The space shuttle, the projected workhorse of Americas space-age future, took its first flight today perched on the back of a converted Boeing 7474.
The two-hour piggyjack ride was made without any crew members aboard the space shuttle. Four NASA crewmen, headed by veteran test pilot FItzhugh L. Fulton Jr., successfully guided the 747 through the skies and back to this air base's dusty landing strip.
"The flight went almost exactly as we planned," Fulton said. "Most of the time we couldn't even tell that the shuttle was here."
A large crowd of newsmen, NASA personnel and local space buffs crowded around the takeoff site as the 747 and its much smaller companion began taxing around 8 a.m.
On time, a half hour later, the two linked airships rose into the air after kicking up their own little desert dust storm.
NASA's local aerodynamics director, Ted Ayers, and his family stood quietly by on the crowded rooftop of the agency's headquarters here as the shuttle made its final taxiing run.
"Isn't that something?" Ayers asked his 4-year-old son, Andrew. "They said it would never fly. You know, in aerodynamics you're not supposed to ever fly anything like tht thing. But it works, it does. It flies."
During the flight the soaring twins reached an altitude of 16,000 feet and speeds up 280 m.p.h.
While generally pleased with the flight, NASA Project Director D. K. (Deke) Slayton admitted "a few anomalies" cropped up during the flight but that "it was noting serious."
Despite its odd, lopsided appearance, the NASA officials said the shuttle's 143,000 pounds put no severe strains on the former American Airlines passenger plane. On commercial runs the 747, which weighs 435,000 pounds empty, has carried much heavier loads in cargo and passengers, officials said.
Four small chase planes, piloted by NASA personnel, followed the 747 and the shuttle throughout the flight.
Today's maneuver is just a small beginning in a long series of flight tests planned for the space shuttle. Begun in 1972, the space shuttle program calls for five such advanced aircraft by the end of the decade with a projected cost of $6.9 billion. This first shuttle, named Enterprise after the starship in the popular television series "Star Trek," cost the taxpayers $500 million.
The next important task before the shuttle and its more mundance partner is a test flight scheduled for July. At that time, the 747 is to release the shuttle in midair and allow it to glide back to the base.
The first manned full-scale space flight for the shuttle is scheduled for March, 1979. The shuttle is to be propelled from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida by booster rockets.
No one was more concerned about the outcome of today's flight than the men responsible for the odd coupling of the futuristic shuttle and the airliner. The ships were connected by steel bolts, which on future flights are to automatically disengage the ships on signals from the shuttle's commander.
"You ask me if I'm nervous - damned right I am," said Neil Mullin, manager of the tests and operations for Rockwell International, the shuttle's builder. "When you lift 140,000 pounds one plane, you just have to wonder [WORD ILLEGIBLE] cranes or something might crack, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] there goes the whole darned thing."