Thursday, April 24, 2025

WELCOME to Wes Oleszewski's Space blog: Growing up with Spaceflight

The Home of the "GROWING UP WITH SPACEFLIGHT" book series


Some people got to experience America’s space program up-close and personal, hands-on, steeped in the excitement of the peaceful advancement of human civilization. 

The rest of us had to watch it on TV.

Hello. Wes Oleszewski here and this is my space blog where you'll find cool picture, fun facts and, of course, shameless self promotion of my books.
Get your copy HERE!


Growing Up With Spaceflight is a series of print books and e-books that looks back across the years at America's manned space program as seen through the eyes of a kid who went from being semi-interested child, to a rabid space-buff adolescent, to an adult standing in the footprints of the newsmen who brought us all into the world of NASA and spaceflight. That person is, of course, the author of this series of books is ... me... Wes Oleszewski. 

If you are seeking a "serious as Gene Kranz" telling of the history of United States manned spaceflight, these are NOT the books for you. If, however, you are looking to be taken back to your own childhood days of watching America's space program, you have indeed come to the right place.

The full series of "Growing Up With Spaceflight" was released beginning in early 2016 and links for obtaining your copy are published here.

The first of the six book series was "Apollo Part 1" simply because it was the first book completed. It was, of course be followed by "Apollo Part 2" because the universal law of books requires that you must follow a Part 1 with a Part 2. Next came "Skylab ASTP" followed by "Space Shuttle." Finally there was "Mercury" and at length, "Gemini."


The "Gemini" and Mercuyt" books in the series does something really spacial. Since the author was real busy flunking the third grade and then repeating that same grade during project Gemini and was too young to recall much about Mercury, his memories consist largely of looking out the classroom window, being hit with a ruler and being publicly chastised for cartooning while not doing his "work."  Thus, he needed help with bringing the Gemini era back to life. That is where those of YOU who also were growing up during Gemini came into the picture. Wes asked for those of you who wanted to share your personal memories of Gemini and Mercury with him to send them into him so he could publish them in the Gemini and Mercury volumes of Growing Up With Spaceflight. So those two volumes contain the memories of other space-buffs as well as those of the author. And some of your memories are REALLY cool.




ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Author W. Wes Oleszewski was born and raised in mid-Michigan and spent most of his life with an eye turned toward aviation and spaceflight with an occasional side-track toward the Great Lakes. Since 1990 he has authored 17 books on the subject of Great Lakes maritime history, specifically shipwrecks and lighthouses. 
                 Now he has turned his attention and writing talents toward spaceflight.
                Noted for his meticulous research, Oleszewski has a knack for weeding out the greatest of details from the most obscure events and then weaving those facts into the historical narratives which are his stories. His tales of actual events are real enough to thrill any reader while every story is technically correct and highly educational. Oleszewski feels that the only way to teach history in this age of computer and video games is through “narrative.” The final product of his efforts are captivating books that can be comfortably read and enjoyed by everyone from the eldest grandmother to the grade-school kid and future pilot, or historian.

                Born on the east side of Saginaw, Michigan in 1957, Wes Oleszewski attended public school in that city through grade nine, when his family moved to the town of Freeland, Michigan. In 1976 he graduated from Freeland High School and a year later entered the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona, Florida. Working his way through college by way of his own earned income alone, Oleszewski graduated in 1987 with a commercial pilot’s certificate, “multi-engine and instrument airplane” ratings as well as a B.S. Degree in Aeronautical Science. He has pursued a career as a professional pilot as well as one as an author. He holds an A.T.P. certificate and to date has filled more than three logbooks with flight time most of which being in airline category and jet aircraft. Recently he gave up the life of a professional aviator and now enjoys his job as a professional writer.













Monday, November 14, 2022

FINAL FLIGHT LLTV

 

Armstrong in the LLTV

With the coming 50th anniversary of the Apollo 17 mission it's important to note that the final flight of the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV) took place on December 13, 1972. The pilot was Gene Cernan.

