The space shuttle Discovery swooped gracefully back to Earth on Monday, cheered on by more than 400,000 spectators who convened at this Mojave Desert base to witness a poignant moment in aviation history.
The wheels of Discovery touched down evenly at 9:37 a.m., kicking up small clouds of dust. As a taped rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” boomed from public address speakers, the gleaming white spaceship and its five-man crew coasted for nearly a minute down a wide runway cut in the bed of Rogers Dry Lake.
“Welcome back,” capsule communicator Blaine Hammond told the astronauts from NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston as the craft came to a stop. “A great ending to a new beginning.”
First Since Explosion
The flawless landing brought to a close the United States’ first manned spaceflight since the Challenger exploded shortly after launch on Jan. 28, 1986, killing its crew of seven.
“I want you to remember what this flight meant to America,” said mission specialist David C. Hilmers, who like his four Discovery companions--commander Frederick H. Hauck, Richard O. Covey, George D. Nelson and John M. Lounge--was a shuttle veteran. “I want you to remember what America can do when it pulls together and works for a goal. I want you to remember how hard a setback we had and how we can bounce back from adversity. I want you to remember that America should continue to have dreams,” Hilmers said at a post-landing ceremony.
Discovery’s four-day mission had been cast by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as a flight test of more than 600 changes made to the shuttle system during the 32-month grounding. From liftoff to landing, it unfolded with precision, blemished only by about 10 glitches, none critical. The primary technical objective, the deployment of a satellite to help monitor future shuttle flights, was accomplished within seven hours of blastoff Thursday.
In a broader context, the flight served as a salve for the wounded pride of the nation and its space program. It captured the country’s attention like few others, as demonstrated by the crush of spectators here.
Camped in Desert
Air Force officials estimated the crowd at 410,000, a number exceeded only by the fourth shuttle landing, which President Reagan and half a million others watched. Many who came to see Discovery land camped in the desert throughout the weekend, staking claim on the best vantage points.
Among the shuttle watchers was Vice President George Bush. The Republican candidate for President lent the imagery of campaign politics to the event, holding a large American flag as he posed for pictures with the Discovery crew and delivering the lengthiest address at a post-landing reception.
NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher defended the candidate’s presence, saying Bush had promised not “to talk about politics.” He said Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic standard-bearer, had not asked to attend the landing, nor was he invited.
For presidential candidate and common folk alike, the 19th shuttle landing here was a dazzling, if brief, air show.
The shuttle actually began its descent to Earth at 8:35 a.m. PST over the Indian Ocean. The craft flipped around to a face-forward position and then fired its thruster rockets to plunge from a 200-mile-high orbit down toward Earth’s atmosphere.
Discovery passed over Hawaii 20 minutes before landing and crossed the California coastline 12 minutes later, affording the crew a view that Hauck described via radio as “gorgeous.”
Minutes later, Discovery’s arrival over the Tehachapi Mountains bordering the Mojave was announced by two thunderous sonic booms, and the twin reports drew loud whoops from the crowd. The winged spacecraft came into view moments later as it made a steep, tight left turn over the desert and dropped rapidly toward Runway 17.
The ship, flying without power as a glider, descended smoothly through a sky traced with thin wisps of clouds.
“It looks real pretty,” mission control radioed the crew.
High Landing Speed
NASA officials described the landing as “hot.” Discovery was speeding at 206 knots when it touched down. Usually its landing speed is about 190 knots.
In the end, the throngs here had been rewarded for their patient stakeout with about two minutes of spectacle, and then the shuttle was on the ground far off in the desert and surrounded by a convoy of service vehicles. No one seemed to complain.
“It was a thrill,” said 29-year-old Randy Hawkes, who with his wife brought three toddlers to watch the landing. He had held his 2-year-old Joshua aloft to witness the descent.
“It felt good to know we are back in space,” said Hawkes, a computer operator who lives near here.
Bush, who in 1986 had flown to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to console the kin of Challenger’s crew, watched the landing beside legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager. It was Yeager who, four decades ago and over this same air base, became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound.
“It was great, a great day for America,” Bush told reporters after the craft touched down.
Presented With Flag
Then he was whisked out to the spacecraft to welcome the crew members as they descended from a portable stairway. Hauck presented the vice president with a large American flag that had been given to him for the occasion by a member of the ground crew here after touchdown.
Bush stood beside the astronauts, posing for an assortment of group pictures, and then was taken on a personal tour of Discovery’s underbelly by Hauck.
Later, in his prepared remarks at the crew reception, Bush thanked the astronauts: “You’ve proven that the space program is stronger than ever and more supported than ever. You’ve shown that the shuttle is a strong old bird and that it could--and should--fly again.”
In their post-landing comments, crew members and NASA administrators alike pounded hard on the theme of recovery from the Challenger abyss.
“I think this really signals an awakening and a new beginning for us in an endeavor that this nation is committed to, that it must do to maintain its leadership in the world,” Nelson said. “We certainly look forward to being a small part of that.”
‘A Long, Hard Road’
Fletcher, who headed NASA during the last days of the Apollo program and was brought back from retirement after Challenger, noted at a press conference that “it’s been a long, hard road for the country and for NASA and for everybody involved in the program. We are just glad this mission went so well and we are very happy to be back.”
Adm. Richard H. Truly, a former astronaut who now serves as NASA’s associate administrator for manned spaceflight, said: “We are going to have to make sure we do the same thing on the second flight, and the third flight, and the fourth flight and all the flights in the future. We really have a good thing going for us now.”
The Discovery, which is scheduled to be ferried back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday, appeared to come through the flight virtually unscathed. Truly said only a handful of the vital protective heat tiles were damaged during re-entry.
In addition, Arnold Aldrich, director of the shuttle system, said none of the hundreds of fixes NASA had applied to the spacecraft during the long downtime had brought any unpleasant surprises.
Brakes Look Good
He said the revamped brake system, like the booster rockets, appeared after initial inspection to be “in very good shape.”
“We saw no problem that I am aware of in any system related at all to the many changes we had made,” Aldrich said.
The most nagging glitch during the flight involved a cabin ventilation system, which acted up shortly after launch and briefly in re-entry. The net effect was that the temperature was kept in the 80s for a portion of the flight.
Truly said that “only 10 minor things were even being tracked as potential anomalies” during the mission.
Discovery was still cooling on the lake bed when NASA’s top officials began to field questions about what sort of future awaited the shuttle program. Even without Challenger, the program had been criticized as costly and lacking a clear direction, and the criticism hit a higher pitch during the long suspension of flight.
Task Force Assigned
Though pleased with the first effort, the officials conceded that it would take several more missions before the shuttle would be seen as routine and safe. A task force has been assigned to evaluate when, if ever, everyday Americans like Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher who was aboard the Challenger, will be allowed to fly.
“I believe this nation is going to have the shuttle as the backbone of space transportation well into the next century,” Truly said. ". . . The shuttle is booked up. We have got a lot of work. I think our challenge is to safely, reliably and in the manner we did this flight build the flight rate up so that we can meet this challenge. There is no lack of need for it.”
Truly, however, cautioned that accidents could be expected to happen again and said the space agency and nation must be prepared to bounce back quickly from them.
“I think that as long as this country is a country we are going to be in space,” Truly said, ". . . and sooner or later, just like the airplane business, if this horizon lasts 20, 50, a hundred more years, sooner or later you are going to have accidents.”