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Approach and Landing Tests

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Approach and Landing Tests

Approach and Landing Tests
Enterprise separates from the SCA during its Approach and Landing Tests
(L-R) Gordon Fullerton, Fred Haise, Joe Engle and Richard Truly pose in front of the prototype orbiter Enterprise

The Approach and Landing Tests were a series of taxi and flight trials of the prototype Space Shuttle Enterprise, conducted in 1977 to test the vehicle's flight characteristics both on its own and when mated to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, prior to the operational debut of the shuttle system.


The Space Shuttle program originated in the late 1960s as a means of reducing the cost of spaceflight by introducing a reusable spacecraft. The final agreed design would feature a reusable spaceplane, a disposable external tank and reusable solid-fuel rocket boosters. The contract to build the spaceplane, which eventually came to be known as the "orbiter", was awarded to North American Rockwell (later Rockwell International), with the first complete orbiter rolled out in 1976. Originally planned to be named Constitution (due to its completion being in the year of the United States Bicentennial), a letter-writing campaign by Star Trek fans persuaded President Ford to change the name of the prototype to Enterprise.[1] It was unveiled to the public on September 17, 1976, with several members of the Star Trek cast in attendance.[1]

Test program

Upon the orbiter's entry into service, NASA began an extensive program of tests using Enterprise to ensure all of the systems it had put in place for the Shuttle program functioned as designed.[2] These tests would encompass not only the flight tests planned to test the flight characteristics of the orbiter, but also ground based testing of the launch pad systems and procedures. In January 1977, Enterprise was taken by road from the Rockwell plant at Palmdale, California to the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base to begin the flight test phase of the program, which had been christened by NASA as the Approach and Landing Tests (ALT).


The program lasted from February until October 1977, with a pair of two-man crews assigned to the orbiter:

Crew 1

Position Astronaut
Commander Fred W. Haise, Jr.
Pilot C. Gordon Fullerton

Haise previously flew as the lunar module pilot of Apollo 13.

Crew 2

Position Astronaut
Commander Joe H. Engle
Pilot Richard H. Truly

This crew later flew on STS-2.

Shuttle Carrier Aircraft

In addition to the two assigned shuttle crews, who would alternate crewing the orbiter, a single flight crew was attached to the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) for the entire program:

  • SCA Crew:
    • Fitzhugh L. Fulton, Jr. (Captain)
    • Thomas C. McMurty (Co-Pilot)
    • Louis E. Guidry, Jr. (Flight Engineer)
    • Victor W. Horton (Flight Engineer)


The ALT program was divided into three distinct phases.[3] The first phase was designated as the "taxi-test" phase, which involved the SCA and orbiter in a mated formation conducting taxi tests at Edwards Air Force Base to verify the taxiing characteristics of the aircraft while carrying the orbiter. These tests did not involve the orbiter in any way beyond it being mated to the aircraft, so consequently it remained powered down and uncrewed. A total of three taxi-tests were performed on February 15, 1977. Following this, the program moved into its next phase.

Captive flights

Enterprise during a captive flight

The captive flight phase of ALT saw the SCA/orbiter combination in flight as a test of the SCA's flying characteristics while mated to the orbiter, and as an initial test of the orbiter systems in flight. This was subdivided into two phases:

Captive - inert

There were a total of five captive-inert flights designed to test the flight and handling characteristics of the aircraft while it was mated to the orbiter. As with the taxi tests, this did not involve the orbiter beyond it being mated to the SCA, so it remained unpowered and uncrewed.

Captive - active

The captive-active flights were intended to determine the optimum profile required for Enterprise to separate from the SCA during the orbiter's free-flights. These were also intended to refine and test the orbiter crew procedures and to ensure the operational readiness of the orbiter's systems. For these three flights, although Enterprise remained mated to the SCA, it was powered and crewed.