I've seen TV documentaries that love to express how dangerous the LLTV aircraft were. Several talked about how the astronauts "hated it." Another said that it was so hazardous that NASA cancelled its use.

In fact I've talked to several Apollo moon-walkers who, when asked, said that this was a very useful training device. The proof of that is the fact that the LLTV was in use right up until the final Apollo lunar mission.

     



Monday, September 5, 2022

BE PREPARED FOR A ROLL-BACK


While everyone in the media is talking about the LH2 (Liquid Hydrogen) leak in the Space Launch System’s quick release connector, one small detail is somewhat overlooked.

When the current lunar launch window closes on Tuesday September 6, 2022, the certification date for the batteries in the vehicle command destruct system also expires. There is no way to re-certify the system at Launch Complex 39B because there is no access arm to that area of the booster. The only way to re-certify the system is by way of the access platforms in the VAB.

Thus, conjecture as to if or not the engineers need to construct some sort of weather shelter in order to service that leaky quick-disconnect in order to repair the LH2 leak at the launch pad is mooted unless they can get it all done and launch before the command destruct system expires.

Although the VAB provides plenty of shelter from Florida’s weather, the downside to a roll-back and repair indoors is that once the repair is finished there is no way to completely test the fix. The only way to test that fitting is to roll the vehicle all the way back out to Pad 39B where the LH2 can be fed into the system.

Additionally, although it has been discovered that the August 29 scrub caused by readings that one of the core stage’s RS25 engines was not being properly chilled was caused by a faulty sensor- it is important to point out that the KSC weather rules went red 16 minutes before the launch window opened. The weather continued in the red through most of the launch window. So, faulty sensor or not, the launch was scrubbed for weather before it ever got started.


 

Sunday, September 4, 2022

SLS... TROUBLED? OR JUST FLIGHT TEST?


The Space Launch System is on the pad... fueled and... scrubbed... twice.

To some arm-chair, self-proclaimed spaceflight experts this means that the whole thing is horribly troubled- a waste of money... as they peck feverishly away at their keyboards. After all, it disappointed nearly a million people who came to see it launch. And isn't that the whole point of this? 

Indeed to many myopic usernames on social media that is what the SLS/Artemis is... another Florida thrill-ride. You go there, tailgate at the causeway or along the river, and you get rewarded with big show. The sound of thunder as the vehicle rides a pillar of fire into the sky and out of sight.

And of course we have the SpaceX zealots who readily toss apples and oranges into the sky and call them the same thing. Surely Elon can do it better, and his massive rocket will be flying any day now. Never mind the fact that the sands at Boca Chica are mixed with both sea shells and stainless steel bits from that booster's development.

In fact the SLS/Artemis 1 launch is one and only one thing. It is an all-up FLIGHT TEST... period. 

Flight test is where you weed out those tiny weaknesses in the system. It is where you find those small buggy components that cost a lot of money to develop and now cost a lot of time to fix. Each can be frustration for the spacebuff to witness, but to the engineer each is simply a problem to be solved.

For those with history myopia, who scoff that Apollo never had such issues because everything was better then... I'd like to offer a look into the actual history. 

For example, AS-201 the first Saturn IB vehicle to be flown suffered from delays due to things such as mismarked electrical equipment and about 100 cables that were the wrong length being sent from Huntsville. Then wet-test was glitched by LH2 refusing to flow from the ground storage tank. Worst of all were the countless breakdowns in the RCA 110A computers that controlled the entire system. When the vehicle's Instrument Unit (IU) arrived at the cape it had scores of issues. IBM engineers benched it in hangar AF and fixed most of the problems on-site before the IU was stacked. Yet still the RCA 110A was filled with glitches. The results were months of launch delay.

