How NASA Learned To Fly The Space Shuttle Like A Glider

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Before Space Shuttle Columbia could fly to space they needed to know that it would fly like a glider so that it could be landed. Learning how to fly was the primary mission of Enterprise, the first space shuttle which was unveiled in 1976 and named after the fictional Starship Enterprise (which was itself named after the real USS Enterprise…..).

There were years of modelling, testing in wind tunnels and development of the design, but it would take full scale tests to demonstrate that the Shuttle could really fly like a glider. The Approach and Landing tests confirmed the predictions of the models and demonstrated the software for the flight control system was robust enough to commit to Columbia’s orbital flight.

Composite view of STS-3 landing by Retro Space HD

Tags: aviation, wind tunnels, nasa, fly by wire, space shuttle, test pilot

  1. Alex Lashbrook

    The most impressive thing about the onboard computers was an algorithm specially designed to compensate for the test-pilot’s massive balls.

  2. csdosremedios

    As an avid Trekie back then, I was against renaming the Shuttle. The USS Enterprise was a ‘Constitution’ class Starship. The first Starship to fly was the NCC-1700 Constitution.

  3. bridgecross

    “You can always go around” says my instructor.

    Shuttle pilots: *sly grin*

  4. The Darth Knight

    I’m guessing that the boys had some fun flying, that “fly by wire” Crusader.

  5. Drew Christensen

    “Given that this was the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, it was thought this would be called the Constitution.”
    I felt like there was something in the tone of your voice that acknowledges that this makes no sense.

  6. Will Morici

    I remember several times with Enterprise:

    1. Stacking Enterprise with inert SRBs and ET in the VAB and doing rollout tests to Pad 39A.
    2. Stacking Enterprise out at VAFB and rolling it on the road (that was a nightmare as the road was tight and had some interesting turns.
    3. Testing the leading edge panels following the Columbia accident (that was a sad time!)

  7. Pedro Paez

    Thank you, Scott!
    This video tells historic moments that otherwise would be lost in time!
    Computer generated images were unthinkable at that time! Virtual Reality wasn’t available not even in Gene Roddenbery’s imagination!
    Live long and prosper!

  8. Alec From Minnenowhere

    Maybe you should do a video on the “Pathfinder”. It would be the Grandparent of all the shuttles.

  9. Golf Foxtrot 22

    I remember reading about the flight control systems in the book “Into the Black”. I found it really interesting how they were breaking new ground in this area, even the simulator side was new tech. Thanks Scott.

  10. CF

    I loved this history. Thanks for sharing this Scott. It answered some long standing questions for me. 😀

  11. Jon Mireles

    All I have to say is wow, Scott, you continue to amaze me with your subject matter. Great SpaceX coverage, but then you throw in this amazing content. Please keep it up.

  12. Jedi’s Dad

    I can’t believe that Houston had to settle for a “replica” of the shuttle.

  13. Eremon1

    Given the era that the Shuttle was designed and built, the program certainly doesn’t get the credit it’s due. The shuttles were a largely successful vehicle and have become ingrained into our culture.

  14. Vodhin

    I think you should do a series on the Space Shuttle missions, or at least an episode about the very first one. I can’t even remember what it did for that first mission…

  15. Gary Morrison

    Oh wow, I had totally forgotten that Fred Haise flew Shuttle ALTs (Approach and Landing Tests).

  16. JafoCharlie

    I will always cherish the memories of the anticipation of the launches and landings as a young kid, never missed them. Excellent video, thank you.

  17. Erich Mönch

    Scott, I’d like to know and see the relative positions between ISS and a rocket from launch till the rendezvous. Where is ISS when the ticket take off? How far are they when the capsule enters orbit?

  18. Kevin H

    I’m wondering if the “worst landing” could have been caused by the pilot trying to force the touchdown point to be in front of the spectators.

  19. Don Koltz

    “Into the Black” is a great book that covers this and other parts of the shuttle development.

  20. TMA1

    Would be interesting know what hurdles the Soviets had to overcome with Buran.

  21. Jake S

    It looked like it was having problems with ‘ground effect’ when it was trying to land.

  22. Trap Johnson

    “A Flying Manhole Cover”
    I’m gonna be laughing because of that for a good long while.

  23. Joy L

    I can imagine that for a pilot in those days “letting go of the stick” was extremely unnatural.

  24. Skorpy Nekomimi

    It’s not so sad that Enterprise never flew to space. It did all the things that no shuttle had done before, and paved the way for the fully functioning shuttles to do their thing.

  25. Max Q

    This is a truly moving rendition of the “Astronaut’s Prayer”.

  26. raydunakin

    It’s a shame they never got to launch the shuttle from Vandenberg. There was no chance I’d ever get to make a trip to Florida to see it launched, but I might have been able to see a west coast launch.

  27. Space Art By Christopher

    I remember watching this landing live on TV, and we all held our breath after that first bounce. It was pretty exciting to see. Really enjoyed hearing what you dug up about this test and Enterprise itself.

  28. Saturn V

    “Shuttle is not a great glider.”
    Actually I remember one of the former pilot said the vertical speed of Shuttle during landing is the same as the terminal speed of a typical skydiver.

