Johnson Space Center
Return to Johnson Space Center home page Return to Johnson Space Center home page

STS-4 Oral History Interview Excerpts

Space Shuttle launches garnered a great deal of public interest, but it was the landing of STS-4 that became a uniquely picturesque moment in space history.

On July 4, 1982, a crowd of 50,000 people, along with President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, watched as Commander T.K. Mattingly and pilot Hank Hartsfield landed Columbia at Edwards AFB. The President congratulated the crew on its successful mission from a platform beneath the wing of the Enterprise, and announced the Shuttle test flights had ended, moving the program into its operational phase. Then, he set forth the beginning of a new American space policy by adding that the nation must look aggressively to the future “by establishing a more permanent presence in space.”

As he finished his speech, Challenger aboard the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft taxied down the runway, then lifted on its way to become the newest addition to the Shuttle fleet.

Below are excerpts from oral history transcripts that reflect on this most unique time thirty years ago.

View the STS-4 image gallery.

T. K. Mattingly, Astronaut, STS-4 Commander
Interviewed April 22, 2002

No matter what day we took off
We knew that they had hyped up the STS-4 mission so that they wanted to make sure that we landed on the Fourth of July. It was no uncertain terms that we were going to land on the Fourth of July, no matter what day we took off. Even if it was the fifth, we were going to land on the Fourth. [Laughter] That meant, if you didn't do any of your test mission, that's okay, as long as you just land on the Fourth, because President Reagan is going to be there. We thought that was kind of interesting.

The Administrator [James Beggs] met us for lunch the day before flight, and as he walked out, he said, “Oh, by the way, you know, with the President going to be there and all, you might give a couple of minutes thought on something that'd be appropriate to say, like ‘A small step for man,’ or something like that,” and he left.

Hank [Hartsfield] and I looked at each other and he says, “He wants us to come up with this?” And we had a good time. We never came up with something we could say, but we came up with a whole lot of humor that we didn't dare say. But that was an interesting experience.

It was just really overwhelming
On STS-4, I promised Hank he could fly part of the heading alignment circle so he could say, “I was the pilot but I actually controlled the airplane.” So when we did come in and got out at Edwards, when we came around, we got on the heading alignment circle and I was tracking it, and I turned to look at Hank, and I was about to say, “Well, okay, here, you take it for a bit now,” and I turned to look at him, and all of a sudden my gyros tumbled and I just had one of the worst cases of vertigo I've ever had. Broad daylight. It was just really overwhelming.

I went back and started focusing on the eight-ball and looking at the displays, and Hank says, “Are you going to let me fly?”

And I said, “No, no. I can't talk about it now.” We came around and did our thing, and I was still having this vestibular sensation that was unusual, but once we got on the glide slope it seemed like it was kind of—picture's normal. But I was beginning to get concerned at the pre-flare point. Hank called it off and we did our thing, but it was slower than normal or than the standard, and we ended up coming up on the flare and got over the runway, and all of our external aids are set so that you’ll be sure and land 1,500 feet at least down the runway. Most unpowered vehicles, you tend to land longer, but you don't want to err on the short side. So if you're going to make a mistake, you kind of push it down there and you tend to float.

I knew we were under the standard final approach glide slope, but now I wanted to get down and try to make a good landing with it. Your eye-height perception and judging motion is really not all that great. You’re sitting high on the Shuttle Orbiter, and touchdown is about like a 747 cockpit height. It's not like you’re picking up good visual cues.

Hank is calling off the altitudes to me, and he gets down to one foot, half a foot, and because of the ALT bobble, I had put grease marks all over the window so I could see the nose change. Wherever I was, there was a line with the grease pencil so I could reference the horizon and fly attitudes instead of sink rates. I would listen to Hank tell me what the altitude was and I'd sit there and I’d make little adjustments for the nose.