Apollo 4, the first all-up Saturn V launch was delayed repeatedly while on the pad. First it was assorted computer issues. Then a monitoring system for propellant loading failed and a total of 1.9 million liters of propellants and LOX had to be drained from the vehicle. Problems in a gaseous helium regulator caused a delay and later a defective battery heater in the S-II caused a delay. In total there was a 17-day delay in what was only an Earth orbital mission. Had Apollo 4 been a Lunar mission, the individual  delays would have added up to several months as the Lunar launch windows came and went.

Of course you'll now say, "Oh sure, but that was long ago before they really knew how to do this and it was a new rocket. The SLS is made out of leftover Shuttle parts."

Wrong. The SLS is a new vehicle. The only true leftover shuttle parts are the four RS-25 core stage engines. Sure we have plenty of experience with LH2 handling, but it is still tricky stuff, especially when used in the quantities needed for the SLS. This launch will be the firing of the most powerful rocket ever launched by the United States. 

Take the delays- and get it right. Let's go to the Moon.



 

Saturday, April 23, 2022

LEVEL IT.

 The following are excerpts from Wes Oleszewski's book "Growing up with Spaceflight, Apollo Part Two" It is protected by copyright 2015 Wes Oleszewski, no part may be reused without the author's permission- publication here does not imply such permission.


APOLLO 16

I’M GONNA TELL ‘EM YER’ NUTS


Saturday’s EVA started around noon and to my delight all three networks were covering the events a bit more completely, probably due to the fact that weekend daytime programming was easier to pre-empt than the weekday programming. Also to my approval was the fact that my entire family was now gone to the Civic Center and the rodeo. As Mom worked in the concession stand and Dad sold programs little brother and sister wore cowboy hats and tried to look western… I guess. Such big events only came to the arena a few times each year and, again, that one month delay of the Apollo 16 mission back in January had worked out to my advantage. While my kin folk were away playing cowboy, I was at home watching the moonwalkers and playing Descartes Highlands on our living room carpet— life was as it should be for a space-buff.

EVA number two saw the crew making the maximum use of the LRV as they headed uphill toward South Ray crater. The crater itself was not the objective of the excursion, instead they were to stop at points where the rays from the crater crossed their path and sample those areas. It did not take long to conclude that these bright rays consisted mostly of large blocks thrown out by the impact that created South Ray itself. Through the day there was clearly more TV coverage than there had been on Friday. CBS even kept with the mission as the crew drove between sampling stations 5 and 6 and then again between 6 and 8 while the camera on the LRV was turned off. The slopes were steep, the blocks were big and often fractured. Finally, upon returning to the landing site with a 10 minute EVA extension, the crew got some additional ALSEP work done before getting back into the LEM. Both the crew and Mission Control were highly satisfied with the EVA and I was a great deal more satisfied with the TV coverage- at least there were no soap operas involved.

Following the second EVA I went to bed with the hum of the lunar communications background noise echoing in my ears. The next day’s EVA would be the last for this mission and would take the crew up the steep side of North Ray crater and right up to the rim. I tried to imagine how amazing it must be for them to be inside the LEM at that same moment- looking forward to another adventure tomorrow morning. I wondered how they could possibly sleep.


“Hell,” I thought, “I’d have been up with my nose plastered to the LEM window if I were there.”

I could hardly sleep here on Earth just imagining the whole experience. What I did not know was that both John Young and Charlie Duke had climbed into their hammocks inside Orion and slept like someone had smacked them in the head with a hockey stick- they were exhausted.



Sunday’s EVA started at 10:25 in the morning Lexington Drive time. This traverse was scheduled to be two hours shorter than the first two EVAs in order to accommodate Orion’s lunar liftoff that was to take place at 8:26 pm. The abbreviated EVA was the result of the late landing, but everyone, including us space-buffs, knew that it was better to have that short EVA than to lose it completely like we had feared Thursday evening.

