Columbia Back In Business

At 1:37:08 pm on 13 August, a little over five days after leaving Pad 39B, Shaw guided Columbia smoothly onto the dry lakebed Runway 17 at Edwards Air Force Base in California. ''We hadn't tried to land [at KSC],'' recalled Leestma, ''because the first [post-Challenger] flight of each of the vehicles after the big down period was always the lakebed [at Edwards].'' In fact, it had been more than four years since the Shuttle had last returned to land at its home base in Florida; not until the end of Atlantis' STS-38 mission in November 1990 would KSC landings resume.

''Super team and great machine!'' radioed Capcom Frank Culbertson as Columbia rolled to a graceful stop. Shaw, however, later referred to this landing as demonstrating that he ''wasn't such a hot pilot. When I landed [STS-]61B, it was on the [concrete] runway at Edwards that's got defined boundaries and it's easy to judge sink rate and your height. On STS-28 we landed on the lakebed, which has stripes painted on [it]. It's like oil that they put down there so it outlines the runway, but it's not a well-defined thing and you don't have the same kind of depth perception.

''So when we came down and I flared the orbiter, I [didn't] know how high we were. Looking at the photographs, we weren't very high, but I basically levelled the vehicle off and then it floated. So instead of landing at 195 knots, the way we were supposed to, we landed at 155. This was Columbia again and so here we are on the main gear, decelerating fast and I've got to get the nose on the ground. The same thing that happened to John [Young] on STS-9 happened to me and the nose [went] 'bam' on the ground. I felt terrible because I let the thing float for 40 knots' worth of deceleration. [We] got a lot of great data about low-speed flying qualities on the orbiter, but it wasn't supposed to work out that way.''

Almost an hour after touchdown, the five astronauts emerged from their spacecraft. ''Getting Columbia back [in space] was a key milestone,'' said JSC Director Aaron Cohen. ''This crew did an outstanding job in doing that.'' Columbia herself looked very dirty after her eighth trip into space, but according to the US Air Force's Shuttle support manager, Ed Jenner, she had suffered minimal damage.

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