The following is an excerpt from my book "Growing up with Spaceflight: The Space Shuttle." This material is copyright 2015 Wes Oleszewski and may not be reused, copied, redistributed, or reprinted in any form.
ENTERPRISE- AUGUST 12, 1977
It was just after 11:50 Michigan time on the humid morning of August 12, 1977 as the first Shuttle orbiter ever constructed sailed effortlessly through the sky over Edwards Air Force Base. My eyeballs were glued to my bedroom’s TV set and I don’t recall breathing during the entire flight. After just over two years without any hint of United States manned spaceflight, the space-buff in me had reawakened. There may even have been a few drops of drool on my bedroom floor in front of where I was seated. I had shut the entire world out as I teleported myself into that T-38 chase-plane whose TV camera was capturing the flight. Of course I wasn’t really there. You could tell because there were no nose prints on the canopy glass.
Two years earlier, at 5:18 pm Eastern time on July 24, 1975, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) came to an end when the Apollo Command Module splashed down. Unfortunately, during most of the two years following ASTP, very little was heard as far as progress on NASA’s next venture in space, the Space Shuttle, was concerned. Instead the media was garnished with sound bites and brief filler stories where only the Shuttle and space program critics had the stage and danced to the tune of the negativity that was their trademark. Their song was the myth that if the Shuttle was canceled “all of that money” being spent would be sent instead to whatever federal program they favored. Everyone from astronomer and hater of manned spaceflight Carl Sagan to congressional blow-hard William Proxmire got into the act. Indeed all would be right with civilization if only the Space Shuttle were to be cancelled.
However, just a year and a half after the ASTP, the orbiter test bed ENTERPRISE was flying at Edwards AFB on the back of the 747 carrier aircraft. At first, the media did not see this as much of a story, but by August 12, 1977, when the first free flight of the Approach and Landing Tests, (also known in spaceflight speak as “the ALT,”) took place the media came back, at least for the moment and so did many folks in America. Coverage began early in the morning and ABC News nearly covered the event from wheels up to wheels stop. After all, the network brass at that moment saw the Shuttle as new and somewhat exciting. TV rating points may be gained. For myself, the ALT blended both of my passions: aviation and space. The first ALT free flight took place just 14 days before I left home to attend the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida to begin my aviation career. Two weeks before I embarked on that adventure I would be introduced to the Space Shuttle and an orbiter by the name of ENTERPRISE.
To me as well as a lot of other space-buffs, somehow the Space Shuttle was pie-in-the-sky compared to what Apollo had been. After all, spaceflight had to be done with giant tall rockets and capsules, didn’t it? A big glider that was boosted piggy-back into orbit and then simply sailed back to Earth to land on a runway seemed to be more like science fiction. As far back as Apollo 15, in the summer of 1971, the makers of Tang were running commercials depicting the all fly-back version of the Space Shuttle. They were pressing the official NASA line that the Shuttle would be making its first spaceflights in 1978. Yet it all looked like something out of a bad movie about the future. All of that changed for me on the morning of the first ALT flight.
Leading the news on the morning of August 12, 1977, was not the news of the ENTERPRISE and the ALT. Although that was the largest story of the day, the lead story was the fact that the court had ordered New York City’s “Son of Sam” serial killer David Berkowitz to undergo psychological evaluation; gee, there’s a shocker. Oddly, in that same day’s local news, my cousin Paul was also featured because he had served in the Army with Berkowitz. Paul even displayed a baseball glove that the killer had loaned to him, but never reclaimed. The news then went back to national subjects and the ENTERPRISE.
Much to my personal delight all three networks were giving saturation coverage to the ALT in their morning news programs. All three had gotten their star spaceflight anchor crews out to the desert at Edwards Air Force Base to announce the event. CBS had stationed their long time space reporter Morton Dean to sit at a desk in the desert and broadcast the flight, aided by technical advisor Leo Crupp from Rockwell International, which had constructed the ENTERPRISE. Similarly, ABC’s Frank Reynolds and Jules Bergman also were in position. NBC, however, came up with a somewhat different angle on coverage. Of course, they had Roy Neal, a veteran TV space reporter who had been covering flights since the first Mercury missions, standing next to what looked like a night-stand that had been “borrowed” from his hotel room. That piece of furniture was now being used to hold up a model of the Shuttle and 747 carrier aircraft. But back in the NBC New York studios they had anchored the coverage with Jack Perkins, aided by a big-screen projection TV and seven “high school science students.” The premise being that if the ALT’s moment in history was to have any meaning at all, it would have the most meaning for the “youth of America.” A valid point considering that most adults in the country at that time were indifferent toward the Space Shuttle program, including those who were running NBC. In the end, after the ENTERPRISE had landed, and Jack Perkins asked what the students thought of the flight. Those “high school science students” mercifully contributed less than a minute of adolescent stammering and interjections that decades later still remain somewhat painful to listen to.