Once more, the rest of my family was down at the Civic Center at the rodeo and I had the house all to myself. Aside from a short bulletin stating that all was well, TV coverage of the EVA did not really begin until the crew got all the way up to station 11 on the rim of North Ray- nearly two hours after the EVA had started. Rats! Nothing to do until then, thus, I decided that my living room carpet was just not cutting it as a simulation of the Descartes Highlands. So, I went outside to make my own moonscape. Our above-ground pool had suffered some ice damage to the liner over the winter and my Dad had to take the pool down until we could get a new liner for the summer. Now our backyard had an 18-foot diameter sand pit where the pool was supposed to go. It was the perfect place for a lunatic 14-year-old to build a model of the Apollo 16 landing site.

After two days of watching the mission coverage I had a pretty fair idea of what the Descartes site looked like and I also had the image of the landing site that had been published in TV Guide; so I went to work. With my TV Guide at my knees I was almost done making my Descartes in the sand by the time the real EVA reached North Ray. I was busy sculpting that area when I heard a man’s voice speaking over the top of the stockade fence that surrounded our yard.



“What in the world are you doin’?” the voice asked.

It was my older cousin Tommy, who was a Saginaw City police officer. 


I told him I was making the Descartes Highlands where Apollo 16 was right now.

“Yer’ what?!” he exclaimed.

I explained that the astronauts were there right now.

“They’re right about here now.” I said pointing toward the southern slope of my version of North Ray crater.

He just shook his head, snickered and looking down, he said that my parents had asked him to drop by and check up on me.


“I’m gonna tell ‘em yer’ nuts,” he laughed.

 “Okay,” I just shrugged and agreed.

On the Saturday immediately following the Apollo 16 splashdown I was indeed forced from space-buff euphoria into the cold hard reality that Apollo 16 was really over. That was when my Dad discovered the moonscape that I had sculptured out of the spot where our backyard pool was supposed to reside. 

I was handed a rake and ordered to “level it.”

My Dad had a saying that, “The mess you make is the mess you clean up.”

He shot that one at me.

“It’s not a mess,” I told him, “it’s the Descartes Highlands of the Moon.”

Without missing a beat Dad replied,

“The Moon you make is the Moon you clean up.”



You can find Wes' complete and detailed account of Apollo 14 through 17 in his book Growing up with Spaceflight Apollo Part Two HERE or on Amazon


Thursday, April 21, 2022

APOLLO 16: 50 YEARS AGO TODAY, APRIL 21, 1972

 

The following is an excerpt from Wes Oleszewski's book "Growing up with Spaceflight, Apollo Part Two" It is protected by copyright 2015 Wes Oleszewski, no part may be reused without the author's permission- publication here does not imply such permission.

Few people can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on a specific date in time... let along a half century ago. Well, this is where I was and what I was doing an April 21, 1972...



APOLLO 16

THANK GOODNESS THE RODEO IS IN TOWN


Coasting toward the Moon, Apollo 16 was, again, making it look easy. Those of us on the earth saw very little of the transit between the Earth and the Moon as the big networks simply did not find it worth their time on the evening news. Still, the mission continued to unfold in my favor as each critical event just fell right into place on my calendar. Lunar orbit was entered on Wednesday, April 19th and the lunar landing was scheduled to take place on Thursday afternoon at 3:41 Eastern time with the first EVA scheduled to begin that same day at 7:19 in the evening. The second EVA was scheduled to start at 5:44 Friday Evening and the final EVA was set for Saturday evening at 5:17 followed by lunar liftoff at 4:34 Sunday afternoon. An issue with the CSM TVC would cause a delay in the PDI, and reshuffle the EVA schedule. Yet, this all worked for me because my folks would give me Thursday off of school for the landing and the rest of the events fell into a good place for me for one big reason... the rodeo was in town!

Okay, so you may be asking yourself, “Rodeo? In mid-Michigan? How the heck does that fit into Apollo 16?” The fact is that I have about zero interest in rodeos or anything associated with them and the same was true in April of 1972. My parents, however, at that time both worked at the newly opened Saginaw Civic Center and the rodeo coming to town was a huge event for the arena. Mom and Dad were going to be completely occupied from early in the morning until late in the evening working at the Civic Center from Wednesday until Sunday. Mom worked the commissary and Dad huckstered programs- they made a good deal of extra money over and above Dad’s full-time job as a railroad engineer for the C&O. The best part was that on Saturday and Sunday, they were taking my brother and sister with them. They would both get cowboy hats, and I would get Apollo 16! So it was that on Friday April 21, 1972 the scheduled first EVA for Apollo 16 was mine alone at home to enjoy and tape record.