We kept going through this, and one of the dictums is, you don't want to land short, and you don't want to land too fast, because the tires are already stressed pretty heavily. But you really don't want to land too slow, because if you land below about 165 [knots], you could hold the nose up. Because of that big fat fuselage, the nose will stay up in the air. In the simulator it will stay up there to maybe 70 knots. There's no way to let it come down without overloading the structure and breaking the fuselage. So you really need to get there and get the nose down before you lose elevator control, because otherwise this thing will just fall. If you put your nose down too soon, then the negative angle of attack on the wing adds to the loads on the tires, and you can blow the tires. So you kind of don't put the nose down above 160, but not much below that.

So he's calling off air speeds and altitude, and I'm just staring at the horizon and I'm hawking it, and I have no idea what it's going to feel like to land. When I would shoot touch-and-go's in the KC-135, there was never any doubt when we landed. You could always tell. So I was expecting bang, crash, squeak, something. Then nothing and nothing. Finally Hank says, “You’d better put the nose down.”

“Oh,” I said, “All right.” So I put it down, and I was sure we were still in the air. I thought, “Oh, god, he’s right. We can't be very far off the ground.” Sure enough, we were on the ground and neither one of us knew it. I've never been able to do that again in any airplane. Never did it before. According to the pictures, it looks like we must have landed at maybe 350 feet down the runway, and we didn't mean to.

Thirty minutes ago, this was in space
After we got through with all this, we got ready to get up and get out of the airplane. We had built a little sign. We thought the President would come in and want to look inside the Orbiter, and so we built a little sign that says “Welcome to Columbia. Thirty minutes ago, this was in space,” or something like that, some handwritten damn thing.

I got ready to get up out the seat, and we took our helmets off. We still had the pressure suits and pressure helmets. Took the helmets off, set them down, and I had a kneeboard on my right thigh, so I took that off, and I went to set it on the center console, and I couldn't lift it. I almost ended up sliding it off my leg onto the center console. I said, “We haven't been in the air that long. How could I lose all that?”

So Hank was kind of watching me, and he’s still perplexed because I didn't let him fly the airplane. I said, “I am not going to have somebody come up here and pull me out of this chair. I don't know what it is, but I'm going to give every ounce of strength I've got and get up under my own.”

So I just got this mental set, and I pushed, and I hit my head on the overhead so hard, the blood was coming out. It was terrible. Oh, did I have a headache! And Hank said something like, “That's very graceful.” [Laughter] So now I really did have something to worry about.

So we got up, and I said, “Hank, the crew isn't going to get to open this thing up for probably 15 minutes or so after landing. We're not going to have people help us off. So we're going down and we're going to do close-order drill. We're going to walk around the mid-deck so when they open the hatch, we're going to walk out.”

We got ourselves down there, and we're walking around, and Hank said, “Well, let's see. If you do it like you did getting out of your chair, you'll go down the stairs and you're going to fall down, so you need to have something to say. Why don't you just look up at the President and say, 'Mr. President, those are beautiful shoes. Think you can get that right?” He was merciless.
How does America's finest aviator walk into the wall?

The point of all this story is not just a sea story, it is when we got through, we got out, they took us back into the hangar at Dryden. We were walking, I thought, pretty well by then, and we had this long time waiting because the President was there and was going to speak, and all the Secret Service had to do their stuff, and so there was a significant length of time before this ceremony could take place. I said, “Well, you know, it's been a while. I'll go down to the head here.”

They said, “You know where it is?”

I said, “Sure.”

“Okay.” So I walk out, and it was down a hallway that comes to another hallway that hits it as a T, and the idea is you go down this hallway, take a left, and the bathroom's there. I was feeling like I got my sea legs back, so I'm walking down there, and it's one of these tile, linoleum kind of floor surfaces. I got to down there, and I was trying to walk fast, and I turned and walked right into the wall. And now I was really perplexed. Fortunately, nobody sees this, but how does America's finest aviator walk into the wall? [Laughs]

Quickly those skills came back, but in working with some of the doctors since then, discovering what happens when you reset your inside accelerometers to things, we discovered that you actually haven't—we talk about losing strength, well, there is some muscular deterioration from lack of use, but there's another phenomena that came out of all of this. When I go to raise my hand, I don't know how that happened, but there's some kind of electrical signal that goes down here and it relaxes some muscles and tightens others. And when you have spent a period in this environment, those electrical signals are calibrated so that they respond appropriately in the weightless environment.

