heard the double-boom as Columbia approached Edwards, but could not see the orbiter from our house. We did not try to drive out to Edwards to watch the landing because of the traffic and crowds that had gathered on and off base,” he said.
“There were still people and traffic everywhere on the way to work, especially on Rosamond Blvd. across from the Mate-Demate Device and the Dryden area. From this part of Rosamond Blvd. there was a great view of Columbia out on Lakebed Runway 23, undergoing post-flight ops in preparation for tow to the MDD. It was amazing to see.”
When it landed, Columbia had orbited Earth 36 times at supersonic speed under its own power. But it was not the shuttle’s first trip to Edwards. The first trip on March 8, 1979 was a 38-mile trek on a trailer from the Rockwell International Manufacturing Plant in Palmdale, Calif., travelling 5-10 miles per hour.
The second arrival was not so simple.
When the shuttle passed over the Indian Ocean, during the 36th orbit, both orbital maneuvering system engines were fired. The engine burn time was 155 seconds and the spacecraft began to decelerate at 297 feet per second. Following the de-orbit burn, the pilots preformed a pitch-around maneuver to establish entry attitude and the spacecraft began re-entry at around 400,000 feet.
At that altitude, the pilots reported, “We could see yellow-orange flashes from the reaction control system thruster firings reflecting from the rear of the spaceship.”
Upon landing, Columbia was towed from the lakebed to the (former) NASA Dryden Flight Research Center where it was mated with its specially modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft. On April 27, 1981, the shuttle departed from the main runway at Edwards to return to NASA’s Kennedy Space Station in Florida.
The shuttle’s departure did not attract the attention that the arrival did, with a crowd of less than 100 people. The shuttle, which just two weeks prior attracted nearly 2000 media representatives, only brought out around 50 media personnel on its departure from Edwards.
Its next landing, Nov. 14 of that same year, validated the premise for the space shuttle flight test program that “manned space vehicles could be launched, safely landed and launched again.”
The shuttle Columbia was one of four proposed space transportation system vehicles, each of which were designed to perform at least 100 flights during their operational service.
While there were still many questions unanswered, the first flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia, marked a new era in the U.S. space program.
“It was a beautiful sight, the sight of how it landed, that thing that hardly had any wings and didn’t have an engine,” said Middleton. “I don’t remember the weather … I don’t remember any of that, I remember only the incredible engulfing excitement and anticipation and the wonderfulness of it landing.”