Enterprise takes flight for the first time in August 1977
Enterprise on its approach during the second free-flight

The final phase of flight testing involved free-flights. These saw Enterprise mated to the SCA and carried to a launch altitude, before being jettisoned by the use of explosive bolts to glide to a landing on the runways at Edwards AFB. The intention of these flights was to test the flight characteristics of the orbiter itself, on a typical approach and landing profile from orbit.[4][5][6]

There were a total of five free-flights between August and October; the first three saw Enterprise remain fitted with its aerodynamic tail cone, intended to reduce drag when mounted on the SCA during flight. The final two had the tail cone removed, with the orbiter in its full operational configuration, with dummy main engines and OMS pods.[7] Enterprise used an air data probe mounted on its nose for these flights. These five flights were to be the only time Enterprise flew alone.[8][9]

After flying missions on Columbia (STS-2) and Discovery (STS-51-I), Engle reported that the flight and handling characteristics of the operational orbiters were similar to those of Enterprise, except that he had to fly a steeper profile with the prototype, as it was much lighter than the operational spacecraft.[10]

Ferry flights

Following the free-flight tests, Enterprise was prepared for ferry flight tests, which were intended to ensure that the SCA/orbiter configuration was viable for flights of the duration between landing and launch sites.[11]

After ALT

Following the end of the flight test program, Enterprise was taken for testing with the external tank and SRBs in full-up launch configuration, to test both the structural responses of the "stack" itself and the launch procedures prior to the entry into service and first launch of the first operational orbiter. These tests first saw Enterprise taken to the Dynamic Structural Test Facility, located at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where the complete stack was subjected to vertical ground vibration tests, assessing the structural responses to a number of scenarios. Then, the orbiter was flown to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to fit check the facilities at LC-39 and the procedures to be used in launching the shuttle.

List of ALT flights

Enterprise separates from the SCA during Free Flight 4, the first with the orbiter in its flight configuration without the tailcone
Test flight[7] Date Speed Altitude Crew Duration Comment
Taxi test #1 February 15, 1977 89 mph (143 km/h) taxi none taxi Concrete runway,
tailcone on
Taxi test #2 140 mph (225 km/h)
Taxi test #3 157 mph (253 km/h)
Captive-inert flight #1 February 18, 1977 287 mph (462 km/h) 16,000 ft
4,877 m
2 h 5 min Tailcone on,
landed with 747
Captive-inert flight #2 February 22, 1977 328 mph (528 km/h) 22,600 ft
6,888 m
3 h 13 min
Captive-inert flight #3 February 25, 1977 425 mph (684 km/h) 26,600 ft
8,108 m
2 h 28 min
Captive-inert flight #4 February 28, 1977 425 mph (684 km/h) 28,565 ft
8,707 m
2 h 11 min
Captive-inert flight #5 March 2, 1977 474 mph (763 km/h) 30,000 ft
9,144 m
1 h 39 min
Captive-active flight #1 June 18, 1977 208 mph (335 km/h) 14,970 ft
4,563 m
Haise, Fullerton 55 min 46 s
Captive-active flight #2 June 28, 1977 310 mph (499 km/h) 22,030 ft
6,715 m
Engle, Truly 62 min 0 s
Captive-active flight #3 July 26, 1977 311 mph (501 km/h) 30,292 ft
9,233 m
Haise, Fullerton 59 min 53 s
Free flight #1 August 12, 1977 310 mph (499 km/h) 24,100 ft
7,346 m
Haise, Fullerton 5 min 21 s Tailcone on,
lakebed landing
Free flight #2 September 13, 1977 310 mph (499 km/h) 26,000 ft
7,925 m
Engle, Truly 5 min 28 s
Free flight #3 September 23, 1977 290 mph (467 km/h) 24,700 ft
7,529 m
Haise, Fullerton 5 min 34 s
Free flight #4 October 12, 1977 278 mph (447 km/h) 22,400 ft
6,828 m
Engle, Truly 2 min 34 s Tailcone off,
lakebed landing
Free flight #5 October 26, 1977 283 mph (455 km/h) 19,000 ft
5,791 m
Haise, Fullerton 2 min 1 s Tailcone off,
runway landing

Video gallery


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^
  3. ^ Space Shuttle Approach and Landing Tests Fact Sheet From "Space Shuttle Chronology"; Accessed 11/03/08
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Joe H. Engle", NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, June 3, 2004.
  11. ^ Accessed 11/03/08
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