The mechanics of the ALT were fairly straightforward. Using a Boeing 747 aircraft that NASA had purchased from American Airlines and heavily modified to carry Shuttle orbiters on its back, the ENTERPRISE would be taken aloft and then released to glide down and land on the dry lake runway at Edwards. Of course nothing in NASA can ever be that simple. In the case of the ALT a great deal of data was to be obtained and thus a great deal of planning, organization and practice had been involved. There had to be check points and calls in the mission profile to ensure that absolutely everyone was at the exact same point, on the exact page, at the exact same moment. Even this straight forward drop-test would be handled by Mission Control in Houston and thus was treated more like a lunar landing than an unpowered flight test from the Right Stuff days at Edwards.
Aside from the actual flight testing and data crunching, there was also an element of “show” added to the first ALT. NASA had been under fire from the usual gang of spaceflight haters both in the government and in the media. Critics were constantly after NASA to prove that the Shuttle program was “worth it.” So, it became important to put the best public face on the ALT. Stylized tents for VIPs were erected where a good view of the runway could be had. Invitations to all sorts of guests who would be spaceflight friendly were sent out and huge numbers of cars and campers were allowed onto the base to witness the event.
ENTERPRISE crewmembers, astronauts Fred Haise, commander; and Gordon Fullerton, pilot; were not allowed to eat breakfast at home and then just come to work at the flight line. Instead they were corralled into a special room adorned with historic aerospace photos and a pot of flowers and made to eat the “astronaut’s breakfast” of steak and eggs in front of the cameras. Haise, the spaceflight veteran, just casually jumped through that traditional hoop; Fullerton appeared obviously uncomfortable. Of course the cameras then followed the crew all the way up the mate/de-mate structure’s ladder to the ENTERPRISE itself. Again, Haise waved and smiled; Fullerton appeared obviously uncomfortable.
AN EVOLUTION TO THE ERA OF LIMITS
NASA had the high hopes that this fairly simple mission would place a successful face on the Space Shuttle and that it would at least mute the critics for a short time. As the morning news shows signed off they announced their times for the start of their ALT coverage. Although the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) would release brakes for takeoff at 11:00 in the morning Eastern Time, the actual separation of the orbiter was planned for 45 to 50 minutes later. Thus, CBS and NBC would start their coverage at 11:30. ABC, however, would be starting their coverage with the SCA’s takeoff at 11:00. So I sat in my basement bedroom and glued myself to the local ABC station; WJRT channel 12 in Flint, Michigan. Cable TV was still five years into the future for my little farm town community of Freeland and I was forced to use an antenna to snag the signals out of the air. How primitive!
One of the little, lesser-known, facts about the departure of the SCA and ENTERPRISE is that when Haise and Fullerton were sitting in the cockpit, they could not see any hint of the huge 747 that was carrying them.
“It was kind of like riding a magic carpet ride,” Haise would later recall “You’re just moving along the ground and then you take off.”
Following the takeoff of the SCA and ENTERPRISE, the networks had little to do other than “fill” because the picture that was being broadcast from a NASA T-38 chase plane was simply the SCA, the orbiter and the other chase planes with blue sky and clouds as a backdrop. Thus there were clips of the “new” Shuttle EVA space suit, the “rescue ball” for emergency crew transfer, and the launch manifest. That manifest, it was said, would one day achieve 56 Shuttle flights per year! And finally there was the new type of astronauts called “Mission Specialists.” The jobs speculated for the Shuttle included building a solar power station in orbit that could beam back energy and one day provide as much as 25% of America’s electrical energy. Then there was the building of a space station to provide a permanent presence in space. Of course, only half of those predictions ever came true. ABC even filled several minutes with clips from “Buck Rogers,” “Star Trek” and the hit movie of the summer of 1977: “Star Wars.”
There also were the interviews with the politicians who were on hand to watch the event. Foremost among them was California Governor Jerry Brown. He had joined the 1976 presidential race on the motto that the United States was entering an “era of limits.” That tag line became his campaign motto as he lost in the primaries to Jimmy Carter, who then took on the same motto to a somewhat lesser degree. When Brown failed to be nominated, he held on to his “era of limits” ideal and took it with him back to California. The problem was that an era of limits directly conflicted with the concept of a Space Shuttle. Reporters were keen to stick a microphone in Brown’s face and pose that question. Considering that billions dollars in Space Shuttle funding were being sent to California and that state was set to hugely benefit from the program, the reporters were in the hope that Brown would squirm. Yet Brown, the pure politician, simply circle talked and turned the question on its heels.
