The space shuttle Discovery dropped out of a light blue sky and glided to a perfect landing on a wind-chilled desert runway Tuesday, ending seven days in orbit and setting several records.
Bucking a stiff head wind, commander Joe Engle brought Discovery down on the center line of the dirt runway at 6:16 a.m., nine minutes before sunrise.
Engle, pilot Richard O. Covey and mission specialists James D. van Hoften, William F. Fisher and John M. Lounge left the craft 46 minutes later, ending one of the most productive flights in the history of the shuttle program.
Earned $50 Million
The astronauts launched three communications satellites and rescued a fourth, and their mission earned more revenue 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, Calif., for the rescue of a Navy communications satellite.
The 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.
A crowd estimated at 3,400, the smallest ever to attend a scheduled shuttle landing at Edwards, waited in winds gusting at 24 m.p.h. to see the spacecraft touch down.
Yeager on Hand
Among them was a legendary figure at Edwards, Air Force Gen. Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier. Yeager was on hand to see Engle, one of his former lieutenants, land the shuttle. Engle was “in my outfit in 1958" at George Air Force Base, Yeager said, and the two men have been 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.”
Yeager, a member of the presidential commission that is charting the course for the U.S. space program for the next 20 years, said he would not mind taking a trip in the shuttle himself, but only if he could be at the controls.
“If I could fly the shuttle, that would be great, but I wouldn’t want to just lay in the back with the mission specialists,” he said.
Longest Space Walk
Two of the crewmen aboard the Discovery would probably take exception to that description of their responsibilities. Fisher and Van Hoften spent two days outside the orbiter repairing the disabled satellite. One of those excursions was the longest orbiting space walk in history.
This flight was the last scheduled for Discovery from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Future launches of Discovery will be from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central California coast, where a new spaceport is nearing completion.
“I fully expect to launch out of Vandenberg on the 20th of March” next year, Moore said.
The Discovery is the only member of the nation’s four-shuttle fleet that is to be based at Vandenberg.
The latest member of the fleet, the Atlantis, is in Florida being prepared for a Defense Department mission early next month.