The space shuttle Discovery dropped out of a light blue sky and glided to a perfect landing on a wind-chilled desert runway nine minutes before sunrise today, ending seven days in orbit and smashing several records.
The smallest crowd ever to watch a scheduled landing at Edwards braved frigid winds gusting to 24 m.p.h. to catch a quick glimpse of the spaceplane as it touched down at 6:16 a.m. Official estimates placed the number of spectators on this sprawling base at 3,400, a tiny gathering compared to the throngs that have witnessed past landings.
Discovery commander Joe Engle bucked a stiff head wind as he landed on the center line of the dirt runway. Engle, pilot Richard O. Covey and mission specialists James D. van Hoften, William F. Fisher and John Lounge climbed off the Discovery 46 minutes later, ending one of the most productive flights in the history of the shuttle program.
The astronauts launched three communications satellites and rescued a fourth, and their mission earned more revenues for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration than any of the other 19 shuttle flights--about $50 million. That includes $8.5 million that NASA will bill Hughes Communications of El Segundo for the rescue of a Navy communications satellite.
That income is less than half the cost of the flight, but “at least the revenues are beginning to inch up,” Jesse Moore, head of the shuttle program, said after the landing.
That record will fall in two months, Moore said, when the shuttle Challenger carries a German space lab into orbit, for which West Germany will pay $70 million.
Among the small turnout of spectators was a legendary figure at Edwards. Air Force Gen. Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, was on hand to see one of his former lieutenants land the shuttle. Engle, the Discovery commander, was “in my outfit in 1958" at George Air Force Base, Yeager said, and the two men have remained close friends ever since.
After watching the landing, Yeager said Engle was “one of the best,” but he said the event had not left him exactly overwhelmed.
“I don’t get too emotional about anything,” he said, “unless she’s good looking.”