Created By The Mercury 7 Astronauts
Gordon G. Fullerton in 1982 piloted the third space shuttle mission, a rigorous test of Columbia’s systems, and in 1985, as commander of Challenger, he overcame an engine loss and near-abort to guide the shuttle and six crew members safely into orbit to reap a scientific harvest.
Fullerton was born in 1936 in Rochester, N.Y., and received a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from California Institute of Technology in 1958, the same year he entered active Air Force duty. He was a test pilot for the bomber operation division at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, when he was notified in 1966 he had been selected for the USAF Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program, which was later cancelled.
NASA selected Fullerton for its astronaut corps in 1969, and he served on support crews for Apollo missions before assignment to the Space Shuttle Approach and Landing test flights. In these tests, two-man crews glided to unpowered landings after the shuttle Enterprise was ejected 25,000 feet over the California desert from its perch atop a Boeing 747 carrier aircraft.
Fullerton and commander Jack Lousma were at the controls when shuttle Columbia rocketed into space March 22, 1982, on its third test flight. The astronauts subjected the orbiter to extremes in thermal stress, conducted the first loaded tests of the remote 50-foot robot arm and performed the first shuttle science experiments. As Columbia neared the end of its week-long flight, rains turned the hard-packed desert sand into a quagmire at Edwards AFB, Calif. NASA did not feel the shuttle was mature enough to attempt a landing on a the narrow strip at Kennedy Space Center, so Lousma and Fullerton were directed to an emergency backup site, desolate Northrup Strip on the edge of New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range.
Shuttle Challenger was 5 minutes 45 seconds off the launch pad on July 29, 1985, when one of its three main engines suddenly shut down. “We show a center engine failure,” commander Fullerton radioed. Mission Control determined that by burning the two remaining engines 86 seconds beyond the planned 8 minutes 31 seconds, the shuttle could achieve orbit. “Abort to orbit,” controllers radioed Fullerton. Fullerton and pilot Roy Bridges supervised the burning of the two working engines the extra time and settled into orbit. That trauma behind them, the seven astronauts, including five scientists settled in for a week of experiments, working in teams, around-the-clock, with Spacelab instruments berthed in the shuttle’s cargo bay. They gained a wealth of knowledge about the sun, stars and galaxies; earth’s atmosphere, and the human body.
In 1986 Fullerton joined NASA’s research pilot office at Dryden Flight Research Facility, Edwards AFB, Calif. Among projects he has worked on are piloting NASA’s B-52 launch aircraft and the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, and testing multi-engine and high performance aircraft.
Fullerton passed away on August 21, 2013.
Gordon Fullerton was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on April 30, 2005.