STS-3 landing: The ‘wheelie’

Bring that nose down gently! The third flight of Columbia landed 40 years ago today, March 30, 1982, the only flight to land at White Sands, New Mexico.


OK, this time it’s for real — for you and me, and STS-3.  We are Jack Lousma in the commander seat and Gordo Fullerton in the pilot’s position.  And STS-3 is the third flight of Columbia.  And today is March 30, 1982.   Today we won’t have to resort to the backup landing site at the Kennedy Space Center.  It’s too early in the program to land on its three-mile long concrete runway.  KSC provides much less margin of error that the desert runways at White Sands, New Mexico, which sports two 6.6 mi. long runways in an X pattern.  That is, when not covered in a blinding sandstorm like yesterday, our planned landing day.  The runways have been graded and compacted overnight and are ready for our to return.  The weather is cooperating this morning.  The sand is staying on the ground and not in the air.

And we’re ready, everything button up again, and over the Indian Ocean on our 129th orbit, we burn our Orbital Maneuvering System engines for 2 min. 29 sec..  As we will be landing at about 9 a.m., local time, most of our descent will be through the earth’s nightside.   And after Entry Interface, the point where we encounter appreciable atmosphere, we get quite of show of ionized gases playing in bright detail against the darkness.   However, we also have a hard time keeping our eyes from glancing at a different kind of darkness, the spaces where white tiles are missing on the top of Columbia’s nose.  They shimmer with heat.  We’ve been assured the gaps present no problem.   And sure enough, they shimmer but do not burn.

We pass over the normal landing site, Edwards Air Force Base, California, it’s lakebed runways still muddy from heavy rains, and fly like an arrow for the mountains of New Mexico.

Everything going nominally, the white gypsum sands standing out ahead.  We come around the Heading Alignment Circle, that’s the imaginary circle we use like a compass face to line up perfectly for landing.  Usually, the Shuttle makes a sweeping left turn around the HAC, which gives the commander a good view of the runway.  Well, due to upper level winds, we make a right turn around the HAC.  Which means, pilot, you get the first view of the runway.  Call it out.  Coming in to Runway 17.

We’re on final now, and here’s where things start to go a bit haywire.  Since hitting 10,000 ft., we’ve been testing the autoland system, which is not ready to control the entire landing.   Hell, the software for that isn’t even complete.  So at 500 ft., we take over.  Which doesn’t give much time to gain a feel for the vehicle.  We’re basically taking over in the last seconds.  Not a bright idea in hindsight.  Plus we’re coming in fast.  The aerodynamic profiles fed into the autopilot are not, after just two flights, refined.  We’re we were on profile, but the autopilot closed the speed brakes — the panels of the vertical tail that split open as air brakes.

And that isn’t the end of it.  To assume manual control, all you do is push your hand controller.  Well, I guess you can pin this on the commander, who does push it, and manual control does appear to engage.  But unknown to us, only in the roll axis.  The pitch is still under autopilot.  Didn’t push pitch hard enough.  That’s gonna be important.

Yet more is going on.  We’ve got to lower the landing gear.  You can either use altitude or airspeed to determine when to do so.  We’re using airspeed.  And it will be the last time that’s done.  Because remember, we’re coming in fast.  We lower the gear at just 151 ft. — with an airspeed of 316 mph.   The gear locks in place a mere 2 sec. before main gear touchdown.

That was close — but we’re not home free.  The nose is still in the air, seeming to pitch down faster than it should.  Our intrepid pilot notices a little light indicating auto pitch.  Calls a warning.  Our very busy commander takes over manual.  The front gear is 2 ft. from hitting hard.  We raise it up to about 10 feet in what looks like a space-age wheelie.  Then bring her down, nice and easy.  Well, not so easy.  And roll out to a stop at 9:04 a.m. (MST), after a flight of 8 days, 4 min., 45 sec.

“Not my best landing.”

Well, you know the old line, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing.

And here’s another line for you:  Whoever says the Shuttle is going to be “operational” after just four test flights, that person flies a public relations desk and not this bird.

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