Brown said that the Shuttle was, “…marking an evolution in the era of limits. The planet is limited and that’s why it’s so important that we expand beyond.”
Fortunately, Brown was speaking far from the ENTERPRISE’s touchdown zone, because if the aircraft had gotten some of that greasy slick stuff that he was spewing, onto its main landing gear it may have slid off the end of the 15,000 foot runway, or even off of the seven-mile-long dry lake.
GO FOR SEP.
While the mission climbed toward its designated release altitude, I am sure that most folks who were not directly involved with the Shuttle program had little clue as to just how complex the orbiter’s systems were. In Apollo, both the Lunar Module and the Command Module had computers to support their share of functions. Those computers combined had less computing power than a common calculator that grade school kids would carry in their backpacks 35 years later. The ENTERPRISE, however, had a set of five computers, four of which worked as redundant units controlling nearly every aspect of the vehicle. Yet a safe landing could be made with just one computer. The fifth computer acted as a back-up in case something happened to the four primary units. The orbiter’s fly-by-wire system that manipulated the aerodynamic control surfaces completely depended on those computers. In 1977, the use of computers to completely control anything, let alone a flight vehicle, was close to science fiction.
Reaching their pre-release altitude of 26,500 feet the SCA and orbiter were placed on their launch heading. At the controls of the 747, designated “905,” was the most experienced drop pilot on the planet: Fitz Fulton. Acting as his “co-pilot” was Tom McMurtry, who, with flight engineers Lou Guidry and Vic Horton, made up the rest of the crew. At the designated moment Fulton would “push over” into an eight degree dive and once the speed of 270 knots was reached the ENTERPRISE would be released by Fred Haise. CAPCOM “Bo” Bobco in Houston was working the flight with the ENTERPRISE crew with a snap and manner that made you think the vehicle really was coming back from space. Haise and Fulton, however, could not avoid a bit of Edwards test flight banter.
“Thanks for the lift, Fitz,” Haise casually quipped.
“You bet,” Fulton replied, “any time.”
Finally, the crew aboard 905 counted down the final seconds to pushover. They called the maneuver.
“Houston copies pushover,” Bobco dutifully replied.
Upon reaching 270 knots in the eight degree descent, Fulton called “Launch ready.” Almost simultaneously Haise hit the button and fired a series of explosive bolts that held the ENTERPRISE to the SCA. Separation took place at 22,800 feet; slightly higher than planned.
At the moment of separation, Fulton pulled 905’s throttles to flight idle and opened the speed brakes while banking. Aboard the ENTERPRISE, Haise was holding in a five degree, nose-up attitude command.
The two aircraft cleared one another nicely.
Also at the instant of separation, however, the orbiter’s Master Alarm went off. One of the four main computers, General Purpose Computer (GPC) number two, had dropped off line. Fullerton went through the procedure to isolate that GPC and the flight continued. This failure was later traced to a crack in a poorly soldered joint on the “queue” circuit board. The result was that the manufacturing method used to build those boards was later changed, as was the inspection process. Then all orbiters had their computers retro-fitted with boards made with the new process. THAT is what flight test is all about.
Haise’s first maneuver was to conduct a “practice landing” at altitude. In other words he put the orbiter into something similar to a pre-flare attitude and checked its handling. It handled fine, but on my TV set at home I kept hearing Haise and Fullerton talk about a “sideways lurch” being there. The “lurch” was the result of the pilots being seated substantially above the orbiter’s center of roll axes, as well as the short wingspan of the vehicle. When a roll input was placed into the controls, the nimble orbiter snapped into the roll and the seated pilots, rather than feeling rotation, instead felt as if they were being tossed sideways.
So sure were the engineers that this lurching event would be present that NASA had special vertical stabilizers added under the Shuttle Training Aircraft’s (STA) wings to help simulate the lurch. The STA was a modified Gulfstream II corporate jet whose controls and airframe had been altered to allow it to approach like a Shuttle orbiter.
Flying the ENTERPRISE, the crew found that the orbiter controlled very well. The orbiter was pitched down to an attitude that would maintain 207 knots of airspeed. Although the vehicle’s tail cone allowed it to pitch down less than the -22 degrees that would be needed for orbiters returning from space, the descent was still plenty steep. Haise quipped that it flew better than the STA. Houston, however, thought that they spotted a discrepancy. It was reported to the crew that it looked to Mission Control as if the ENTERPRISE’s lift to drag ratio (L/D) was “perhaps” slightly low, meaning the ENTERPRISE could come up short of the runway. Haise was cleared to start his base leg turn early to correct the problem. Fullerton, who was then at the controls, began the base turn, but Haise slowed him down. Eyeballing out the window and checking his own instruments, Haise knew that Houston was wrong and they were in fact high on the L/D. When he passed that thought to Mission Control, they quickly replied with an order to apply 30% speed brakes. Apparently, they saw that Haise was correct. A heartbeat later, Houston recommended 50% speed brakes. Houston’s misevaluation about the L/D and the early start of the base leg had actually added a bit of energy to the ENTERPRISE’s flight path. Haise's cool test pilots judgement had gone a long way toward preventing an embarrassing over-shoot.
