Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Dirt Road Landing at White Sands Space Harbor

I traveled to New Mexico for work a couple months ago. It was my first visit to that state, and it was just a short trip to Albuquerque. I really wanted to visit White Sands Space Harbor while I was there, but it was hours away. So my only space related sight-seeing occurred in the Albuquerque airport, where I perused a few display cases of aviation and space travel memorabilia...

The closest I've been to White Sands Space Harbor.

Someday I'll follow in my grandfather's footsteps and actually visit White Sands! In the meantime, I've done a little reading about White Sands- turns out that it's a neat little footnote in the history of the space shuttle program.

Of the 133 space shuttle missions to safely return from Earth orbit, 132 landed at Cape Canaveral in Florida or in California at Edwards Air Force Base. There's only one mission that didn't land in California or Florida: STS-3, Columbia, landed at White Sands Space Harbor* in New Mexico in 1982.

*: At the time, White Sands wasn't yet called a 'Space Harbor.' Congress renamed the runway facility the month after Columbia's landing, in honor of that event.

Gliding towards a landing at Edwards Air Force Base.
Source: NASA.

Any of the other shuttle missions could have landed at White Sands, though. It was an abort site for each shuttle launch. It was also the back-up option for landing if bad weather or some calamity foreclosed a landing at Kennedy and Edwards.

White Sands Space Harbor contains the ultimate runway: an enormous and flat dried lake bed. It's nearly 7 miles long. The shuttle's landing strip in the lake bed is 300 feet wide, and engineers further leveled the land on both sides of that strip as well, effectively making it 900 feet wide.

Isn't it funny how a spaceship can end its journey by landing on a dirt road?

Columbia landing at White Sands, accompanied by T-38 chase planes.
Source: NASA.

The shuttle's runways at Edwards Air Force Base were also mainly dried lakebeds. Given the similarities, White Sands was a sensible practice site for shuttle pilot training. Shuttle pilots simulated landings on the White Sands runway in a modified Grumman Gulfstream II business jet launched out of El Paso. They'd do 10 practice landings in one go. The Gulfstream would never actually touch down during the practice runs.  It would just drop down till it was cruising 20 feet off the ground, since that's how high off the ground the pilot sits when the shuttle touches down. At 20 feet off the ground, the Gulfstream's autopilot would kick in, and the jet would take back off for another practice run.

Folks camping out in anticipation of the STS-3 landing.

White Sands' role as a training facility partially explains why Columbia landed there in 1982. Columbia was scheduled to land at Edwards Air Force Base, like every shuttle flight had to that point. But Edwards' lake beds were flooded, so it wasn't an option. Columbia's crew chose to land at White Sands over Kennedy. They preferred White Sands since all their training had been on that runway. White Sands' runway was also several times larger then Kennedy's, another factor working in its favor. Actually, no space shuttles landed at Kennedy until nearly two years later.

The crew of STS-3: Commander Jack Lousma and Pilot C. Gordon Fullerton.
Source: Wikipedia.

Real-life space travel is (sadly) far more complicated than science fiction space travel. Columbia's crew couldn't just pick their landing spot, touch down, and be done with it like we see on Star Trek or Firefly. Massive ground support is necessary. The switch from Edwards to White Sands was made about two weeks before the landing, and the space shuttle program was still in its infancy. So, White Sands was not fully equipped for a landing. Much of the set-up for a landing at Edwards needed to be moved to White Sands. NASA equipped 40 train cars on two separate trains to move equipment the over 1,000 miles between Edwards and White Sands.

Serenity landing in the desert, with much less fuss.

STS-3's White Sands landing was planned for the seventh day of its mission. Commander Jack Lousma recalls that they'd packed everything, suited up, and were strapped in and ready to de-orbit when ground control scrubbed the landing. There was a bad windstorm at White Sands and visibility was too poor for a landing. So, Commander Lousma and Pilot C. Gordon Fullerton were treated to an extra day in space (as Lousma put it, "an extra day in our world's favorite vacation spot") as they waited for conditions to improve. They needed to land soon; they were running out of consumables.

STS-3 lands at White Sands.
Source: NASA.

Meanwhile, on Earth, crash/rescue teams at White Sands ran last minute practice drills. Thousands of people from nearby towns, excited to see a shuttle landing, gathered at White Sands. The crowd was on hand to enthusiastically greet the second supply train when it arrived from Edwards. Winds in the area finally died down enough that a landing was possible.

So, Columbia landed at White Sands on March 30, 1982. By Commander Lousma's account, the landing went very well and there weren't any complications.

Markings painted onto the lake bed, creating a runway at White Sands.
Source: Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields: New Mexico.

White Sands was almost used again in 2006, when Discovery's planned landing at Kennedy was nearly rained out. Landing at Edwards was not an option because of high cross-winds. The first window for a Kennedy landing was abandoned, but the second window presented better conditions in Florida, so there was no need to land at White Sands after all.

The only other time a shuttle ever traveled to White Sands was on the back of a Boeing 747 in September 2012. Endeavor flew over the Space Harbor on its way to its final home at the California Science Center.

Endeavor over Las Cruces, New Mexico in September 2012.
Sources: NASA; MSNBC; AP News Archive; Holloman Air Force Base; Johnson Space Center Oral History Project; Wikipedia; El Paso Times.


  1. Excellent article! It's always a positive surprise to discover new info of past space missions.

    And I don't know why, but every article I read about the space shuttle since its final landing in 2011, makes me really sad..

    And I can't tell you how much I'm drooling over the first picture, with all the shuttle model kits and books being displayed. A 33 years-old 'kid' looking at a space 'candy store' :)

    No such things here in Greece :( :(

    1. Thanks Leonidas! There were five or six glass cases all FULL of models and books, it was the most I'd ever seen, anywhere, too!

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  3. Great article! My dad was present for the landing in New Mexico and I recently discovered his 29 pictures. I have uploaded them here:

    1. Wow, those photos are fantastic- he had such a great, close-up view of the landing! Thanks so much for sharing them, they're neat to see!