In 1979, two years ahead of the first Space Shuttle flight, NASA picked a great white blotch of compacted salt and gypsum in New Mexico’s Tularosa Valley as a potential landing site for its up-and-coming fleet of reusable orbiters. It had long been planned for the shuttle’s primary end-of-mission landing sites to be Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., or the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, but the tertiary site of White Sands afforded year-round near-perfect weather and a vast runway with ample margins of safety. Four decades ago today, on 30 March 1982, the White Sands safety net was called upon for the first—and only—time in the shuttle’s history to support the return of Columbia from STS-3.
But the landing of STS-3, following the shuttle’s third Orbital Flight Test (OFT), was laden with drama and caused many a heart to leap into many a throat.
White Sands’ size and color make it virtually unobstructed and visible from space. It occupies a mountain-ringed region called “Alkali Flats” and was first used by Northrop Aviation in the 1940s to test military target-drones. It acquired the nickname of “Northrop Strip”, which became corrupted into “Northrup Strip”, following a typo on a press release. The new name stuck and by 1952 “Northrup” had become part of the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) with a pair of runways, each 6.6 miles (10.6 kilometers) long, crossing one another in an X shape.
The site was held in reserve during the first two missions of Columbia in 1981. And right up until the very end of the shuttle era in July 2011, White Sands remained on NASA’s list of contingency landing sites as commanders and pilots routinely honed their skills there. And although only STS-3 ever landed there, White Sands almost saw service a second time in December 2006 when Discovery’s STS-116 crew were temporarily thwarted in their efforts to land by poor weather at both Edwards and KSC. Ultimately, for STS-116 White Sands was never called up and the shuttle landed safely at Edwards.
Like STS-116, the crew of STS-3 were not supposed to land at White Sands at all. Launched on 22 March 1982, theirs was a planned seven-day flight to demonstrate the shuttle’s capabilities for scientific research. Commander Jack Lousma, a veteran of the second Skylab mission, and pilot Gordon Fullerton—who died in 2013—evaluated Columbia’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm and supported a multitude of payloads, from plant growth to space science.
But even before their launch, STS-3’s landing carried a big question mark. Officially, Lousma and Fullerton were set to touch down on the dry lakebed of Runway 23 at Edwards, but unseasonal rain showers had left it under several inches of water. Erring on the side of caution, NASA elected to call up White Sands as a backup, since KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) was not yet earmarked for routine shuttle landings.
But by an enormous stroke of cruel fortune, and despite having 90-percent year-round perfect weather, on 29 March 1982—the very day Lousma and Fullerton were due to come home—White Sands was assailed by its worst wind and sand storm in a quarter-century.
Based in New Mexico that day to support STS-3’s return was “rookie” astronaut Charlie Bolden, who recalled the effects of the storm in a NASA oral history. “This dust storm was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” he remembered. “It’s gypsum, and it’s very fine, like talcum powder. Everything was covered in plastic, the windows were sealed, but it didn’t make any difference. That was a hint that this was not a good place to land the shuttle.”
Early on 29 March, less than a half-hour before their deorbit “burn”, Lousma and Fullerton were advised that conditions at Edwards were unfavorable, as was White Sands. The mission was extended by 24 hours in the hope that the weather would improve. “We flew right over White Sands, with the nose pointing straight down,” Fullerton said later, “and I could see this monster storm going on there. It looked like it was headed for Texas.”
On the ground, Chief Astronaut John Young flew weather reconnaissance sorties over White Sands and reported that conditions were not optimum to land Columbia. Sand drifts had even blown into the public affairs area and gathered against buildings to a depth of 2 feet (60 centimeters). The runway got so eroded that road-graders were deployed to grade it, compact it and prepare it for a second landing attempt on 30 March. The wind, recalled one White Sands employee, did not quit until late on the evening of the 29th.
By daybreak the next morning, conditions were much improved and Columbia’s crew received the go-ahead to press into their deorbit preparations. But fate had one more hand to play on Lousma and Fullerton.
“It was an early morning landing,” Fullerton remembered, “meaning that the main part of the entry is at night.” The glow of ionized particles around Columbia during the fiery descent was particularly striking. Emerging from the high heating, the shuttle swept over Edwards Air Force Base, targeting landing in New Mexico.
At 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), Lousma activated an experimental “autoland” capability, which NASA hoped to use on later missions, before taking the stick at 500 feet (150 meters) for the final approach to White Sands’ Runway 17. He was one of few shuttle commanders to lack test piloting credentials, having never been selected for either the Air Force school at Edwards or the Navy school at Pax River, Md. But Fullerton had great faith in his skipper. “Jack’s a great guy,” he recalled. “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.”
But a manual landing at White Sands 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,” said Arnold Aldrich, former head of the 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 function and back onto manual control, it was feared, could pose dynamic problems which might not be easily recoverable in a timely manner.
Charlie Bolden, who had worked on autoland, was also unhappy about using it so close to touchdown, especially on a shuttle test flight. “We developed the procedures that we would use for autoland, how they would manually take over at the last second and go ahead and land the vehicle,” he said later. “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.”
However, it was decided to demonstrate autoland to an altitude of 500 feet (150 meters), after which Lousma would take over. He would 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. In fact, all six wheels were only firmly locked into position a couple seconds before touchdown. To observers on the ground, it was a frightful sight, as Columbia streaked in to land at over 200 mph (320 km/h) with her gear still in the midst of deploying.
The landing was successful, but on future missions NASA would revert to using altitude, rather than airspeed, as a cue to deploy the landing gear. The effect on STS-3 was that Columbia touched down more than a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) past the runway threshold and Lousma had to apply differential braking to keep close to the centerline. Although the vertical impact velocity of both the Main Landing Gear (MLG) and Nose Landing Gear (NLG) were within limits, it was a harsh touchdown that left a gash-like scrape in one of the shuttle’s tires, a cracked rotor in a brake and extensive gypsum contamination.
Landing came at 9:04 a.m. MST on White Sands’ Runway 17, setting a new shuttle mission duration record of eight days in orbit. Then, as Columbia raced down the strip, with her NLG in the process of rotating to the ground, the nose unexpectedly pitched back up into the air. It was another heart-in-throat moment for observers.
Even the landing commentator’s calm voice seemed laden with surprise as he counted down the number of feet to nose-gear touchdown and full weight-on-wheels. “Touchdown…Nose Gears…ten…five…four…three…” when, all at once, Columbia’s nose sprang back up. He paused for an instant, repeated himself—“…three…”—and then, when the NLG finally jolted harshly onto the runway surface, “Touchdown!”
The effect, as Fullerton later noted, was “a kind of wheelie”. The astronauts were trying to prevent what they thought might produce a premature NLG touchdown. “It pointed out another flaw in the flight software,” Fullerton said. “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. We discovered a susceptibility.”
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 that morning, 40 years ago, 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. Columbia went on to fly many more times before her untimely demise in February 2003. But it was said that when rescuers examined her shattered remains, years later, they still found traces of gypsum; a legacy of STS-3’s frightful landing.