Haise had plenty of landing surface to aim at on the dry lakebed; in the neighborhood of seven miles worth. So the little added energy did not bother him at all. He simply lined up and guided the ENTERPRISE down. Per the flight plan, the speed brakes were retracted at 2,000 feet above the ground as Fullerton armed the landing gear. Exactly 1,100 feet later, Haise entered into the pre-flare and raised the nose up from the dive-bomber descent to an easy -1.5 degrees approach angle. At an airspeed of 270 knots Haise commanded the gear down. Fullerton simultaneously pushed the landing gear deployment button. Planned gear-down speed had been 250 knots, but considering that Haise had picked up some extra energy in Houston’s botched L/D call, he used the gear deploy as an approved method for scrubbing off speed. The landing gear fully deployed at 265 knots, prompting its three cockpit indicators to go from a tiger-tail indication to the “DN” indication. Unexpectedly, there was no sound heard in the cockpit when the landing gear deployed, but the chase planes confirmed what the gear indicators had read. Haise guided the ENTERPRISE gently toward the runway, and with a bit of float, caused by the excess energy, the orbiter settled gently onto the runway.
I sat there stunned, gazing at my TV set with my mouth hanging open. The Shuttle was REAL. The darned thing could really fly like an airplane! It was the most fantastic thing I had seen in spaceflight since Conrad and Kerwin had deployed the SAS wing on Skylab.
Yet some in the mass media had a different outlook on the ALT. After all it had not flown like pair of pliers, as some had predicted, and there had been no spectacular crash, or unforeseen emergency. So the if-it-bleeds-it-leads news media simply began to shrug the day’s event off. Closing out his 26 minutes of live coverage on NBC, Jack Perkins finished with his mumbling group of “high school science students” and, in a hollow attempt to link the ALT to current pop-culture and the red-hot movie “Star Wars,” he looked into the camera and said that this means that,
“…today we’re a little closer to Wookies than we were yesterday.”
It was the most moronic statement made that day- including the babble from NBC’s high school science students.
Famed radio broadcaster Paul Harvey led his daily “News” broadcast with the flight of the ENTERPRISE and then in the same breath stated that this day was also the one in which,
“…a man in Oklahoma set a world record by throwing a cow chip 179 feet.”
So it was that August 12, 1977, would pass into the pages of history with the headlines of the day documenting a mass-murderer, the ALT and cow chip throwing.
At the time of the ALT missions, NASA’s Public Affairs Office had told the news media that they predicted the first Shuttle launch could take place in “the spring of 1979,” two years after the first ALT. Watching the event, it struck me that I would be down in Florida getting my degree in aviation during that time. NASA also predicted that flight rates would eventually reach more than one launch per week! Surely I would be there to witness some of that myself. It was a very exciting thought. Of course neither the folks in the news media, nor myself bothered to talk about that 1979 date with the folks at the National Space Technology Laboratory (later know as the Stennis Space Center) who were testing the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) during that time period. The SSMEs would not be de-bugged and flight capable at 100% rated thrust until the spring of 1980, and would not be flight ready at 104% until early 1981.
I also had no idea that the ENTERPRISE herself was far from being an orbital vehicle. In fact, she was in reality little more than an engineering test bed. Her SSMEs and RCS engines were mock-ups, as was her thermal protection system. Her mid-deck did not exist and there was no plumbing for operational SSMEs. Fiberglass made up a good deal of her components as well as her Orbital Maneuvering System pods. She was more of a flying mock-up than an actual orbiter. Yet, sitting there in Michigan that August morning in 1977, and watching the ENTERPRISE fly that first ALT, I was blissfully unaware of any of those shortcomings. All I saw was the future for me and the future for America’s space program. I immediately set to work building a small balsawood flying model of the ENTERPRISE. In a way, it became a metaphor for both my dreams of my immediate future in aviation and for the Shuttle program itself. That is because when it was done, I stored it in the hanging ceiling of my basement bedroom as I shipped off to college; over the years mice dragged it off into a corner and chewed it to pieces.
Much more about the ALT missions can be found in Wes' book.
You can get a signed and personalized copy HERE
You can get it in e-book or in print internationally HERE