‘Just Unreal What It Had Done’: 35 Years Since Columbia’s Third Orbital Mission (Part 2)

Like a flying brick, Columbia descends towards White Sands on 30 March 1982. This view was acquired from one of the NASA T-38 jets, flying chase that morning. Photo Credit: NASA

Thirty-five years ago, in the final week of March 1982, Commander Jack Lousma and Pilot Gordon Fullerton flew Space Shuttle Columbia on her third orbital voyage. Originally intended to support seven days of operations—more than three times longer than her two previous missions—STS-3 was laden with a dedicated payload of research experiments, focused principally on solar and space sciences. The problems with STS-3 really came to light when the time neared for Lousma and Fullerton to return to Earth.


Video Credit: NASA

As outlined in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, Columbia was intended to land on Runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., the same dry lakebed as had previously greeted her two earlier crews in April and November 1981. However, unseasonal rain showers had left the dry lakebed under several inches of water. On 18 March 1982, four days before STS-3 was due to launch from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, NASA called up a backup landing site at White Sands in New Mexico’s Tularosa Valley. White Sands had near-perfect weather, all year round, but on 29 March 1982—the very day of Lousma and Fullerton’s scheduled landing—it was battered by its worst wind and sand storm in a quarter-century.

There was no option but to wave-off the landing attempt by 24 hours and hope for better conditions on the 30th. True to form, the following day, the situation had calmed and the astronauts were given the go-ahead to execute a de-orbit “burn” of Columbia’s engines, bound for a touchdown at White Sands. As the delta-winged shuttle descended, the view through the windows mirrored the effect of a blast furnace. “It was an early-morning landing,” Fullerton recalled, “meaning that the main part of the entry is at night.” The glow of ionized particles all around the vehicle was particularly striking. Continuing to fall, Columbia passed over Edwards Air Force Base, heading straight for New Mexico.

Director of Flight Crew Operations George Abbey (in suit) and STS-2 Commander Joe Engle (right) discuss the successful mission with Gordon Fullerton (left) and Jack Lousma after Columbia’s return. Photo Credit: NASA

At an altitude of 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), Lousma activated the experimental “autoland” system, which NASA hoped to use on later missions, before taking manual control at 500 feet (150 meters) for the final approach to White Sands’ Runway 17. Lousma was one of the few shuttle pilots who lacked test pilot credentials; he had been chosen by NASA as an astronaut in April 1966, having never been selected for either the Air Force school at Edwards or the Navy school at Patuxent River, Md. (Interestingly, Gene Cernan—the last man to set foot on the Moon—had no test piloting background, either.) “Jack’s a great guy,” remembered Fullerton. “He’s not a test pilot, but a very capable guy and a great guy to work with. I couldn’t have done better to have a partner to fly with.”

Flying the shuttle into White Sands and executing a manual landing was not the only worry. “The crews were very concerned that they had everything that they can at their control to make sure it goes well,” explained Arnold Aldrich, later head of the Space Shuttle Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., “and what they worried about was not that the autoland system wouldn’t fly the vehicle right, [but] if there was some glitch in the autoland system right at a critical point of approach and they had to take control back over.” Getting off the autoland and back onto manual control might pose dynamic problems which could not easily be handled in a timely fashion.

Astronaut Charlie Bolden, who had followed the development of the shuttle’s flight software, was also unhappy about using autoland so close to touchdown, especially on a test flight such as STS-3. “We developed the procedures that we would use for autoland,” he said in his NASA oral history, “how they would manually take over at the very last second and go ahead and land the vehicle. We recommended this was not a good thing to do. You’re asking a person who’s been in space to take over in this dynamic mode of flight and land the vehicle safely. Their physical gains, their mental gains, their balance; everything’s not there. Not a smart thing to do, but the decision was made that we really need to demonstrate this, so we’re only going to go to 500 feet anyway.”

It was decided, before launch, to use airspeed, rather than altitude, as a cue to deploy Columbia’s landing gear. The wheels began to lower about 100 feet (30 meters) above the runway, but took longer than anticipated; they were only fully locked into position a couple of seconds before the shuttle actually touched down. To observers, it was nail-biting to see the shuttle streaking in to land at 200 mph (320 km/h), with her gear still in the process of coming down.