When you want to do things, you do them unconsciously, but in the brain's process it goes through and it sends a signal that says, “I want to raise my arm,” and then sends all these signals around. Well, it's now recalibrated so it doesn't overdo things, and it says, “Raise your arm,” and it puts this little miniscule thing in there, and if you've got, like, my knee board sitting there, nothing happens. That's normal. It's just kind of tensing your arm a little bit. You haven't done anything. But you don't know that that's the reason.

That's the reason when I went to get out, and I decided that it's every bit of energy I can muster, well, the muscles were still there. It just needed to be told to do something. And the same thing happens when you go walking around, you've got the channel back that says I know how much energy it takes to stand up. I know what forces to put on here for locomotion, but to turn is a relatively small side force that we do, and all this is unconscious. But that signal is still down here in the noise, and so just thinking you're going to turn left, well, nothing happened except the wall came up. [Laughter]

It was little things like that, and as we discovered these things, that's where this business of learning about space flight and what goes into it and all this is, it'll never be boring. It's just every day you take one more little step to find something that's really, really cool, and it's always there.

Read T. K. Mattingly's oral history transcripts

View the STS-4 image gallery

Visit the JSC Oral History Collection

Jerry L. Ross, Astronaut, T-38 Chase Crew
Interviewed January 26, 2004

I also got to meet Roy Rogers
We were very happy when they assigned us to be the lead airplane for the fourth landing, which was STS-4, back at the Edwards landing facilities on July 4th, ’82. We got to join up with Columbia and get some great pictures of it coming down for the approach and landing, and just as it touched down, I got a really nice picture of it just as the main wheels are touching down and throwing up smoke on the runway.

Then we came back around and landed and there was a tremendous crowd out there on the dry lakebed. There was a little city of RVs and campers on the far side of the lakebed and a fairly large crowd there at Edwards proper, because President Reagan was out there for the landing.

That’s also the day that he announced that we were going to go build a space station, which we all thought was pretty cool. Of course, it took many years to finally get it done, or be in the process of doing it, but it still was a very exciting time for all of us that were in the program and looking forward to an exciting future.

I also got to meet Roy Rogers while I was out there, and Monty Montana, so that was pretty cool, too.

Read Jerry Ross' oral history transcripts

View the STS-4 image gallery

Visit the JSC Oral History Collection

Frances Ferris , Chief Project Engineer, Orbiter Design & Requirements
Interviewed August 24, 2010

I had crawled inside the wing
It’s pretty exciting. I did a lot of work on Challenger up at Palmdale. STS-4 landed at Edwards—because they were all landing at Edwards at that time—July 4th. Columbia landed and Challenger took off that same day to go to Florida. That was really something for me, because I’d never seen a landing before.

I would have thought it’s just like an airplane coming in, but it was amazing because the vehicle falls so fast. Then to see the 747 [Shuttle Carrier Aircraft] take off with Challenger that I had crawled inside the wing and all parts of the vehicle was really gratifying.

Read Frances Ferris' oral history transcript

View the STS-4 image gallery

Visit the JSC Oral History Collection

Henry T. Taylor, Flight Engineer, Shuttle Carrier Aircraft
Interviewed August 26, 2011

Challenger took off from the lake bed over the crowd
After STS-4 [Columbia] landed in California, President Reagan was there to greet the crew. He gave a big speech at Dryden. Challenger was already loaded up on the 747 [Shuttle Carrier Aircraft] and took off from the lake bed over the crowd at Dryden and then came to Houston and stopped and then left and went to KSC on its initial delivery flight to KSC. We brought Endeavour on its maiden trip when it came from California. We brought it through Ellington. Atlantis came through Ellington also when it was new.

