February 24, 2020

Astro-Vid Of the Week: The 1st Space Shuttle Free Flight

Enterprise in free flight for the first time.

Credit: NASA.

Hey, I remember watching that…

Perhaps the weirdest aspect of the ending of the space shuttle program in 2011 was that in some ways, it seems like it just started. For example, it seems like only yesterday that my 9-year old self was watching the first free-flight of the Space Shuttle Enterprise broadcast live from Edwards Air Force Base on our grainy black and white TV.

Said test flight was in 1977, 36 years ago today. (You do the math… and no, I was not born at Woodstock!) On that hot August day, pilots Fred Haise & Gordon Fullerton glided the Enterprise on a 4 minute test flight to the California desert lake bed below. Today, we can watch the first of the eventual five test flights, all in glorious YouTube color:

Note that the tail cone was installed for this first free-flight. The shuttle is unpowered as it glides in from orbit—a pilot has one attempt only at landing, and no “go around” capability.

Enterprise never made it into space, and today resides at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City. Its sister orbiter Columbia made the first flight into space with Robert Crippen & John Young at the controls on April 12th, 1981. Five orbiters would eventually circle the Earth on 134 missions before space shuttle Atlantis rolled to a stop at the Kennedy Space Center on July 21st, 2011.

It’s a bit sad to think that here it is, 2013 and we’re once again in a period of transition, just like we were in back in 1977. The Space Shuttle program is over, and the first crewed flight of Orion is slated for 2019 at the earliest.

Let’s get America back in the business of sending humans into space!

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