Forty minutes past midnight at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on this day in September 1983, a ghostly black-and-white glider swept silently out of the dark desert sky and alighted on concrete Runway 22. It was Challenger, returning to Earth from her third orbital mission, STS-8, a six-day flight which had already set a plethora of records, including the first night launch of the shuttle program, the oldest man in space at that time and the first African-American astronaut. Throughout its 30-year operational career, the shuttle completed no fewer than 26 night landings—identified by NASA as missions which ended no later than 15 minutes before sunrise—at either the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) or Edwards. Among that number were four Hubble Space Telescope (HST) servicing missions and over a dozen International Space Station (ISS) assembly flights.
A key driver was the need to place India’s Insat-1B communications satellite into orbit. “To get it in the proper place, we worked the problem backwards,” he recalled. “They wanted the satellite here, so then we had to go back down our orbital mechanics and it meant we had to launch at night. The fact we launched at night meant that we would end up landing at night.”
He and Truly were both naval aviators with long experience of nighttime carrier landings. “We got very much involved in developing a lighting system to enable us to safely land at night,” Brandenstein continued. “We didn’t have enough time to focus just one that, although we got involved because we were the ones doing it first.”
The flight deck crew, with Truly and Brandenstein in the forward cockpit seats and Bluford behind them as the flight engineer, soon honed their skills into a well-oiled symphony. “We concentrated on flying night launches and night landings in the simulator,” Bluford told the NASA Oral History Project. “We learned to set out light levels low enough in the cockpit that we could maintain our night vision and I had a special lamp mounted on the back of my seat so that I could read the checklist in the dark.”
Launched on 30 August 1983, Challenger sailed through a smooth mission, deploying Insat-1B and using the dumbbell-like Payload Flight Test Article (PFTA) to evaluate the performance of the shuttle’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm. STS-8 was always intended to terminate at Edwards, whose vast expanse of runway facilities in the California desert provided better margins for safety. Landing at KSC’s narrow runway, on the other hand, would have to await future flights. “In other words,” said Brandenstein, darkly, “if we had some problem and ran off the side of the runway, we wouldn’t go into the moat.”
Edwards’ concrete Runway 22 was ultimately selected, rather than the dry lakebed. “If we landed on the lakebed with the lights that we had devised to do the night landing, we’d kick up a cloud of dust, which attenuated the light,” said Brandenstein. “We felt it was safer to take the approach to land on the concrete, rather than the lakebed.”
The lights developed to support STS-8’s nocturnal homecoming were the Precision Approach Path Indicators (PAPI) and these kept Truly and Brandenstein on their correct outer glide-path of 19 degrees with a beam of half-white and half-red light. The PAPI system was located 1.4 miles (2.3 km) from the end of the runway and 1.8 miles (3 km) from the shuttle’s predicted touchdown point. The correct flight path was then determined by the astronauts by centering the white light onto the “band” of red lights. Transition and area lighting, comprising 800-million-candlepower xenon floodlights, illuminated the entire area, with green marker lights indicating the ends of the runway.
Unsurprisingly for a hypersonic vehicle, no landing lights could be affixed to Challenger herself. “During re-entry, everything’s got to behind the tile and inside the mold line,” said veteran astronaut Loren Shriver, who worked extensively on night-landing techniques.
“When the gear comes down, there are no landing lights on the shuttle,” Shriver continued. “A normal airplane has several lights that come down when the gear are extended or other lights that the crew can deploy or turn on. So here we were, not wanting to not be able to land at night, because—to be a fully operational program—we were going to eventually land at night somewhere. Without landing lights, we needed some kind of illumination on the runway, in addition to the normal runway lights.
“There were lots of cues for the pilots, but there was nothing illuminating the touchdown zone,” Shriver continued in his recollections to the NASA Oral History Project. “We had to figure out a way to supply some of that lighting onto the touchdown zone and far enough ahead that the commander could get the visual cues that he would normally have to fly in and land. We experimented with a number of methods to fly the glide slope on and then, after the pre-flare, to fly the shallow glide slope. We used various combinations of other high-powered lighting systems and ended up zeroing in on xenon lights.
“We found that certain arrangements of these lights in groups of two or four, and angled across the touchdown zone, not only headed the pilots in the right direction, but supplied the light. Then it became apparent that, once the pilots came in, if the light sources were behind them and they were trying to land on a lakebed, the wingtip vortexes and the shuttle’s rollout would produce a huge amount of dust, which would start to cut out the light in the rest of the touchdown zone. So it’s maybe not a good thing to try to land on a lakebed at night, because the dust is soon going to block out all the light. Very soon after that, we put all that stuff on the concrete runways and decided if we were going to land at night, we wanted to land on a hard surface. It was an evolving process.”
The ultimate test came late on the evening of 4 September 1983. Truly and Brandenstein fired Challenger’s twin Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines at 11:47:30 p.m. PDT to start the glide back home to California. “As we re-entered the atmosphere, we began to feel the effects of gravity and saw the fiery plasma of hot air outside the front windows of the orbiter,” remembered Bluford. “Dale took pictures of the hot plasma as it enveloped us and he would occasionally hand me the camera. I could feel the camera getting heavier and heavier as we got closer to home.”
With Brandenstein, Gardner, Bluford and Thornton all on their “rookie” missions, only Truly had flown before…and his previous launch and landing on Columbia’s STS-2 mission in November 1981 had occurred in the hours of daytime. STS-8, on the other hand, posed a totally new set of challenges. “No engines. No moon. No correct dashboard info,” he remembered. “The stars were blanked out because the window was frosted over. Then, finally, there were the lights of the California coast and Edwards. On the runway were the lines of red and white lights and that’s what brought us in.”
Touchdown on Runway 22 came at 12:40:43 a.m. PDT (3:40:43 a.m. EDT) on 5 September. The shuttle rolled to a halt in 50 seconds and 9,371 feet (2,856 meters). “We defy Hollywood to match this sequence,” Truly quipped at the post-flight press conference, as he showed video of Challenger dropping like an apparition out of the dark desert sky. “My hat is off to the people who helped us develop the Heads-Up Display and the night landing system and to the great work in support for the last year, generally in the middle of the night, to the folks out in our Shuttle Training Aircraft that provided Dan and me with the training that it took to accomplish this first night landing.”
It was the first of 26 night landings which would be achieved through STS-135 and the end of the program in July 2011. STS-8 would be Challenger’s one and only nocturnal touchdown, but—as will be outlined in tomorrow’s AmericaSpace history feature—her sisters would do so multiple times between January 1986 and July 2011: Discovery would land at night eight times, Endeavour seven times and Columbia and Atlantis five times each.