In order to make up for the power used in the near six hour delay prior to PDI, the crew had been directed by Mission Control to execute an extensive power-down. Following that, the orders were for the astronauts to go to sleep. The entire lunar activity schedule was being re-written on the spot and the first EVA was now set to begin 11:30 am, Eastern time the following morning rather than taking place at 7:19 pm this evening as originally planned. Of course, the delay meant that the 7:19 time had already passed- so the first EVA’s start time was already moot. That rescheduling struck gold with me- now I had a reason to stay home from school on Friday too!

I did not even have to work at convincing my parents to give me the day off. As they dragged themselves in from working at the Civic Center, I simply told them that the EVA had been rescheduled to tomorrow morning. Mom simply yawned and said,

“Have fun on the Moon dear.”


APOLLO 16:

NOTHING COULD BE WORSE THAN A SPACE-BUFF THAT IS STUCK WATCHING SOAP OPERAS AND GAME SHOWS


Friday morning arrived and with my brother and sister gone to school and my folks gone to the Civic Center, I had the whole day by myself with nothing but continuous coverage of Apollo 16’s lunar EVAs on the TV… or so I thought.

NBC started their coverage at noon, but by then both astronauts were already on the surface and working after having popped the hatch at 11:47 am Sheridan Park time. There was no news coverage of John Young’s first step onto the lunar surface nine minutes later due to a failure in the LEM’s high-gain antenna. Without that antenna, no television could be transmitted, so no TV equated to no TV ratings and thus no TV interest from the network news producers. Young’s first words as he became the ninth human to set foot on the Moon and looked around were,

“There you are, our mysterious and unknown Descartes Highland plains. Apollo 16 is gonna change your image.”

Instead of Young’s historic first steps onto the lunar surface, what we here on earth got was a 60 second blurb of Roy Neil telling us that Young was on the surface and Duke was still “…inside the cabin…” In fact, listening carefully to the tape, Duke’s voice can be heard in the background telling Houston that he is, “…makin’ little footprints here…” which were some of his first words on the surface, thus Charlie Duke was also walking on the Moon at that moment. Roy Neil announced that TV pictures would be had as soon as the lunar rover was set up and its camera was turned on; that would be accomplished, “…in about an hour.”

“Okay,” I reasoned, “a break in coverage due to a high-gain antenna failure, I can see that.”

What I did not know was that the networks had decided to do away with the “gavel-to-gavel” coverage of the lunar EVAs, similar to that given to political conventions. So instead of being able to watch the moonwalks in an eight-hour marathon, as had been the case with Apollo 15, now we would get short segments inserted into regular programming. For daytime TV addicts it was probably a huge annoyance, for space-buffs it was a huge disappointment and another example of the networks turning their backs on Apollo and the peaceful advancement of human civilization in favor of game shows and soap operas.

Just before one o’clock the camera on the rover was activated and the networks cut into “Let’s make a Deal” “As the World Turns” and “Three On A Match” to show us the men walking on the lunar surface. Young and Duke were loading up the rover and obviously enjoying every moment of it. The pictures from the lunar surface were amazingly clear due to a new image enhancement process that NASA had contracted prior to the mission.


After the crew set up the American flag, both astronauts took their turn getting their photo taken standing next to it- at least that was what was in the mission plan. John Young went first and rather than standing there and giving a salute, he jumped straight up about two feet and saluted. Duke snapped one photo of his jumping commander and then Young jumped for a second shot. Next it was Charlie Duke’s turn to salute. As that was happening CAPCOM, scientist astronaut Tony England, called to report that he had good news. The United States House of Representatives had just passed the Space Budget by a vote of 277 to 60 and that budget included the funds for the Space Shuttle.