Thankfully, the landing was successful, although NASA would revert to using altitude, rather than airspeed, as a cue on future missions. On STS-3, the effect was that Columbia touched down more than a half-mile (0.8 km) past the runway threshold and required Lousma to apply differential braking to keep the vehicle close to the centerline. Although the vertical impact velocity of both the Main Landing Gear (MLG) and Nose Landing Gear (NLG) were within mission rules, it was still far harsher than expected and caused a gash-like scrape in one of her tires, a cracked rotor in one of her brakes and extensive contamination by billowing gypsum dust.

Indeed, the dust literally saturated the spacecraft and caused extensive damage which was not fully resolved for the rest of Columbia’s career. “I flew it several flights later,” recounted Bolden, “on my first flight and when we got on orbit, there was still gypsum coming out of everything! They thought they had cleaned it, but it was just unreal what it had done!”

Columbia touches down at the mountain-ringed White Sands site in New Mexico on 30 March 1982. Photo Credit: NASA

STS-3’s exact landing time was 9:04 a.m. MST (11:04 a.m. EST) on White Sands’ dry lakebed Runway 17, setting a new shuttle record of eight days in orbit; twice as long as STS-1 and STS-2, combined. As the gypsum-coated vehicle sped down the strip, with her forward gear in the process of rotating down to the ground, the nose pitched unexpectedly back into the air. This gave observers a moment or two with hearts in throats.

Even the landing commentator’s calm, professional voice seemed laden with surprise as he counted down the number of feet to nose gear down and full weight on wheels: “Touchdown…Nose Gears…ten [feet]…five…four…three,” when all at once the nose sprang back up. He paused for a moment, repeated himself—“…Three….”—and then, when the nose finally jolted its way harshly down and slapped onto the runway, “Touchdown!”

The effect, as Gordon Fullerton would relate, was “a kind of wheelie”. The astronauts were trying to prevent what they thought might be a premature touchdown of the NLG. “It pointed out another flaw in the flight software,” he recalled in his NASA oral history. “The gains between the stick and the elevons, that were good for flying up in the air, were not good when the wheels were on the ground. [Jack] kinda planted it down, but then came back on the stick and the nose came up. A lot of people thought this is a terrible thing, but we improved the software and so people don’t do that anymore, but we discovered a susceptibility.”

In spite of concerns expressed by NASA managers at the time, STS-3 was a test flight and only the third voyage of the world’s most advanced spacecraft. The achievement was that the astronauts identified the problem before the shuttle became operational, and additional simulator runs by the STS-4 crew would use the 200-foot (60-meter) altitude mark, rather than airspeed, as their cue to deploy the landing gear.

Charlie Bolden watched the landing attentively. “Everything seemed to be going well until just seconds before touchdown, when all of a sudden we saw the vehicle kinda pitch up and then kinda hard-nose touchdown. We found out that, just as Jack Lousma had trained to do, you need to move [the stick] an appreciable amount [to disengage the autoland]. We didn’t realize that. The way he had trained was just to do a manual download with a stick. When he did that, he disengaged the roll axis on the shuttle, but he didn’t disengage the pitch axis, so the computer was still flying the pitch, although he was flying the roll. Gordon Fullerton just happened to look at the eyebrow lights and he noticed that he was still in auto in pitch. He told Jack and so Jack just kinda pulled back on the stick and it caused the vehicle to pitch up. Then he caught it and put it back down and he saved the vehicle.”

As servicing vehicles swarmed around Columbia, the spacecraft sat motionless on the runway, in Fullerton’s words, “surrounded by white gypsum”. So severe was the damage that the flow rate from the purge units attached to the forward fuselage had to be increased and the aft compartment’s vent doors were closed to prevent further contamination. In spite of the damage, Columbia was returned to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) by mid-April to be readied for her final test flight in June 1982.


This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the 25th anniversary of STS-45, an Earth-centered mission of research and discovery in March 1992.



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One Comment

  1. My Family was Watching the 3rd Landing Of Columbia, Still Marveling at Our New Space Plane..She seemed to be taking her Jolly Old Time and then my Dad Said, It’s Getting kind of Close for Main Gear to Deploy…and then rear geared kicked in, seemed like 29 feet….and 3 seconds later , the Front wheel was headed down …..then Wham (Gust of Wind ,gizmos, gremlins…the Nose wheels said Nah as we all Held our Collective Breathes and Watched Her Try One More Time to to Jump back into LEO…The Guys Flying that Day, It was end of their NASA Days..no More Flight Assignments, I Believe Good Story Ben

    David Paquette

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