Flight of the Enterprise: shuttle flight worthiness

On August 12, 1977, the shuttle Enterprise flew, on its own, for the first time.  In fact, it was the first manned flight of any of the shuttles.  It was the first of five glide flights that were conducted at Edwards Airforce Base in California.

Enterprise free flight Arriving at Dryden in January of 1977 from Rockwell International, the Enterprise began a series of eight captive-carry flights with five of them unmanned and three manned.  A captive-carry flight meant that the Enterprise was mated to the 747 transport plane.  The flights proved the aerodynamic and handling abilities of the mated craft as well as orbiter systems.  The flights cleared the way for the glide flights.

On the morning of August 12, 1977, around 65 thousand visitors, about 900 press and two thousand ‘special guests’ all gathered to watch the flight.  The Enterprise was crewed by Fred Haise and Gordon Fullerton.  The 747 was piloted by Fitz Fulton and Tom McMurtry.

At 8am, the 747 accelerated down the runway and lifted off with Enterprise mated to the aircraft.   The Enterprise was scheduled to separate from the 747 at 8:30, but conditions slowed the climb of the mated craft for nearly eighteen minutes.  At 8:48, pilot Fitz Fulton nosed the plane into a shallow dive.  Fred Haise radioed “The Enterprise is set; thanks for the lift.”  He then pressed the separation button which caused seven explosive bolts to fire, releasing Enterprise from the 747.

The airplane made a left turn while descending and Enterprise pitched to the right.  Enterprise was now in free flight.  Haise conducted several tests to see how the shuttle would respond.  He then began a 180 degree turn and then lined up with the runway. He kept up speed the extend the glide, but realized the the Enterprise was ‘high and hot’, it was going to land long.  Haise opened the speed brakes to slow down the Enterprise. 

Haise did successfully land the Enterprise.  The shuttle rolled across the lakebed for nearly two miles before it stopped.

Haise and Fullerton, along with Joe Engle and Richard Truly, made four more flights over the next two months. The flights not only proved the glide and landing abilities of the shuttle, they also provided important information about how the shuttle handled during low speed flight flight and landing.  The flights also helped to validate the digital fly-by-wire control system.

I was almost twelve years old when these test flights took place.  I still remember watching this first flight on television.  It was CBS, I think, that we watched that.  Being a Star Trek fanatic even then, I was quite pleased to see the REAL starship Enterprise fly, even if it did not have warp drive and looked like an airplane.  I just KNEW this ship would fly in space.  Unfortunately for me, the Enterprise never saw duty in space.  It flew these five flights on its own and was then used for a few ground based tests.  It was ferried around the country before finally arriving at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum annex complex.

Over the years, Enterprise was used as a spare parts bin.  Some of its remaining functioning computers were cannibalized and put in other shuttles.  In 2003, it lost part of its wings for testing the theory that foam from the external tank struck the wing of Columbia and put a hole in the wing.  This is what led to the loss of the Columbia and her crew.  The wing of Enterprise is till missing the piece used for testing.

When Challenger was lost, there was talk of refitting Enterprise and making her space worthy.  However, Congress authorized a brand new orbiter, the Endeavour, to replace Challenger.  Endeavour was delivered to Kennedy Space Center on May 7, 1991.

While Enterprise never flew in space, it was a vital part of the shuttle program.  I suspect Scotty and Captain Kirk would be just as proud of this Enterprise as they were of the starship Enterprise.


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