“Beautiful!” Both astronauts exclaimed.

“This country needs that Shuttle mighty bad,” Young added, “you’ll see.”

At that moment, John Young had no idea that he would command the first Shuttle mission nearly a decade later as well as the ninth mission two- and one-half years after that. Likewise, CAPCOM Tony England would go on to fly on the 19th Shuttle mission STS-51F as a mission specialist.

I spent the rest of the day busily spinning the rotary dial, switching between the three channels on our TV set, 5, 12 and 25, in the hope of being able to catch some coverage whenever whatever network saw fit to present it. Bringing out my black and white portable TV helped as I could leave it set on one channel and scan the other two with the big set. Still, it made for an aggravating afternoon- the worst part of which was having to watch the dribble that was being broadcast between the segments of EVA coverage. Nothing could be worse than a space-buff being stuck watching soap operas and game shows while a lunar EVA is in progress. Since the birth of humanity people have dreamed of walking upon the Moon and now, when it is finally happening, we got to watch soap operas.

I turned the sound off and began reciting my own dialogue to the shows,

“Doctor, he has a hangnail.”

“Quick, prep him for surgery, we’ll have to remove his gonads.”

“But Doctor…”

“Don’t argue with me nurse, I’ve had six months of medical ROTC.”





The details of the EVAs I've saved in my book, "Growing up with Spaceflight- Apollo Part Two" which you can get on Amazon or get autographed at www.authorwes.com


Wednesday, March 30, 2022

STS-3: The "wheelie landing"

 The following is an excerpt from my book "Growing up with Spaceflight- The Space Shuttle" and is protected by copyright 2015. No portion of this text may be reproduced in any form.


DTOs AND THE MYTH OF THE “WHEELIE LANDING”

Officially NASA's objectives for the STS-3 mission were to "Demonstrate ascent, on orbit, and entry performance under conditions more demanding than STS-2 conditions. Extend orbital flight duration.

Many of the experiments carried aboard STS-3 were listed as Detailed Test Objectives, or DTOs. For the full schedule duration of the mission the two-man crew worked at systematically completing their DTOs. Finally, on the mission’s last scheduled day the two astronauts suited up, closed the payload bay doors and prepared for reentry. The final set of DTOs would involve the reentry and landing.

Heavy rains in California had wetted the normally dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base until the surface was "the consistency of Cream of Wheat." The flight test nature of the STS-3 mission dictated that the landing was to be conducted on a dry lake if at all possible. At this point in the Shuttle program the runway at KSC was untried. In fact, only one Shuttle orbiter, the ENTERPRISE, had made a landing on a concrete runway and that was a single landing made at Edwards back in 1977 during the ALT. NASA was simply not ready to allow the Shuttle to land on the confines of the concrete runway yet. Oddly, that lone runway landing had been made by a two-man crew, the PLT of which had been Gordon Fullerton. That fact aside, NASA had elected, two weeks prior to the STS-3 launch, to land on the dry lake at White Sands, New Mexico. Unfortunately, on the scheduled landing day, an occasional, but classic sandstorm suddenly blew up and brought with it severe turbulence, low visibility and drifts of gypsum powder across the runway. STS-3’s landing was waved off for 24 hours.

Dawn the following day at White Sands revealed absolutely perfect weather for the landing. This segment of the mission was scheduled to be test piloting to the greatest degree as the final DTOs would be accomplished. Jack Lousma was required to test the auto-land system to a point far beyond normal operation and far beyond any previous flight. He was to take over manually at scheduled points during the entry and put in some small control inputs such as forward stick to neutral stick to back stick than to neutral again, all at one second intervals. Then he was to reach up on the glare shield and punch the button that would activate the auto-land. In each of these cases the crew was to note how the auto-land responded. Lousma estimated that he did this procedure about 10 times. Interlaced with that series of tests, a similar test sequence was performed in the roll axis as well as with the body flap. The same exercise had been performed in the simulator numerous times, but what the crew of STS-3 was to discover was that the simulator and the actual orbiter did not perform alike at some points.

