Thirty-seven years ago today, on August 12, 1977, a flight of an experimental aircraft occurred over the California desert near Edwards Air Force Base. The pilot’s name was Joe Engle, the flight lasted 5 minutes and 21 seconds, and the craft wound up on a dry lake bed. Though not very long in duration, this flight was pretty historic: it was the first free flight of a spaceship, the space shuttle Enterprise. After Apollo and Skylab, the space shuttle program was to be America’s next bold venture in space, and this flight was a crucial test that would help make it happen.
The novelty of the space shuttle program was that it wasn’t a capsule, which all previous human space missions had been. The shuttle, or “orbiter” as NASA called it, was designed to be launched like a rocket from a launch pad, orbit the Earth, then re-enter and land on a runway like a terrestrial airplane. That’s easier to do on paper or in a laboratory mockup, though, than in real life, chiefly because the space shuttle weighs far more than a normal plane, and its engines only work in space–when it’s in the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s a glider. Actually landing it is a tricky business. But on that August day, Joe Engle managed to pull it off, and demonstrated the viability of the spaceship that, at least in 1977, was supposed to revolutionize human spaceflight.
What’s interesting is that, although built as a spaceship, the Enterprise never actually flew in space. It was intended to. Construction on the ship started in the summer of 1974, shortly after the space shuttle was approved during the Nixon administration. Originally to be called Constitution, a famous letter-writing campaign by fans of the TV show Star Trek persuaded President Gerald Ford to tell NASA to change the name to Enterprise. In fact, Gene Roddenberry, creator of the show, and most of the Star Trek cast were on hand when the finished ship rolled out of the plant on September 17, 1976. Then it was off to the races for a grueling series of tests, including the Approach and Landing Tests, of which the August 1977 flight was a part. Veteran astronauts Joe Engle and Fred Haise, who flew on Apollo 13, were chosen to command the ship during their respective tests. All went pretty much according to plan. The tests were successful, and NASA made preparations to launch Enterprise on its first space mission in July 1981, after the newer and slightly different orbiter, Columbia, made the maiden shuttle flight a few months earlier.
This is actual TV coverage of the Enterprise’s flight in August 1977. Complete with retro commercials, including one featuring the recently-deceased James Garner pushing Polaroid.
Columbia, however, was quite a different bird, built under slightly different specs and with a more advanced design. NASA was still working out all the kinks in the shuttle system. Enterprise, as the initial prototype, would have to be refitted to bring it up to the shape that Columbia was already in. Once the budget-crunchers started looking at the numbers, however, the price tag to do this started to skyrocket. This was 1980, and the Carter administration, never a very vigorous advocate of space flight (Vice-President Walter Mondale was famously hostile to the space program), didn’t have the heart for extravagant expenditures, which in any event might be canceled by the incoming Reagan administration. NASA realized it was cheaper to rebuild their new Earthbound mockup, Challenger, into a spaceworthy vehicle than it was to retrofit Enterprise. With that decision, Enterprise lost its hope of flying in space.
What do you do with an Earthbound spaceship? Well, there’s not much you can do, really. In the early 1980s Enterprise went on tour, being showcased at world’s fairs and similar exhibitions, where it was a great success; honestly, what little kids wouldn’t want to see a real space shuttle? NASA occasionally used it for tests, such as shooting foam tiles at it to simulate the damage that destroyed the Columbia in 2003. But Enterprise was always pretty much fated to be a museum piece. Indeed, it became property of the Smithsonian in 1985, and about the time of the end of the shuttle program in 2011, the decision was made to give it to the USS Intrepid museum in Manhattan. There Enterprise remains to this day, boldly going…nowhere. The ship was entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
I met astronaut Joe Engle in 1983, when I was just a kid, and he told me briefly about what it was like to fly the Enterprise. “Like landing a brick with wings” was the phrase I remember him using. But still, it was a pretty fascinating part of his career, even if the ship itself never went into space. Engle did go into space, eventually flying Columbia in 1981 and Discovery in 1985. He’s still alive, and I think lives in Florida. I wonder if he’s ever been to the Intrepid museum to visit his old ship.