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Tue, Apr 11, 2006

Touchdown! Remembering The First Shuttle Flight From Space

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 capabilities.

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 yesterday.

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 history-making landing.

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," D'Agostino recalls.

The crowds numbered well over 200,000 people, with some estimates as high as 300,000 visitors who thronged the lakebed viewing site.

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 historic event.

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 historic event."

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 said.

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 over.

FMI: www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden

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