In addition to the auto-land response DTO, the crew also was scheduled to test the auto-land all the way down the flight path, nearly to the ground. It is worth making a note at this point in the story that the computer’s auto-land software had not yet been written for the final flare, touchdown and rollout. The auto-land software had only been written to the point of intercept of the inner glide slope. For those of you reading who have not flown high performance or heavy aircraft, that sort of an approach may sound like a milk run, but in fact it is not. Most pilots of such aircraft would rather hand-fly it down. Personally, I prefer to hand-fly a turbo prop from about 10,000 feet down and a jet from 18,000 feet down. Every Shuttle pilot I have talked to feels the same way and would rather hand-fly as much as they can all the way down. But in the case of STS-3, Jack Lousma’s DTO was to ring out the auto-land, and so he did.

CDR Lousma executed the testing through reentry and the switchovers appeared to be normal. Then, as directed by the mission profile, he engaged the auto-land at 12,000 feet on the outer glide slope. At that time the Shuttle approach PAPI, a series of lights located beside the runway that gives the pilot visual information concerning his glide slope, indicated two red and two white on a 19-degree glide slope and on center line.

"That was the last time I saw a stabilized airspeed,” Lousma recalled, “although the automatic system controlled OGS (Outer Glide Slope) well, including the transition from OGS to IGS (Inner Glide Slope)."

Unexpectedly the auto-land system made a slight right roll correction, probably to nullify the effect of a right crosswind at that altitude. Then the crew felt the speed brakes close immediately. This was abnormal and allowed the orbiter to accelerate to 285 knots. These “speed brakes” consisted of the rudder splitting in half vertically and hydraulically extending out into the airflow symmetrically to each side and thus providing a high degree of drag. Normally in a hand-flown approach the Shuttle pilots use the speed brakes in degrees to manage the orbiter’s energy and blend airspeed and altitude. As the auto-land computer sensed the speed increase, it opened the speed brakes again to a greater than normal degree. Now the airspeed slowed to a speed which was below a software set-switch that would automatically fully close the speed brakes at 4,000 feet if the speed was too low. The speed brakes were not designed to move suddenly from highly open to fully closed and then back again, but that was what the auto-land was commanding. In this critical portion of the approach the auto-land was over-correcting the travel of the speed brakes. On a manual approach the crew would have closed the speed brakes at 2,500 feet to prevent them from cross-coupling with the pre-flare pull-up at 1,750 feet. On the STS-3 auto-land approach the computer commanded the speed brakes closed 1,500 feet early, which caused an acceleration prior to entering the pre-flare that was carried to the end of the pre-flare.

In short, the auto-land system was causing wide swings of the speed brakes during the most critical portion of the landing, rather than mimicking the inputs of a manual approach. It was later discovered that the software in the simulator that everyone had considered to be the mirror image of the software in the orbiter was not that at all.

As directed in the flight plan, Lousma took over manual control when the orbiter was stabilized on IGS. This took place between 200 and 150 feet AGL. As he took control, he noted that the controls “felt different” than they should at that point. The vehicle was carrying more airspeed than normal at that phase of flight. Although he was 5 knots over the gear deploy speed he called for the gear and Fullerton lowered the landing gear. It is important to note here, again for any non-pilots who may be reading this, that deployment of landing gear is normally dependent on speed and not the observations of persons on the ground or the proximity of the aircraft to that ground. In the case of STS-3, to people on the ground it appeared as if the gear had come down low and late. In fact, it was deployed somewhat early as the vehicle was 5 knots too fast.


