Dust storms reduced visibility to zero at the landing runways here today, forcing astronauts Jack R. Lousma and C. Gordon Fullerton to stay in orbit aboard the space shuttle Columbia and postpone their return to earth until Tuesday morning.
Flight directors aborted the landing plans less than 40 minutes before the astronauts were to drop out of orbit and begin their descent.
Lousma and Fullerton were told to try landing their 100-ton spaceliner at a desert runway here about 9 a.m. Tuesday to avoid high winds that rose up before noon today and blew dust in every direction for 50 miles, leaving the gypsum-covered runways a blur.
If blowing dust again obscures the strips, the astronauts were told, they are to bring Columbia back to earth about 10:30 a.m. at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. The cape has one concrete runway half as long and less than half as wide as the two desert strips that serve as runways at White Sands.
The possibility of a Florida landing adds suspense to what has become an eight-day mission. The shuttle was not scheduled for a Florida landing until its fifth flight, next November. Flight directors said they would feel more comfortable waiting until then to have the shuttle make a pinpoint landing at Kennedy's concrete runway, which is three miles long and 100 yards wide.
"Our prime landing is for Northrup the name of the White Sands landing strip on orbit 129 at 9 in the morning," astronaut Brewster Shaw told Lousma and Fullerton from the Mission Control Center in Houston where the flight of Columbia is directed. "That will get us into Northrup before the wind begins to pick up and, if that doesn't work, the weather looks real good at the Cape."
The weather turned sour here today just a few hours before Lousma and Fullerton were due to land Columbia at the end of its 115th orbit.
Surface winds of less than 20 miles an hour rose to 30 miles an hour at the same time that high-altitude winds picked up to 160 miles an hour. Winds that had been kicking up only patches of the fine gypsum powder on the landing strips suddenly were blowing an obscuring haze of dust across the two runways.
When astronaut John Young tried a practice landing on one runway in a specially equipped jet, he found that visibility at the edge of the runway had dropped from seven miles to two miles in less than an hour. In trying to land on the other runway, he discovered that his view was almost completely obscured.
"That's the first time I've ever seen it this bad," Young told Mission Control in Houston. "I think the winds have become unacceptable, and so has the visibility."
Less than 15 minutes later, flight directors ordered the one-day postponement.
"It's not a good day down here," astronaut Shaw told Lousma and Fullerton when they were over Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, 39 minutes before they were to begin their descent. "We're going to wave you off for 24 hours."
"Well, we've had a good drill," Lousma replied laconically. "That's the breaks."
By the time Columbia flew over White Sands an hour later, winds had increased, and the dust storms had worsened.
The wind was blowing so hard during Columbia's flyover that dust striking cars on the missile range sounded like hail. Photographers at the end of the strip wore goggles, masks and blankets to protect themselves and their cameras. More people were leaving public viewing sites than were arriving because many had gotten sand burns.
"I guess I have to agree with you," Fullerton said while looking down at New Mexico from Columbia. "It's dusty down there."
"It sure is, viz visibility on the surface has just dropped to zero," Shaw said from Mission Control. "The last gust report we got was 48 knots [55 miles an hour]."
"The trouble is, it looks like the winds are only at White Sands," Lousma interrupted. "I can't see dust blowing anywhere else."
Having gone through an exhausting day preparing to land, Lousma and Fullerton were ordered to bed at 7 p.m. (EST). They were to be reawakened at 3 a.m. (EST) Tuesday to begin getting Columbia ready again for landing.
Preparing the delta-winged shuttle to land involves closing and locking cargo bay doors kept open in orbit, updating their five onboard computers for flight out of orbit and readying their three hydraulic power systems. These are used on descent to move the elevons, speed brakes and body flap and maneuver Columbia safely through the last 200,000 feet of altitude.
Flight directors said there would be no more postponements. Weather is expected to worsen at White Sands and Cape Canaveral Wednesday. Weather is also expected to worsen at Edwards Air Force Base in California, another alternate landing site because it has a single concrete runway not mired in the mud that has affected its lakebed runways for two weeks.
"We will look at all three landing sites starting early in the morning on Tuesday," said Deputy Director of Flight Operations Eugene F. Kranz. "We will take our first hard look at the weather at White Sands and at Kennedy at 6 a.m. EST and make a decision on where to land by" one hour after that.
Flight directors plan to make every effort toward a landing at White Sands because they want this third landing of Columbia to occur at a desert runway where landing strips are more than seven miles long and almost a mile wide.
They want Columbia to make a crosswind landing to test its response, and they are not fully comfortable with landing on the 300-foot wide runway in Florida.
But, Kranz said today, while he would like to have a crosswind landing in the desert, "the spacecraft is a solid machine capable of handling a crosswind anywhere to maintain its directional control."