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A dusty corner of space shuttle history

A landing strip in New Mexico's "Alkali Flats" holds a prominent place in the shuttle's past — and still serves the space effort. NBC's James Oberg reflects on White Sands' role.
The shuttle Columbia touches down on the Northrop Strip at White Sands in New Mexico on March 30, 1982, trailing gypsum powder behind it.
The shuttle Columbia touches down on the Northrop Strip at White Sands in New Mexico on March 30, 1982, trailing gypsum powder behind it.Nasa

HOUSTON - My strongest sensory memory of Northrop Strip — the runway in southern New Mexico that has popped back into the news as a possible space shuttle landing site — is one of taste.

I don’t mean aesthetics — I mean in-your-face, oily-smooth gypsum powder that the wind blew into my mouth and nostrils and right onto my skin through many layers of warm clothing.

If the astronauts step out of Discovery and see the mountains and deserts and skies of New Mexico around them, they will have double reasons to feel fortunate. A safe return to anywhere on Earth is the first plus, and to do so in New Mexico (especially without the weather I ran into) would be an added blessing.

From many years spent in New Mexico, I was familiar with its bizarre weather patterns. They ranged from rainbows that shimmered as thunderclaps struck them ... to raindrops that changed to mudballs as they fell through dust clouds to plop-plop-plop on the pavement ... to night skies so transparent the starlight stabbed pain into your retinas ... to skies so radiantly colorful you could see God’s brushstrokes. But the weather I encountered in my one and only visit to the backup shuttle runway was bizarre even by New Mexico standards.

Before the shuttles flew
It was late 1980, and no space shuttles had yet flown into orbit, but I was there with my Mission Control Center colleague Wayne to visit the NASA rocket engine test facility on the west side of the Sangre de Christo Mountains, just east of Las Cruces and the aptly named Jornado del Muerte ("Journey of Death"). Our console position specialized in the small thrusters that were to change the shuttle’s direction and orientation once it reached space, and we had been sent to see the thrusters in action in specially built vacuum-chamber test stands.

We completed our work by the second day, and we had several spare hours before heading for the airport — so off we went to see the much-fabled "Northrup Strip" (a careless misspelling of the aviation firm, Northrop, that had built and used it decades before). An hour’s drive, a few temporary road signs and one security checkpoint later, we passed the mobile home that served as runway headquarters and drove over to the edge of the field.

We couldn’t see much in any direction because this was one of the days that the wind howled, raising the fine gypsum powder that gave the area its pioneer-days name: "Alkali Flats." The mountaintops to the west could be seen above the ground-clinging duststorm, but horizontal visibility was only a hundred yards or less.

Gusts of cold wind tore at us, and gave us a chance to measure its force and speed by tearing off Wayne’s NASA ID badge and swirling it, with a few feeble farewell glints, off into the gray distance. It’s probably still out there — we didn’t even bother to chase it, but just headed back to the car.

Shuttle comes to New Mexico
The only previous space shuttle landing at this runway was in 1982, on Columbia’s third orbital mission. The similarities and differences between that event and the possible landing there of Discovery are instructive.

First, when Columbia came in, there was no last-minute doubt about which site would be chosen. The shuttle wasn’t yet cleared for landing on narrow, relatively "short" concrete runways yet (and wouldn’t even land in Florida until STS-11, two years later), and massive rains had flooded the long lakebed runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California weeks before. So most of the landing support equipment had been transported by train and by truck convoy to New Mexico far in advance.

Then, as now, the shuttle pilots were familiar with the runway because that was where they performed their primary approach training. A pilot would fly a modified Grumman Gulfstream II business jet, called the Shuttle Training Aircraft, out of El Paso, and make about 10 approaches to the Northrop Strip runway.

“It’s the most familiar place [to land] — you’re used to it,” veteran NASA astronaut Gordo Fullerton told me by telephone. “The judgment of height and the same landing aids are all out there.”

They never landed (the pilot term is "touch and go") since the simulation ended at the point the pilot’s eyes were at the same altitude they would be when the shuttle would touch down — and the much smaller STA was still 20 feet in the air. At that point its autopilot dropped out of shuttle simulation mode, restored full power and lift, and allowed the STA pilot in the left seat to take over, fly off and prepare another approach.

Fullerton, who was the pilot of the STS-3 mission that landed in New Mexico in 1982, had another advantage the current crew does not have. He actually had landed a big airplane at the Northrup Strip about 15 years earlier, when he took a retired B-47 from storage at Davis-Montham Air Force Base in Arizona to the New Mexico runway. That project was to test protective levels of ground revetments, and the plane was placed in the enclosure and had an array of ground weapons fired in its direction.

Keeping the welcome mat out
Since 1982, the runway has remained a contingency landing strip, first for a special type of "crippled-shuttle" launch abort mode where engine problems prevent reaching a safe orbit but allow the shuttle to loop once around Earth and back; and secondly, as a standby in case both Florida and California are closed due to weather (a contingency that NASA’s meteorology team calculated had only an 8 percent probability of occurring in any given December).

The weather factor also hits home on the issue of windblown gypsum getting into all the crevices of a landed shuttle, is it did in my own body’s openings and crevices (don’t ask). But NASA engineers point out that the troubles with Columbia came from a post-landing sandstorm that sprang up while the shuttle was still parked in the middle of the dust bowl. Nowadays, the field has a new concrete mating/de-service area and a paved towway, built to move any future operations out of areas with blowing gypsum sand.

When Fullerton and shuttle commander Jack Lousma landed in 1982, the runway had an immense crane called the "Stiffleg Derrick" that, together with a large conventional mobile crane, was able to hoist Columbia atop its 747 carrier aircraft and get it airborne for Florida within seven days.

That crane is now gone. It was first shipped to California's Vandenberg Air Force Base in the mid-1980s to support space shuttle launchings from the West Coast, and the shuttle Enterprise used the crane when it was sent there for fit checks at the launch pad. Following cancellation of California launch plans, the crane wound up at the Palmdale, Calif., plant where orbiters are manufactured — and it remains there to this day, too big and too expensive for ready transport.

Safest and cheapest option
NASA’s current plans are to use two, rented mobile cranes for mounting and mating operations, and with the construction technology advances in the past few decades, that’s the safest and cheapest option.

The runway area also now includes a medical building capable of full medical support to returning space travelers, even those from long-duration space station missions that provide significant challenges for diagnosis and treatment.

The rest of the veterans of Northrup Strip are ready for action, too. Fullerton, now 68 and a senior NASA test pilot at Edwards, has recently been selected as project pilot for the modified Boeing 747 that will carry the SOFIA infrared telescope. My buddy “Wayne” was Wayne Hale, now director of the entire space shuttle program (he replaced his lost ID badge with no career impact).

I’ve finally gotten the dust cleaned off, and remain as enchanted as ever with New Mexico and its space future as well as its space history.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer.