Astronaut Charles Gordon Fullerton passed away today, Wednesday, Aug. 21, at age 76. Colonel Fullerton was known for his career pioneering the space shuttle as one of its first test pilots, as well as his later career as a research pilot.
Fullerton’s Air Force career began in 1958. In 1964, he graduated from the service branch’s Aerospace Research Pilot School (ARPS). Following an assignment as a test pilot to the Bomber Operations Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, he was selected as a flight crew member for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program.
When the MOL program was canceled in 1969, NASA absorbed Fullerton—along with several other members of the program—into its hallowed ranks. He served on the support crews for the Apollo 14, 15, 16, and 17 missions.
His career as a space shuttle flier began in 1977, when he was assigned to pilot the Enterprise during Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) alongside Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise. Fullerton and Haise completed five flights during ALT, two “captive-active” (mated to the Shuttle Carrying Aircraft) and three in free flight. He and Haise helped pioneer shuttle landings, which were un-powered and had no “go around” capability.
In March 1982, Fullerton made his first space flight on Columbia during the STS-3 mission, partnered with mission commander Jack Lousma, a Skylab veteran. During this flight, the crew tested the shuttle’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS). The flight was also known as the only flight to land at Northrup Strip in White Sands, N.M., due to problematic weather at Edwards Air Force Base’s Rodgers Dry Lake.
In July 1985, Fullerton commanded the Space Shuttle Challenger on STS-51-F, which carried Spacelab 2. Fullerton flew the shuttle into a lower-than-normal orbit after sustaining a shutdown in the orbiter’s center engine. This was the shuttle program’s only Abort-to-Orbit (ATO) scenario. Despite this, Challenger spent seven days in space and successfully completed 127 orbits. Overall, he spent 382 hours in space.
After his spaceflights, Fullerton returned to being a research test pilot at Dryden Flight Research Center. He held over 16,000 hours in flight time. He received numerous accolades in his spaceflight and piloting career and had been inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, among many other honors. In 2007, he retired from NASA after spending 49 years as a research test pilot.
Fullerton suffered a debilitating stroke in 2009 that paralyzed a portion of his body. Last week, he was admitted to a hospice facility. He is survived by his wife, Marie, and two children.
He will be missed.
AmericaSpace will feature in in-depth article about C. Gordon Fullerton’s life and career in upcoming days.