“Even If It Was The Fifth”: Remembering America’s Fourth of July Space Adventures

Waving national flags, the STS-121 crew walks out to the launch pad on 4 July 2006 for the only U.S. crewed launch on Independence Day. Photo Credit: NASA

On the morning of 4 July 1982, a fast-moving black-and-white speck appeared on the horizon at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., bringing a pair of U.S. space explorers back to Earth after a week in orbit. Minutes later, at 9:09 a.m. PDT, shuttle Columbia and her crew—Commander Ken Mattingly and Pilot Hank Hartsfield—alighted on concrete Runway 22, becoming the first (and so far only) American human mission to land on Independence Day, this quintessentially U.S. holiday of remembrance.

Many other Americans would follow in Mattingly and Hartsfield’s footsteps, aboard five more missions—including the first shuttle-Mir docking flight in 1995—and more have since observed the day’s festivities from the lofty perch afforded by Mir and the International Space Station (ISS). Only one U.S. human mission has ever launched on 4 July and only one has ever landed on 4 July, but the holiday has been marked by a succession of Americans from a location far higher than even the members of the Second Continental Congress could possibly have imagined when they drafted the language of separation of the Thirteen Colonies way back in 1776.

Video Credit: NASA, via National Space Society (NSS)

The first Independence Day spent in orbit by U.S. astronauts began in a rather comical fashion. On 4 July 1982, Mattingly and Hartsfield were in the process of packing away their research hardware after seven days in orbit aboard Columbia. STS-4 had been a highly successful mission, the last of four Orbital Flight Tests (OFTs) of the shuttle. Among the research performed by Mattingly and Hartsfield were the first classified payload, flown on behalf of the Department of Defense.

“On one experiment, they had a classified checklist [and] because we didn’t have a secure comm link, we had the checklist divided up in sections that just had letter-names, like Bravo-Charlie, Tab-Charlie, Tab-Bravo, that they would call out,” recalled Hartsfield. Whenever the astronauts spoke to U.S. Air Force controllers at the Satellite Control Facility in Sunnyvale, Calif., they would be told, for example, to “Do Tab-Charlie”.

“We had a locker that we kept all the classified material,” said Hartsfield, “and it was padlocked, so once we got on orbit, we unlocked it and did what we had to do.” As the end of the mission neared, Hartsfield packed the remainder of the classified materials and secured the locker. He told Mattingly. “I got all the classified stuff put away. It’s all locked up.”

Columbia touches down at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on 4 July 1982, concluding the shuttle’s fourth and final Orbital Flight Test. Photo Credit: NASA

“Great!” replied Mattingly.

Half an hour later, Mission Control told them that the military staff at Sunnyvale wanted to talk to them. The Air Force controller asked them to “do Tab-November”.

The two astronauts looked at each other. What the hell was Tab-November?

STS-4 crewmen Hartsfield and Mattingly are greeted at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., by President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan on Independence Day, 4 July 1982. Photo Credit: NASA

Neither man could remember. The secretive nature of the military instruction and the lack of a secure communications link also meant they could not ask over the radio.

The only option was to reopen the classified locker and dig through all the materials to find the checklist. Eventually, after much searching, Hartsfield finally found the glossary entry for Tab-November.

It read: “Put everything away and secure it.”

On Independence Day, 4 July 1988, under the cover of darkness, Discovery begins her slow roll from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) towards Pad 39B for the STS-26 return to flight mission after the Challenger accident. Photo Credit: NASA

Mattingly and Hartsfield’s arrival in the California desert was being watched closely by President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan. And the crew had been briefed by NASA Administrator James Beggs and asked to think of some memorable words.

“We knew they had hyped-up the STS-4 mission, so that they wanted to make sure we landed on the Fourth of July,” Mattingly recalled. “It was in no uncertain terms that we were going to land on the Fourth of July, no matter what day we took off.

“Even if it was the fifth, we were going to land on the fourth,” he joked. “That meant, if you didn’t do any of your test mission, that’s okay, as long as you land on the fourth, because the president is going to be there. We thought that was kinda interesting!”

Only two shuttle flights have ever launched or landed on the Fourth of July. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace.

Fortunately, Columbia’s landing—the first on Edwards’ concrete Runway 22—occurred precisely on schedule. The shuttle alighted on the runway and Mattingly applied the brakes for 20 seconds to come to a smooth halt.

