Forty years ago: A Fourth-Of-July to remember

July 4, 1982: Astronauts T.K. Mattingly and Hank Hartsfield show off Columbia to President Reagan and the First Lady. The Shuttle had just completed its fourth and final test flight.


“Welcome back to Earth.  That was beautiful,” Capcom Brewster Shaw calls.  We’ve just rolled to stop at Edwards Air Force Base after a flight of 7 days, 1 hr., 9 min., 40 sec.  Yet our STS-4 mission is not yet complete.  That’s because we’ve glided to a stop on Independence Day, 1982.  And President Reagan is present in the viewing stands, along with the First Lady.  Our ceremonial mission has just begun.  And frankly your mission commander isn’t sure he’s up to it.  As we flew Columbia around the  “HAC,” the heading Alignment Circle, to line up to the runway, he felt a wave of vertigo.  He hung on, focusing on the displays.  And once on final approach, the vertigo eased.  Still, he’d hate to fall down the steps in front of the President.  

The flight we just concluded ended in near perfection.  Less than 4 hrs. before landing, we closed the payload bay doors without a hitch.   And prepared for the deorbit burn, a 2-min. firing of our twin Orbital Maneuvering Engines over the Indian Ocean on our 112th circuit of the Earth, a hour to landing.  Even during descent, we continued the testing which was the hallmark of our flight.  We conducted nine test maneuvers as Columbia swung through the four S turns that bleed off speed.  We increased the cross range envelope of the Shuttle to 581 mi., an ability alter the Shuttle’s track which is vital to the coming landing at the Kennedy Space Center.  And as planned, our Entry Interface, the point where the Shuttle first encounters the atmosphere, was altered closer to the landing point in order to see the effects slightly increased temperatures — 50 degrees F — on the vehicle’s heat protection system.  

When we came out of communications blackout, Houston radioed that we were slightly high on energy and slightly south of ground track.  Yet the onboard computers corrected all errors, and we could continue with our test maneuvers. 

We’d hoped to make the first landing in a crosswind, testing our stability in a side wind.  But winds were deemed too low.  Instead, we targeted for the first landing on a concrete runway, a kind of psychological barrier in itself.  Runway 22 is 300 ft. wide and 15,000 ft. long, about the size of the runway at the Kennedy Space Center where Shuttles will begin landing next year.  

After coming around the HAC, we lined up with the runway, on manual as we started down the glide slope.  Then switched, at about 10,000 altitude, to the automatic for a brief test of the autoland system.  At 2,500 ft., we took over manual.   We touch down on the runway about 3,000 ft. beyond the threshold.  Our main gear touched so gently we didn’t even feel it.  Finally realized it was time to bring the nose down.  New software dampened the touchiness of the controls, and so unlike the last landing, our nose came down smoothly.  We rolled to a centerline stop in 8,000 ft.  

It’s 9:11 a.m. (PDT); we’re  home.   In the four test flights, Columbia has flown nearly ten-million miles, the program achieving 95 percent of the test objectives. 

Now we must begin our ceremonial mission, exit the Shuttle and greet the President and First Lady at the bottom of the stairs.  And up here on the flight deck, our mission commander, to show he isn’t woozy, vaults out of his seat and bangs his forehead on the overhead.  It’s worthy of a joke:  If you fall at the President’s feet, compliment him on his shoes!

We bound down the steps without missing a step, shake hands with the President and receive a kiss from the First Lady.   We conduct them on a walk around of the Shuttle.  Nancy Reagan can’t resist touching the nose gear.  Who could?

The Shuttle Fourth-Of-July celebration is not over.  Two hours later, the new Shuttle atop the 747 carrier aircraft is ready to take off for the Kennedy Space Center, bound for its first flight early next year.  The President declares the Shuttle operational and gives the command:  “Challenger, you are free to take off now.”

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