The space shuttle Columbia returned from its third trip in orbit in better condition after eight days in space than it did on its first two flights which totaled only five days.
"The vehicle looks in terrific condition," Shuttle Launch Operations Director George F. Page said at a news conference today. "We don't see any structural damage to the protective tiles on the fuselage and there is actually much less superficial tile damage this time than on either of the first two flights."
Not only did astronauts Jack R. Lousma and C. Gordon Fullerton demonstrate that the shuttle could be flown to an alternate landing site with little advance planning, they also showed that Columbia could be flown to a pinpoint landing on earth.
"Jack Lousma let the vehicle roll a long way down the runway," Page said, "but he touched his wheels down at White Sands within 100 feet of the aiming point. That's pretty good flying."
Things went so smoothly on the flight that shuttle planners are already scheduling the fourth and last test flight for June 27, moving it up from the original planning date of July 8. It is no coincidence that if the shuttle is launched on June 27 its scheduled landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California will be the fourth of July, and President Reagan is expected to witness the event.
It is also no coincidence that the second space shuttle, Challenger, will be rolled out the same day at the Palmdale, Calif., factory where it is being built. Reagan is expected to participate in the roll-out ceremony.
Page said that an inspection of the shuttle showed that 38 tiles were ripped loose some time during liftoff at Cape Canaveral. The astronauts counted 37 missing tiles from orbit but a closer look showed that 16 of the black tiles covering the body flap in the rear came loose and 22 of the white tiles that cover the nose were ripped off.
When the shuttle arrives in Florida, technicians will strip an estimated 1,500 tiles from it, double their strength with an inner coating and put them back on. None of the missing tiles went through the strengthening process that shuttle managers have ordered for Columbia.
The space agency has strengthened about 200 tiles between missions but this time decided to overhaul almost all of them.
Columbia will be cleaned and refurbished in the next seven days at White Sands, then ferried on top of a Boeing 747 jetliner to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 7.
It will take longer to refurbish the shuttle at White Sands than it would have at Edwards because a lot of the equipment being used at White Sands was assembled in a hurry. The dust storms that kick up in the afternoon this time of year also will slow shuttle work because technicians and mechanics will have to wear goggles and face masks if they work during the height of a storm.
Sand covers will also have to be put on the landing gear, the nose, the tail and the star tracking optical instruments just below the cockpit on the outside of the shuttle.
Page said, however, that the condition of the spacecraft is so good that less maintenance will be required on the shuttle after it is ferried to Florida.
"We had Columbia in the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy for 60 days prior to our third launch," Page said. "We expect we can get it down to 35 work days for the next flight."
The eight experiments that were flown in the shuttle cargo bay all worked flawlessly except for one, an ultraviolet telescope that was to measure the ultraviolet light streaming off the sun in eight different wavelengths. The motor used to drive filters over the telescope's lens failed in flight so that measurements were taken in only one wavelength.
Even that turned out all right because that wavelength measured ozone levels in the upper atmosphere all over the world, the first such experiment in space. There is widespread concern that fluorocarbons in spray cans are depleting the ozone layer that protects the earth from ultraviolet light.