HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. – For many people living in the Tularosa Basin, the passing of an astronaut is a news story which has no ties to Alamogordo. However, the passing of C. Gordon Fullerton should not go unnoticed—especially by those Team Holloman members who were involved with the shuttle missions.
Fullerton died Wednesday, Aug. 21 at the age of 76 after being confined in a long-term care facility in Lancaster, Calif. following a stroke in 2009. As an astronaut from 1969 to 1986, his resume included over 380 hours in space. His most famous mission occurred when he commanded Space Shuttle Challenger in 1985. During that flight, his crew delivered the Spacelab module to space. In 1982, Fullerton was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame at the New Mexico Museum of Space History. He retired from the Air Force in 1988 and from NASA in 2007.
Though his assignments included piloting a number of flight research aircraft such as NASA’s B-52 launch aircraft and the Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, it was his piloting efforts on March 30, 1982, during STS-3 that brought him fame at Holloman.
White Sands Northrup Strip might have been the official landing site for Space Shuttle Columbia, but Holloman played a significant role in STS-3 by providing support equipment and over 1,300 personnel, who contributed over 36,000 man-hours to the effort.
Following an announcement by NASA that Edwards was unavailable for a landing, the 833rd Air Division commander at Holloman, then-Col. Charles A. Horner said to Team Holloman members, “The Space Shuttle recovery at Northrup Strip will focus the eyes of the world on White Sands Missile Range, Holloman, and the Air Force. We have a tremendous opportunity to show what we can do from logistics to crash/rescue support to hosting visitors.”
Despite having near-perfect weather conditions, the Tularosa Basin was ravaged on March 29 by a tremendous wind and sand storm that caused NASA to report to the two astronauts that conditions at Edwards were unacceptable, and the situation at White Sands offered “no alternative, but to remain aloft for another 24 hours.”
“(Marine Col. Jack) Lousma and Fullerton had been slated to land Monday, March 29, but an Associated Press headline summarized the dilemma: “Blowing sands stalls recovery of Columbia,” Michael Shinabery with the New Mexico Museum of Space History wrote in a 2009 story.
Current Administrator of NASA, astronaut and retired Marine Gen. Charlie Bolden said in an oral history, “This dust storm was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Its gypsum and its very fine, like talcum powder. Everything was covered in plastic, the windows were sealed, but it didn’t make any difference. That was a hint that this was not a good place to land the shuttle.”
However, Fullerton found the extra 24 hours to be a great time to relax and enjoy the scenery.
“We watched the world and I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” he told a NASA historian. “In fact, we flew right over White Sands, with the nose pointing straight down, and I could see this monster storm going on there.”
Finally, on a cold and windy day where the White Sand was airborne, NASA personnel found themselves “backed into a corner.” After seven days in space, consumables were running low aboard the shuttle for astronauts Lousma, the commander, and Fullerton, the pilot, and the decision to land at WSMR was made.
The official landing time for STS-3 was 9:04 a.m. Mountain Standard Time, setting a new shuttle record for eight days in orbit, and providing NASA with a realization that White Sands would remain an emergency only landing location. The fine gypsum caused tremendous damage to the spacecraft that was never resolved.
“I flew it several flights later on my first flight and when we got on orbit, there was still gypsum coming out of everything,” Bolden said. “They thought they had cleaned it, but it was just unreal what it had done.”
Support required for the landing stretched across Holloman and impacted nearly every squadron. In addition to the normally assumed support of security forces and fire department, airfield management coordinated the arrival and parking for more than 60 aircraft which flew into the base for the event. BEAR Base teams set up eight general purpose shelters and an aircraft hangar that was used by NASA. Communications specialists provided vital support, with UHF and VHF radios, used by the on-scene commander, command posts, rescue helicopters and medical personnel. The Holloman Hospital provided flight surgeons, medical technicians and two field ambulances. The 49th Wing (then-Tactical Fighter Wing) command post served as the central command and control facility for communications between Air Force higher headquarters and space shuttle support personnel.
The Services Squadron (now Force Support Squadron) also played a role in the mission as it provided housing and food for hundreds of people who came onto the base to support the landing. Estimates indicate the squadron provided 500 boxed lunches to workers on Northrup Strip and served over 1,000 additional meals at the dining facilities and Officers’ Club.
Personnel remained at the base until the shuttle left on April 6, but not before the public had a chance to see the historic spacecraft. The following Saturday, April 3, NASA allowed a static viewing as it set 13 miles from Holloman. News reports estimate over 60,000 people came to see it. Columbia would be lost, along with seven astronauts, on Feb. 1, 2003, when it broke apart on reentry over Central Texas.
Holloman continued to provide support for the STS missions until July 8, 2011, when Space Shuttle Atlantis conducted its 33rd flight. This flight was the 37th flight to the International Space Station and not only the 135th, but also last mission of the NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.