It’s Nov 14, 1981, and aboard Columbia, we should have three more days in orbit — if not for that fuel cell problem that occurred after launch two days ago, forcing us to shut down one of our three electricity-producing fuel cells. With that mission rules dictated a minimum mission of 54 hours. Even then, Houston held out the hope that if the mission proceeded smoothly on two cells, we might be extended day by day.
Then yesterday afternoon, as we ramped through a day-long exercise of the new Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS), our 50-ft.-long robot arm, we received a call from Capcom Sally Ride: “The bad news . . . We’re running a minimum mission, and you’ll be coming home tomorrow.”
We can’t help but express our disappointment. “OK, that’s not so good.” They’re not going to risk another fuel cell failure.
“Think of it [as] that you’ve got all the good OSTA data and all the RMS data, you just did too good a job, and we’re going to bring you in early,” Ride says.
And that’s true — we stayed up all the first night, deceiving Mission Control that we were asleep and ran tests of the arm and made data takes with the OSTA (Office of Space Terrestrial Applications) pallet of five earth-sensing experiments. Plus, damn it — we’re good. We’ve trained to perfection and prioritized our activity. With intensive effort, we’ll end up achieving 90 percent of the flight’s objectives. Oh, we don’t have time for a few things, such as a test donning of the EVA suit to be used for spacewalks on future missions, but we’ve widened the Shuttle’s envelope, a major step towards bringing it operational.
At a price — to ourselves. Despite our smiling for the TV camera as we float about the aft flight deck where we control the robot arm, we’re fatigued. Not only enduring a lack of sleep, we’re dehydrated. Because of that fuel cell problem, excess hydrogen accumulated in our drinking water, which comes as a byproduct of the process. Hydrogen in drinking water? — it causes a gut reaction to spit it up. So we haven’t been drinking much water.
So maybe it’s good were coming home, I suppose. So we ready for a deorbit burn on orbit 36. The only doubt is cast by high winds at Edwards Air Force Base. We’d like land on the dry lakebed on runway 15, with the winds as they are, giving us a test of the Shuttle’s stability in a crosswind. But if those crosswinds are too high, we’ll come in on runway 23 and make a test of the Shuttle’s auto-land system. In any case a majority of the approach and landing will be on manual, as we’ll make about about 30 maneuvers exploring the stability of the Shuttle, how it responds to aerodynamic upsets. That’s what test piloting is all about.
We maneuver tail-first, top of the Shuttle toward the Earth, for the burn. Which comes while we’re out of communications over the Indian Ocean. We are go for the deorbit burn, a 2 min. 55 sec. firing of the twin Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines. Ignition and the burn goes perfectly — we’re 27 min. from Entry Interface, the point we first encounter the thin upper atmosphere.
We come into range of the Yarragadee station in Australia. “Columbia, Houston, through Yarragadee, over.”
“OK, Houston. Read you loud and clear. And the burn was good.”
“OK, that’s super. . . . One change to the plan. John’s last weather flight [John Young in the Shuttle Training Aircraft] indicated that crosswinds might be a little high. So we’re going to ask you to reselect to runway 23 as your prime runway.”
“Understand you want us to retarget to runway 23.” Easy to do with a quick computer command. We’re about 50 min. from landing.
Over Guam, we approach the 12-min. communications blackout. Houston gives a last call, “We’ll see you out of blackout. Looking forward to seeing you there.”
A light show flashes off our nose, like traveling down a neon tube, a dance of rainbow colors. Everything looking good, all three Auxiliary Power Units that power our hydraulics are up and running.
We come out of blackout, and 2 min. later acquire the Buckhorn, California tracking station, 14 min. until landing. We’re crossing the coastline, going through our test maneuvers, so smoothly it’s like slow motion.
We’re in contact and report, “The maneuvers have been going very good. The bird is really solid, a good solid bird all the way.”
“We love hearing it.”
We’re at 143,000 ft. Test maneuvers continuing.
Ten minutes to landing. We pass south of Bakersfield. Still at Mach 6.
Now 90,000 feet, range 74 mi. “Everything looking good onboard.”
Houston gives a last weather update. “You’ve got a very thin [cloud] layer at 25,000 [ft.]. The winds airborne are as briefed, and on the ground, 220 [compass heading] — 18 knots gusting to 24.”
We’re at 68,000 ft., finishing our test maneuvers. We’re a 75-ton glider, and not a good glider at that.
At 50,000 ft., we pass through Mach 1. Range — 27 mi. Houston calls, “You’re tracking right down the line.”
We’re approaching the HAC, the Heading Alignment Circle (or Cylinder). Imagine an invisible column with a radius of 20,000 ft. We sweep around its curve, use it as reference to align with the runway. We’re slightly below the glide slope, but not bad. We’re 9 mi. out, at 13,000 ft.
We’re holding a steep glide, nose down 19 degrees. Houston calls, “You have a go for auto-land”.
At 10,000 ft. we let the auto-land system take control which navigates by signals from a Microwave Landing System on the ground. We give it a test, another test in this flight of tests. At 2,000 ft., we take over manual for the landing.
Yet it’s all very familiar to us — from flying Enterprise on its 1977 landing tests and from all our flights here at Edwards. Indeed by habit we call to the Edwards tower, “Eddy tower, it’s Columbia rolling out on high final. I’ll call the gear on the flair.” A little tribute to them.
They respond, “Roger, Columbia. You’re cleared number one. Call your gear.”
We flair, nose high. . . .One minute to landing, 3,500 ft altitude . . . 2,500 ft. Speed brakes are closed — unneeded due to the high head winds. Gear down.
T-38 chase planes are escorting us. They call our final distances for the main gear to touchdown: “Fifty (ft.) . . . 30 . . . 20 . . . 10 . . . 5 . . . 3. Touchdown.”
A smooth one. Now we let the nose slowly drop, as Chase calls, “Nosegear — 15 . . . 10 . . . 10 . . . 5 . . . 3. Touchdown. Welcome home.”
“Thank you, Chase.”
We roll to stop. It’s 1:23 p.m. (PST). Welcome home, Columbia. For the second time. Welcome back after a flight of 2 days, 6 hrs., 13 min., 13 sec.
Despite all, we’ve done it. We’re Joe Engle — former X-15 pilot, backup Apollo 14 Lunar Module pilot bumped from Apollo 17 — and Dick Truly — astronaut for the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory (canceled 1n 1969) . . . and future Administrator of NASA.