The Final Free Flight of the Enterprise
2 minutes, 1 second.
That’s how short the final flight of the Space Shuttle Enterprise was on this day in 1977. Forty years ago, the beginning of the Shuttle era came to a close with the final free flight of the one Space Shuttle that never flew in space.
The Enterprise was used to conduct a series of Approach and Landing Tests that started in February of 1977 and ended on October 26th, 1977. These tests validated the flight capabilities of the Space Shuttle, ensuring that the orbiters could land and be ferried on a modified Boeing 747.
The last landing was a little rough, with the Shuttle bouncing back into the air once after its wheels first touched down, but astronauts Fred Haise and Gordon Fullerton touched down without further incident. With the successful conclusion of the Approach and Landing Tests, NASA put the Enterprise to work on a series of Ground Vibration Tests at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in 1978.
With these tests completed, she was then ferried to Kennedy Space Center where ground crews mated the Enterprise to the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters to ensure the Shuttle had a proper fit for the upcoming launch of Columbia.
In 1983, with all of the engineering tests at Kennedy Space Center completed, the Enterprise embarked on a trip to France, Germany, Italy, England, and Canada, before returning to the United States. After an appearance at the 1984 World’s Fair, the Enterprise was ferried to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and used one last time for fit checks on what would have been the Space Shuttle’s west coast launch site.
The pictures included below were taken at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and they give us a glimpse of what an alternate future would have looked like had there been Shuttle launches from California. Sadly, we never got to see a Shuttle launch from the West Coast. NASA abandoned the possibility of launching the Space Shuttle from Vandenberg in the late 1980s. The Challenger explosion caused the United States Air Force to utilize expendable launch vehicles for national security launches instead of the Space Shuttle.
After the Challenger explosion, NASA considered converting the Enterprise into a spaceworthy orbiter. While the Enterprise may look externally similar to her sister ships, many internal systems were missing or had significantly changed during the design process. These differences meant that the refit would have necessitated changes that were more expensive than just building a new orbiter from the ground up.
After the checks in California, the Shuttle was ferried to the East Coast, where it became the property of the Smithsonian Institution. It was housed at Dulles Airport before going on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, part of the National Air and Space Museum. When I saw the Enterprise for the first time, she was on display at the Udvar-Hazy center, and it was an unforgettable sight.
The Enterprise is now on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York. The USS Intrepid is an Essex-class aircraft carrier that served in the Pacific theater during WWII, and later in Vietnam War. The Intrepid has ties to NASA history as well since it was involved in the recoveries of Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter and the Aurora 7 capsule, and later, John Young and Gus Grissom and their Gemini 3 spacecraft Molly Brown.
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Below are the pictures of the Enterprise at Vandenberg Air Force Base.