Now came his big challenge: How to welcome the Reagans inside the orbiter. He and Hartsfield considered putting up a notice, worded to the effect of Welcome to Columbia: Thirty minutes ago, this was in space.

But things did not go well. Right after wheelstop, Mattingly turned to Hartsfield.

Fluttering national flags, the STS-121 crew heads for the launch pad on Independence Day in 2006. Photo Credit: NASA

“I am not going to have somebody come up here and pull me outta this chair,” he said. “I’m going to give every ounce of strength I’ve got and get up on my own.”

Previous crews had returned to Earth, some feeling fine, others nauseous, and still more needed a gurney to carry them off the spacecraft for medical attention. That would not—and could not—happen with the president in attendance.

Mentally and physically ready to meet his commander-in-chief, Mattingly pushed himself upward out of his seat to disembark…and promptly thumped his head on the overhead instrument panel. “Now that,” quipped Hartsfield, “is very graceful!”

Video Credit: NASA, via National Space Society (NSS)

The two returning heroes composed themselves, Mattingly wiping away a few spots of blood. In the minutes before the shuttle’s hatch opened, they reacquainted themselves with their “Earth-legs”, then descended the steps to meet the Reagans.

Hartsfield, well known for his merciless sense of humor, was on top form that day. “If you do it like you did gettin’ out of your chair, you’ll go down the stairs and you’re going to fall down, so you need to have something to say,” he told Mattingly.

“Why don’t you just look up at the president and say ‘Mr. President, those are beautiful shoes’? Think you can get that right?”

Throughout the 30-year Space Shuttle era, six missions were in orbit on Independence Day. Of those six, just one (STS-121) launched on the holiday and another (STS-4) landed on the holiday. Photo Credit: NASA

Mattingly glared at him.

Twenty-four years later, on 4 July 2006, Discovery inadvertently became the only U.S. human space mission to launch on Independence Day. Aboard the shuttle that day, STS-121 Commander Steve Lindsey, Pilot Mark Kelly and Mission Specialists Mike Fossum, Lisa Nowak, Stephanie Wilson and Piers Sellers were flying the second return-to-flight test mission to the ISS, following February 2003’s tragic loss of Columbia.

They were also ferrying German astronaut Thomas Reiter uphill for the European Space Agency’s (ESA) first long-duration stay on the station. Walking out of their crew quarters that morning, Lindsey’s crew waved American flags, with the exception of Reiter who fluttered a German tricolor. “I don’t know if it was the German Fourth of July or not,” Lindsey quipped at the post-flight press conference.

Without further ado, they speared into a crystal-clear Florida sky at 2:55 p.m. EDT. “And liftoff of the Space Shuttle Discovery,” gushed the launch announcer, “returning to the space station, paving the way for future missions beyond.”

Those missions will undoubtedly see a future American crew launch or land on Independence Day, although as of now the feats of Mattingly and Hartsfield in 1982 and Lindsey et. al. in 2006 have not been repeated. That said, four other shuttle crews were in space over the holiday, including Columbia’s STS-50 in 1992 and STS-78 in 1996, both of which set records for the longest shuttle flight, as well as STS-71 in 1995, the first docking mission to Russia’s Mir space station, and STS-94 in 1997.

Three other U.S. astronauts—Norm Thagard, Shannon Lucid and Mike Foale—celebrated aboard Mir during their long increments in 1995, 1996 and 1997. And since 2001, there has been a U.S. presence on the ISS for each Independence Day. That year, Jim Voss and Susan Helms became the first Americans to celebrate the Fourth of July from the ISS.

Video Credit: NASA

And in 2010, for the first time, three U.S. astronauts—Tracy Caldwell-Dyson, Doug Wheelock and Shannon Walker—observed the holiday from the sprawling orbital complex. Later Independence Day ISS occupants included Chris Cassidy, who ran a “Four on the Fourth” road race on the space station’s treadmill in 2013, whilst his crewmate Karen Nyberg presented cookies she had iced in the colors of the U.S. flag.

This year, with Expedition 71’s Matt Dominick, Mike Barratt, Jeanette Epps and Tracy Dyson, plus Starliner Crew Flight Test (CFT) astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Suni Williams, aboard the ISS for the holiday, more Americans have been in space on Independence Day than at any other time since STS-121 in July 2006. And with human-carrying Artemis missions on the horizon, it cannot be too many more years before America’s day of reflection is celebrated from the surface of the Moon and eventually Mars.

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