Read Henry Taylor's oral history transcript

View the STS-4 image gallery

Visit the JSC Oral History Collection

Ronald L. Newman, Manager, Flight Suit Engineer
Interviewed October 21, 2009

In space, you’re longer
STS-4 included the first time anybody put the suit on in the Shuttle. It was not planned to go outside, they just wanted to make sure that you could do the procedures. There was always a question. Because of the way the suit is built, there’s a waist ring that is a big circumferential ring in the middle of your body where these two rings have to come together and latch completely, front and back, all the way around, in order to make the seal. After a person climbs into the upper torso, which is holding the backpack, then you’ve got your pants on already, but you’ve got to attach the pants to the upper part of the suit. It’s a ring with around latches all the way around. Each of those latches has to close.

They had to test them in zero-g missions to make sure the astronauts were able to close it without gravity, and close it by themselves ideally, even though the other astronaut was there to help if they needed to. They always trained to try to be able to do it by yourself. It was important that we know that once you’re actually in space that a person can put it on. Ken Mattingly was the commander of STS-4, so it was his assignment to get in the suit and put it on.

When you’re in space, you grow taller than you are on the Earth, just because when we’re here our weight compresses our spine. There’s a certain amount of zero-g growth that you get just immediately when you get to space. You grow a fraction of an inch just because your tendons and ligaments are relaxed, and they’re no longer compressed by gravity, so they’ll stretch a little bit when you get to space. Also, your spine is compressed by your weight here on the ground, so some of the fluid goes out of your vertebrae. When you get back into space, fluid seeps back into the vertebrae and you start growing. In the morning while you’re still lying down you’re a little bit taller than you are at the end of the day. You get up, but very quickly the gravity will then make you your normal size when you get out of bed. In space, you’re longer.

There was a design feature early on in the Space Shuttle suit where there’s a bracket where you could just push a button and the suit would get one inch longer. That bracket was heavy, expensive, hard to make. In spaceflight, every pound you add is going to be lots more pounds of fuel. There’s a big cost to adding any kind of weight. Because of the money, the design complexity, and the weight, they decided to get rid of that feature. I guess it was decided that people would still be able to close the suit without a problem.

I know that it could have been a problem
As a spacesuit engineer, I knew that astronauts like to have a tight-fitting suit because it gives them more mobility. So if you have a tight suit and you’re growing an inch, are you going to be able to close it? I did a little bit of research on my own using the NASA data from Skylab. One of the astronauts who was in charge of that experiment, they measured how much you grew in space over a period of time. After a couple of days, you grow as much as you’re going to grow, but you do grow. If you have a tight-fitting suit on the ground and you get up in space and you’re bigger, it kept worrying me that you weren’t going to be able to close the suit.

I recommended to my NASA technical monitors that we really needed to accommodate that somehow. I brought the data to them and convinced them that actually we do need to allow for that. We no longer have this capability. The way we fix that is we fit the suit to them properly on the Earth, then just before launch we add anywhere between an inch and two inches, to the length of the suit, to be able to make sure they can close it. We ended up deciding at the time to add one inch to everybody’s suit length to allow for the spinal growth.

When Ken Mattingly put the suit on, it was a nervous time for us, because no one had ever done this before. It was a big deal for him to put the suit on. He put the suit on. He was able to close the suit. Over the com loop he said, “They were supposed to make the suit longer, but it feels just like it did on Earth.” It was one of those things. It was a problem averted, it was no big deal, but I know that it could have been a problem.

So actually, my most concrete contribution to the space program is to add one inch to the suit. I was glad nothing happened. It was good.

Read Ronald Newman's oral history transcript

View the STS-4 image gallery

Visit the JSC Oral History Collection


Return to JSC History Portal

Go to NASA home Go to JSC home

Curator: JSC Web Team | Responsible NASA Official: Lynnette Madison | Updated 7/16/2010
Privacy Policy and Important Notices

Information JSC History Portal