The space shuttle Enterprise won its wings today when two astronauts piloted it to a flawless landing on the floor of the Mojave Desert in view of 70,000 spectators.
The first spacecraft built to return to Earth like an airplane, the Enterprise opened a new era in the 20-year-old space age when it glided without any power from 23,000 feet to a desert runway at Edwards.
With astronauts Fred W. Haise Jr. and C. Gordon Fullerton at the controls, the delta-winged space shuttle orbiter flew 34 miles in 5 minutes and 23 seconds.
The matchless performance delighted the men and women who had gathered here to witness the event, the first time an American spacecraft had ever ladned on eath instead of water and the first time any spacecraft was ever piloted to Earth like an airplane.
"Everything went super slick," Haise said. "I think the space shuttle is going to be the mainstay for our space agency for years to come. It is a dynamite vehicle."
Landing no more than a half-mile from five huge tents erected at the desert site, the Enterprise drew the spontaneous applause of the 70,000 crowded against the runway like spectators at a racetrack. The shuttle touched down right behind two jet-powered chase planes, all three raising clouds of dust from the runway floor as they flew in together in formation at 225 miles an hour.
The event had the air of a circus coming to town. It attracted tourists from all over the West and personalities like California's Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and his congressman son, singer John Denver, actor Stacy Keats, two former members of the cast of Star Trek and French oceanographer Jacques Costeau. The ambassadors from Japan and Indonesia were present, as were three former chiefs of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and six former astronauts. Roy Rogers watched the landing wearing western clothes and a cowboy hat. Except for the hat, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison H. (Jack) Schmitt ( now a senator from New Mexico) wore the same western garb.
The landing took place just after 9 a.m., with desert temperatures already near 100 degrees. The spectators who had arrived as early as Thursday night to get good viewing spots, had already consumed 20,000 gallons of ice water provided by the space agency.
The flight of the 150,000-pound spacecraft went so well that even its pilots were surprised at the grace with which it flew. Not once did it sway. Not once did it pitch or yaw except when the pilot told it to.
The black and white Enterprise banked beautifully to the left the only time it was told to, and touched down soundlessly on four huge tires.
Astronauts Haise and Fullerton took turns handling the stick and rudder, the first time anybody has controlled a spacraft on landing. The pilots changed speeds, moved the huge ailerons on the wings that gave the craft lift, and worked the speed brake built into the tall vertical tail to slow the spacecraft down.
"Its's very crisp, a very stable airplane," Fullerton said. "I got two good minutes of stick time up there and what I felt felt great."
"It's very responsive, more like a fighter plane than the big plane it is," Haise said of the Enterprise, which is the size of a DC-9 jetliner. "I think its's a lot like flying the Concorde. At least it comes down like the Concorde does, with that big delta wing."
What surpised the pilots most was the speed the Enterprise picked up on landing, without any power to help it along. After reaching more than 300 miles an hour in flight, it touched down 20 miles an hour faster than predicted.
Twice, Haise had to deploy a speed brake to slow down in flight. He unfolded the brake again when the spacecraft touched down, and kept it that way until the Enterprise rolled to a stop three miles down the runway.
"It was nothing earthshaking, nothing to make anybody ill," Haise said of the craft's surprising speed. "But we thought before the flight it would have a greater tendency to float or even balloon. It didn't do any of that."
Nothing ever goes completely without trouble in a manned test flight. Today one of the four computers built into the spacecraft to help the pilot glide to a landing failed just as the Enterprise was detached from the 747 Jumbo jet that piggybacked it into the sky.
But a backup computer took over the instant the first one failed.
"Except for that computer," Fullerton said, "It was a non-write-up flight."
The flight began when the 747 lifted the Enterprise into blue desert skies at 8:01 this morning one morning, one minute behind schedule. They flew a long curving course as the 747 strained its engines to go as high as it could carrying 75 tons on its back.
"Thanks for the lift," Haise said just before the two planes separated.
Separation came three minutes behind schedule, because the heat of the desert air had slowed the planes' climb. Separation was by explosive bolt, lifting the shuttle away from the 747 like coming quickly up from a chair.
Ahead are four more shuttle flights at different speeds to see how the Enterprise handles different landing conditions. CAPTION:
Picture 1, With two astronauts at controls, space shuttle orbiter Enterprise rises piggyback on Boeing 747. UPI;Picture 2, At 23,000 feet, it separates from mother ship by explosive belt to start 5 1/2-minute glide to Earth. NASA via AP; Picture 3, Accompanied by two chase planes, it returns to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., at 225 miles an hour. UPI; Picture 4, Astronauts Fred Haise and Gordon Fullerton and 747 pilot Fitz Fulton report on Enterprise adventure flight.AP