Shuttle made historic '82 landing near Holloman

The Space Shuttle Orbiter Columbia lands in 1982 in southern New Mexico after seven days in space, where the astronauts tested their ability to deploy and capture objects, and even keep house. On April 15, 1982, the U.S. House of Representatives renamed the Strip, where Columbia landed, to White Sands Space Harbor. NASA lost the Columbia and seven astronauts on Feb. 1, 2003, when it broke apart on reentry over Texas. (photo courtesy of New Mexico Museum of Space History)

The Space Shuttle Orbiter Columbia lands in 1982 in southern New Mexico after seven days in space, where the astronauts tested their ability to deploy and capture objects, and even keep house. On April 15, 1982, the U.S. House of Representatives renamed the Strip, where Columbia landed, to White Sands Space Harbor. NASA lost the Columbia and seven astronauts on Feb. 1, 2003, when it broke apart on reentry over Texas. (photo courtesy of New Mexico Museum of Space History)

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Edwards Air Force Base in California, the primary landing site, was flooded. Construction at Kennedy Space Center had not yet been completed for a landing, according to a White Sands Missile Range press release. The only option was the then-secondary site, Northrup Strip on White Sands, where winds were whipping up quite a sandstorm. 

"The weather was atrocious. White Sands was airborne," Alamogordo resident Don Larsen said.

On March 30, 1982, the public descended on the Army base to watch the Space Shuttle Orbiter Columbia, completing the STS-3 mission, touch down.

"It was cold and it was windy," said Larsen, at the time a senior master sergeant at the 49th Equipment Maintenance Squadron on Holloman Air Force Base. "NASA was backed into a corner."

Apparently, conditions aboard Columbia were critical. Larsen said that after seven days in space the astronauts, Marine Col. Jack Lousma, the commander, and Air Force Col. C. Gordon Fullerton, the pilot, were "running out of consumables."

Lousma and Fullerton had been slated to land Monday, March 29, but an Associated Press headline summarized the dilemma: "Blowing sand stalls recovery of Columbia." NASA ordered the astronauts to bed at 6:30 p.m. to rest for an early Tuesday start, while at White Sands Larsen said crash-and-rescue teams practiced. 

Radio station KPSA AM 1230 began broadcasting events live when they parked their remote truck just south of the U.S. 54/70 overpass and invited listeners to welcome a train transporting recovery equipment.

"And the listeners came out," said Bob Flotte, who owned the station. "We had that whole area filled with cars, trucks and campers. We had bikers there, too. If I recall, I think some of the police patrol units and fire trucks also arrived."

When the train arrived after sunset, Flotte said drivers flipped on their lights, blew their horns, and emergency vehicles blared sirens.

"The train conductor actually stopped the train and folks came off to find out what was happening. They were impressed that Alamogordo and the area was so excited and supportive," Flotte said.

Flotte continued his on-the-scene broadcasts on Monday. At 2:30 a.m. he drove to Northrup Strip, but when NASA delayed the landing the military escorted everyone to the Tularosa gate. The Alamogordo Daily News reported those out first quickly snagged the choice spots. Police routed the overflow to Tularosa's football stadium, then directed the remainder to street parking.

"As night fell, a number of fires popped up around the (stadium) parking lot as people cooked their suppers," the Daily News said. Some "slept in their cars, blankets and sleeping bags pulled up around them. Others passed the chilly night wandering around the road, chatting with police officers, or anyone else who was awake." Police squelched "a few wild and loud parties," and arrests were made after a "skirmish at the gate."

Security reopened the gate early Tuesday. The ADN estimated 1,000 vehicles entered, and Flotte believed 5,000 passengers piled out of them. Motorcycles were prohibited, so riders ditched their bikes and hitched rides. Along the way, cars that broke down were abandoned and those stranded stuck out their thumbs as well.

Flotte, back on the air at the Strip, said he was surprised when he looked up to see military police surrounding him.

"They asked us if we could move out of that area to another location. They told us a suitcase had been abandoned a short distance from our broadcast area. Their concern was the possibility of some kind of explosive device. As it turned out, a visitor had left the suitcase there because they did not want to lug it around," he said.

Among those in the VIP stands, most whom Flotte interviewed, were New Mexico's governor and his wife, Bruce and Alice King; U.S. Sen. Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, a geologist who had walked on the Moon during Apollo 17; and Alamogordo Mayor Henry Pacelli and his wife.

"An NBC TV reporter said they were monitoring the NASA feed but found listening to our coverage very informative," Flotte said. "He mentioned you guys are adding lots of local information to the event. Some of the radio networks even took feeds from us, and we did end up as featured stories on some of the national TV networks."

Finally, and even though the wind had not fully abated, the AP reported that just after 9 a.m. "applause and cheers rose ... as Columbia appeared as a tiny white dot emerging from wispy clouds in the western sky."

In Alamogordo, the ADN said crowds watched from the International Space Hall of Fame, and Municipal Court delayed proceedings to crowd around a TV.

Flotte said that about an hour after the "almost perfect landing," NASA granted him an "exclusive" interview with the astronauts. He said a NASA official told him they normally did not "allow interviews right after a landing" but did so because "your station worked hard" to provide coverage.

"We were outside the cordoned area. I kept watching them in hopes that they might look our way, and then they did. I motioned for them to come over," Flotte said.

The following Saturday, NASA allowed a static viewing, and AP reported 60,000 attended.

On April 15, 1982, the U.S. House of Representatives renamed the Strip to White Sands Space Harbor.

NASA lost the Columbia and seven astronauts on Feb. 1, 2003 when it broke apart on reentry over Texas.

Michael Shinabery is an education specialist at the New Mexico Museum of Space History. He can be reached at michael.shinabery@state.nm.us.