The landing of the
Space Shuttle Columbia on April 14, 1981, at NASA's Dryden Flight
Research Center, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., capped what was
perhaps the greatest test flight in history.
That first space shuttle flight was a test flight designed to
minimize the risks of flying such a novel spacecraft; the world's
first reusable space vehicle. Three more test flights followed,
becoming progressively more complex in order to develop and
demonstrate the new spacecraft's mission and payload
On the 25th anniversary of the mission, known as STS-1, NASA
Dryden's Space Shuttle Operations Support manager, Joe D'Agostino,
who was chief of Dryden's management support branch at the time,
remembers the 10:20 a.m. Pacific-time landing like it was
He remembers the masses of people from up and down the West
Coast who had begun lining up at the gates of Edwards the day
before the landing. Public interest in the flight of STS-1 was
great; the launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center just two days
prior had garnered wide coverage on TV, radio and print media, and
interest continued as Columbia orbited the earth.
A big campout began as NASA Dryden, Air Force and industry
employee families arrived first, early in the day before the
landing. Tents popped up everywhere. Campfires, bonfires, marsh
mellows roasting, Bar-B-Qs toasting, the whole thing.
"In addition to our employees and those of Rockwell, people of
the Antelope Valley who saw shuttle Columbia towed down the streets
of Lancaster on the way to Dryden for the ferry flight to Kennedy
now came out to see it return from space," D'Agostino says.
"It was a real personal thing."
The big moment of truth for Air Force and NASA Dryden officials
began in earnest when the Air Force opened the gates at midnight,
allowing the general public to swarm into the vast desert air base,
headed for an area set aside for public viewing of the anticipated
Extensive planning and choreography had been accomplished, and
now the fruit of many labors required for the multiplied thousands
of guests would be tested. The big unknown for D'Agostino and the
NASA security staff, as well as for the Air Force, was just how
many public visitors to expect.
By necessity, they had opened the east shore of Rogers Dry Lake,
the shuttle's landing site, for the first time, raising the
question of how to keep the viewing public safely away from the
runways marked out on the lakebed proper. Campers and RVs arrived
by the hundreds, growing into the thousands.
"There has never been so many RVs in one place at one time,"
The crowds numbered well over 200,000 people, with some
estimates as high as 300,000 visitors who thronged the lakebed
D'Agostino and many other NASA and Air Force employees did not
sleep that night, as there was too much to be done. Adrenaline and
excitement would have prevented it anyway.
In addition to the public masses, media from around the country
and around the world gathered amid the growing anticipation. Radio
and TV trucks of all shapes and sizes rolled in from everywhere.
Reporters, photographers, and videographers came to record the
Most Dryden employees not directly supporting Space Shuttle
landing and recovery operations were assigned to parking and crowd
safety duties. D'Agostino and his staff, like everyone at Dryden,
had to contend with these and other duties beyond primary
assignments for the mission. Post-landing astronaut escort duties,
photo and video support, and transportation required attention as
well. There wasn't a down minute for days afterward.
Dr. James Young, chief historian of the Air Force Flight Test
Center at Edwards, was at one of the viewing sites and remembers
the landing well.
"I'll never forget it," he recalled. "My brother-in-law had
recently been to the Super Bowl and told me 'it was a happening'
when I asked what the experience was like. Well, the STS-1 landing
was a happening!"
"You just had to be there to hear, even feel, the double crack
of the sonic boom," Young added. "It was such a tremendous sense of
excitement to see something never seen before, to witness such an
STS-1 was a great success as a test flight, especially
considering that it was the first manned American spacecraft flown
without a prior unmanned test flight. In addition, it marked the
first time that solid fuel rockets were used for a U.S. manned
launch. However, the spacecraft's first flight performance was
above and beyond expectations.
In fact, during a 25th anniversary presentation for employees at
the Kennedy Space Center last week, STS-1 astronauts John Young and
Robert Crippen recalled that their biggest surprise on that first
test mission was that everything on Columbia worked as planned.
"It was a lot of hard work, but those of us who worked STS-1
took great pride in seeing it return safely from space," D'Agostino
The world watched as STS-1 opened a new era of spaceflight
following the end of the Apollo and Skylab programs. The flight was
not only a great triumph for NASA, it was also an event that
enriched the adventurous spirit of Americans and people the world