First published in The Age on April 15, 1981
Columbia safe home
Re-entry a success despite lost tiles
Washington, 14 April – America’s space shuttle Columbia completed man’s most ambitious adventure in space with a touchdown to cheering crowds at Edwards Air Force base today, 4.22 a.m. Wednesday, Melbourne time.
The Columbia takes off on April 12, 1981.Credit:NASA
Fifty-seven tense minutes began when astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen fired the spacecraft’s engines to bring it out of orbit.
Then followed the greatest hazard of the voyage – the buffeting and incredible heat of reentry, with some of the 30,992 heat tiles missing or damaged and the fear that more might be shaken loose.
Commander Young set Columbia on its course back to Earth from 121 kilometres above Australia with a “de-orbit burn” which ended about 3.25 a.m. Melbourne time.
Both astronauts were very calm, Houston control reported.
Four chase aircraft took off from Edwards Air Force base at 3.30 a.m. to help guide the shuttle in.
The chase planes were T38s. Two were to photograph the shuttle as it came in; two to advise the astronauts of the condition of Columbia.
The shuttle passed over Guam at 3.50 a.m. and the 15-minute communication blackout began.
Radar tracking was the only way of watching the progress of the revolutionary space shuttle.
Two late problems arose, neither of critical importance. One involved one of the three power units for Columbia’s hydraulic system. But NASA said the craft could if necessary land with only one of the units operating. Officials reported later that the unit was working again.
The second problem was the malfunction of a heat monitor. This did not affect the safety of the touchdown either, NASA said.
At 4.12 a.m. Melbourne time the Tactical Air Navigations system was locked on to Columbia as the craft approached the landing strip. Fresh winds had started up as Crippen and Young put the craft under manual control. Observers could see faint condensation trails in the sky above the base.
Columbia came into perfect view on American television sets at 43,000 metres. The astronauts said it was moving perfectly and the guidance system was in good shape, the chase planes reported.
The wind was not from the direction NASA had hoped, and Crippen and Young had to land downwind.
At 27,130 metres over California, Columbia was still traveling at twice the speed of sound and everything was going absolutely according to plan.
Three minutes before touchdown sonic booms were heard over the Edwards base.
After a series of graceful turns to gradually reduce its speed before landing, Mission Control radioed: “You’re right on the money.”
Crippen replied: “What a way to come to California.”
Clear television pictures two minutes before landing showed Columbia within eight kilometres of the base with no damage whatever to its fuselage.
At 4.21 a.m. Columbia hit the ground, a rooster tail of sand billowing over the desert behind her. The official touch-down time was two days, six hours, 52 seconds after take-off. The spectators broke into cheers and clapping as Mission Control counted off the final few metres as the craft approached the runway.
About an hour before it was due to land in the Mojave Desert in California, Young and Crippen were to instruct their computers to fire the shuttle’s 44 small thruster rockets. This would manoeuvre Columbia through 180 degrees so that it was travelling tail first.
Then, 278 kilometres above the Indian Ocean, the craft’s two large maneuvering rockets were to fire a “de-orbit burn”, and 120 kilometres above Wake Island, Columbia’s body would glow red hot. As it plunged through the atmosphere, parts of the spaceship would experience temperatures of some 1510C.
After re-entry, the thruster rockets were to be switched off, and Columbia would then glide powerless to Earth.
The astronauts would then take over manual control. Columbia would still be about 18 kilometres high when the final approach to the landing strip at Edwards air force base was due to begin. Young and Crippen were to manipulate its flaps and rudder to manoeuvre it through a series of curves to slow it down before the landing gear for a 320 kmh touchdown.
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