A loud crack greeted Gordon Fullerton and Fred Haise as seven explosive bolts detonated simultaneously, separating the space shuttle prototype Enterprise from the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft's back.
As the Enterprise lifted to fly freely for the first time, quietness surrounded the pilots as their eyes scanned the shuttle's instrument panel. They were joined by millions of eyes the world over watching the flight on Aug. 12, 1977, as the event dominated the globe's television transmissions.
Haise and Fullerton did well that day, ushering in the era of the Space Shuttle as they brought the Enterprise in safely for that first landing during the program's Approach and Landing Tests (ALT).
Image right: Dryden research pilot Gordon Fullerton
New Smithsonian Exhibit Rekindles Memories for NASA Astronaut
Memories returned as NASA research pilot and former astronaut Gordon Fullerton spoke at a special dinner Oct. 21, 2004, preceding the opening of the National Air & Space Museum's James S. McDonnell Space Hangar on Nov. 1, 2004. Space Shuttle Enterprise is the centerpiece exhibit of the Space Hangar. The event was attended by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe.
The McDonnell Space Hangar is part of the museum's Udvar-Hazy Center located at Dulles International Airport near Washington DC. The space hangar was only partially accessible when the Center opened to the public last December. In addition to the Enterprise, the space hangar features artifacts representing human spaceflight, rocketry and space sciences.
Fullerton, veteran of two shuttle missions in addition to three of the five Enterprise free flights, recalled many interesting events surrounding the ALT project at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in the late 1970s. Actually, one of the most challenging parts of ALT for Fullerton occurred following captive carry flights in which the Enterprise remained attached to the top of the 747. "Exit from the Enterprise to a small cherry picker platform 60 feet off the ground was a challenge, especially on windy days," Fullerton said. "We had to step across a gap from one to the other. Now that took some nerve."
Image left: Shuttle prototype Enterprise separates from the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft for approach and landing test (ALT) research.
The five Enterprise free flights verified the airworthiness of the Space Shuttle design and tested on-board systems, as well as manual and automatic landing methods. Two astronauts were aboard Enterprise for each flight.
NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center