Forty years ago: Challenger completes first flight

April 9, 1983: Challenger rolls to a stop completing its maiden voyage, STS-6, escorted by a chase plane.


Wake up time, April 9, 1983, if you’ve actually slept much.  Only the sixth flight day of our “F Troop” mission, but homecoming day.  Believe me, it’s been a packed, exhausting flight.  And last night, computer alarms kept waking us.  They mark one of the few glitches, all minor, on a remarkably clean maiden voyage for Challenger.  And now we’re set to finish off with a landing at 1:53 p.m. EST.  If the weather cooperates.  High winds are blowing through the Mojave Desert at Edwards Air Force Base, California.  We press on toward closing those big payload bay doors.


We’re over the Indian Ocean on Challenger’s 80th orbit.  John Young flying the Shuttle Training Aircraft at Edwards is checking the wind gusts.

Houston tells us, “All systems are go.  A big crowd is waiting for your touchdown.”  John has deemed the winds and weather acceptable.

We are go.  We are P.J. Weitz in the commanders seat, Bo Bobko in the pilot’s seat to his left.  Seated behind him are mission specialists Don Peterson and Story Musgrave.   Except Story, camera in hand, isn’t seated.  He’s gonna conduct a little (unauthorized) Story Musgrave experiment:  Seeing if he can remain standing through entry.  After all, he says, a time might come where an emergency might dictate that that an astronaut move about the cabin to help a crewmate.  That’s Story Musgrave.

We’re in attitude, upside down, tail forward so the twin Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines can fire to slow us down.  At the last P. J. jokes, hey, you want to go around the Earth one more time?  No one is amused.  We’re ready to come home.

Shortly before 1 a.m. EST, we fire the engines while we’re out of contact with Houston, a burn of 2 min. 27 sec.  It comes off to perfection.  A few minutes later when we come in contact over the Yarragadee, Australia, station, P. J. tells Houston.  “It was a good burn.  Right down the pike, and smooth all the way.”

At 1:22 p.m. EST, half way between Guam and Hawaii, we hit Entry Interface.  That’s the point at 400,000 ft. when we touch the first tenuous strands of atmosphere.  A glow develops around Challenger’s nose when just three minutes later we enter communications blackout, which lasts 15 min.

As we cross the California coast, Houston calls, “You’re right on.”

We reply, “Everything loos good here. Couldn’t be better.”  Even with Story Musgrave standing up!

On our descent, Challenger’s computers control the “energy management,”  bleeding off our velocity in three wide S-turns.  The computers also command nine test maneuvers, testing various combinations of aero-surface positions.  After all, the Shuttle is still in its testing phase.  

At about 15,000 ft. altitude, we initiate a test of the new Heads-Up Display (HUD) that projects landing information superimposed in front of the cockpit windows, so that pilots don’t have to look down at their instruments.  We also maintain a scan of the instruments the old-fashioned way and rely primarily on that.   We’re headed for Runway 22, the concrete runway instead of he the dry lakebed and its long, open runways.  The lakebed is flooded with a few feet water after heavy winter rains.   

At 2,500 ft., we’re heading into strong winds.  We manually close the rudder speed-brake panels, not needed.  We’re told to use the near aim point of the runway, which has us gliding over a spit of dry land in the not-so dry lakebed.   

We’re flying into an 18-knot headwind and encounter a big gust . . . and sail right through it, rock-steady.  We touch down 2,026 ft. down the runway and roll 7,180 ft. to a stop.  P. J. calls, “Full halt.  F Troop prepare to dismount.”

Our adventure of 5 days, 2 hrs., 14 min., 26 sec. is over.  Challenger is ready to become the workhorse of an expanding Shuttle fleet.

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