Another result of the higher speed was that the touchdown point was now farther down the runway than desired. Like any good test pilot, Lousma negated the error by simply planting the aircraft on the runway. It is important here to also note one thing about the Shuttle that a lot of people do not understand. When rolling with all of their wheels on the ground the Shuttle orbiters had a negative Angle Of Attack (AOA). Thus, during the landing rollout after the main gear was on the ground and the vehicle began to slow the nose would drop through from a positive AOA, to a neutral and then to a negative AOA very rapidly. The pilot was required to compensate by consciously "flying" the nose down to the ground. Originally the orbiter’s nose gear had been designed with a longer strut to compensate for this characteristic, but a subsequent weight scrub had negated that idea. Lousma was well-prepared for this characteristic, but as COLUMBIA's main gear contacted the runway the nose immediately began to go down. The plan, however, had been for the CDR to hold nose up and perform aerodynamic braking from the point of touchdown until slowing to 165 knots. Instead, the COLUMBIA's nose gear was now headed toward the runway at 220 knots. Instinctively, Lousma made a quick pitch-up input with the rotational hand controller, but the nose continued down. He immediately entered a second input which was greeted with a rapid nose up response. He corrected by putting an additional nose down response and this time regained authority and the nose wheels were placed on the runway. The orbiter rolled to a stop 13,723 feet down the runway.

It was later discovered that there was a divergence in the longitudinal contrast software for the Shuttle’s landing configuration. That, combined with the additional speed that the auto-land system had left the orbiter with, conflicted with the gain setting in the software. This caused the fly-by-wire system to impose an abnormal delay between the pilot’s inputs into the hand controller and the movement of the control surfaces. In simpler terms, (engineers please forgive me for this simplification) the first stick input to counter the dropping of the nose was delayed because the software sensed that the orbiter was going too fast for such a command to be executed. Then when the second input was made the software added it to the first command and then that total was transmitted to the control surface which responded by commanding the total movement to the aerodynamic control surfaces. Lousma had nothing to do with this process other than making intuitive corrections. Had he done nothing, the nose gear would have hit the runway at 220 knots and may very well have been damaged or sheared off.

Of course, to the uninformed observer, such as most reporters in the TV news media and some present-day Internet "experts," it appeared as if Lousma had botched the landing. In one good example of this misconception CBS news’ reporter Terry Drinkwater hyperbolized on the evening news that day by reporting that this was;

"The Shuttle’s least perfect landing." He then went on to further to mindlessly exaggerate; "The landing gear is programmed to come down when the spacecraft slows to 311 miles per hour, (270 knots,) but when the speed finally dropped to that, the COLUMBIA was extremely low. There were only 5 seconds between wheels down and touchdown. Close! Next, as the nose seemed to be gently settling, suddenly it lifted again. Then apparent control, but the force of the forward speed and the weight on the nose gear was close to its tolerance." He added that this was likely caused by of a gust of wind or more likely a computer error, or pilot mistake."

Frankly, the only parts of that statement that were correct was the gear speed and the term “computer error”.

Thus began the myth of the "wheelie landing."

Some people then and now picture Jack Lousma in a state of embarrassment immediately after the landing of STS-3. In fact, quite the opposite is true. He was happy and excited and somewhat tickled that on this test flight, during the entry, approach and landing, the crew had uncovered a series of flaws in the auto-land system as well as the impact of those flaws on the software for the fly-by-wire system. Those problems could now be corrected so that future Shuttle pilots would not experience the same problems. That was the purpose of his flight: to test. It is also worth denoting the fact that on the previous two flights, as well as all of the ALT flights, the crews had only tested the auto-land for very brief periods of flight, and no one prior to STS-3 had tested it all the way down to the IGS, let alone exercised it as had been done by the STS-3 crew. This was flight test at its best and the results improved future missions.

Yet, even as of this writing, four decades after STS-3, you can look on YouTube and find videos of the “wheelie landing.” And if you have a strong stomach, you can read the moronic comments about it left by people whose total flight experience extends no farther than their computer’s keyboard, and whose research into the event goes no farther than repeating the quips that others have posted. The same is sadly true of most Internet spaceflight forums and their self-certified Shuttle “experts.”