  29. jfan4reva

    I’ve heard that the pilots insisted on dropping the landing gear manually on auto-land, even though the engineers wanted it to be an automatic part of the auto-land sequence.

  30. CuriousMarc

    You gotta love that AGC controlled F-8 with the DSKY hanging off to the side. I always have a chuckle with that.

  31. Anywhere With Phil

    “Where no shuttle had gone before”. Nice, thanks Scott.

  32. asteverino

    Loved seeing and hearing about the testing phase of the shuttle. Hadn’t known so much about it before now.

  33. Brian Greenberg

    There are photos online backing up the fact that lettered onto one of the rear support pylons on the carrier aircraft was the following instruction: “Attach orbiter here, black side down.”

  34. Timothy Brummer

    I did a lot of work on Enterprise, from simulator design to rollout, and Vandenberg fit checks.

  35. 77llg

    I met Fred Haise at Spacefest in 2016 and we talked for a long time. He was the nicest person you would ever want to meet. A perfect gentleman. He shared some great Apollo 13 memories.

  36. Jaydon Booth

    Loving the pace of new videos recently! Always exciting to see a new Scott Manley upload

  37. Delivery McGee

    The Trekkies should’ve waited and gotten one of the Shuttles that would actually go into space renamed rather than the purely in-atmosphere test vehicle.

  38. Cole Smith

    I’ve had a few “wait I should keep the nose wheel up longer” moments in my flight training too.

    Not as high-stakes….

  39. Alastair Ward

    Kirk’s Enterprise was a Constitution class vessel, so either name would have been fine.

  40. Dark Fox

    Enterprise: “I lead others to a treasure I cannot possess.”

  41. Murray Ball

    Another excellent production Scott – thank you. I am glad that the Shuttle hasn’t been totally lost to history. Cheers.

  42. pschroeter1

    That was one of your best, most interesting videos. I took flying lessons for a while and I now I don’t feel bad about that time I bounced a landing . For some reason I’m very curious about those attachment points between the shuttle and either plane or boosters as they don’t look strong enough for the stresses.

  43. Wayne Robinson

    Very interesting to hear about the refinement of the fly-by-wire system. That was an aspect previously unknown to me.

  44. Tangent Fox

    “Come down, bitch!” is my favorite thing ever now.

  45. James Robinson

    What a memory. I was 10 years old visiting my grandparents house. This was back when adults had complete control over the one television in the house, and they were not interested in space stuff. Fortunately, there was an eight in black & white set in the camper. I had the opportunity to watch the shuttle leave the back of the carrier aircraft, and do its landing. Very exciting, even on such a tiny screen.

  46. ArnGo

    I’d be really interested to learn more about the early simulator tech. The camera trick is fascinating.

  47. jcoghill2

    I worked on the shuttle carriers. If memory is correct they had a turbulence problem with the horizontal stabilizer that caused a severe oscillation that left the 747 barely controllable. The fix was to put the vertical fins at the tips of the horizontal stabilizer. Took the oscillations right out. The shuttle carriers flew on Uncle Sams dime so they got JP-4 not JET-A. The first day of work the plane pulled in with this sweet smell and so unlike the airline aircraft I was used to. I love the smell of JP-4 in the morning.

  48. George Hill

    The display on the Intrepid is amazing, you get to walk under the shuttle, they have an itty bitty Soyuz capsule underneath, and you really get a sense of just how amazing the shuttle was, payload wise.

  49. Alex Landherr

    Nice software/hardware development story. Shows the importance of knowing your hardware’s interaction with the outside world.

  50. J.J. Shank

    Scott, would you ever do a video on how supersonic and hypersonic wind tunnels work? I’m sure they’re way more interesting and complicated than just a million billion turbines at both ends!

  51. Rainer Sherwood

    What an amazing save on that first clip considering the hilariously low amount of lift and lack of thrust. The way you fix excess sink rate and bouncing on landing is adding power. Not really a solution on a brick with no engines and tiny wings haha

  52. Jason Perry

    That F-8 footage looked SKETCHY! Wow. These pilots were made of something else.

  53. Ginger Man512

    I had no clue how they used Enterprise after the test flights. Thanks for the informative video!

  54. cb_spock

    I read in “Into the black” that the bounce actually gave the landing gear team info that they couldn’t capture from the previous landings

  55. Brettany Renée Blatchley

    That was cool to see the Link simulator! I was in high-school at the time of these test flights, and now I am a senior level systems engineer for Link (recently acquired by CAE USA).

  56. bbird a12

    The AGC was amazing hardware, still rock solid well into the 80’s, I wonder how many they made.

  57. pack.wolf

    Test pilots are a different breed. Imagine joining a “digital fly by wire” NASA test program and being told “we’re going to make your plane fly terrible in lots of different ways so we can figure out which ones are worst”.

  58. Michael Bennett

    One of the best videos you’ve made. That was enthralling.

  59. Jiub Boatman

    Very interesting video.

    I recall watching the Enterprise test flights as kid and thinking the future had arrived. 40 odd years later, I am watching SpaceX build arms to catch Starship Booster and thinking the future has arrived.

  60. Jeffrey Bue

    This is a great example of why flight testing is so important to aircraft development. I’m always amazed at the amount of research you put in to these videos Scott. Great work as usual.

  61. Lynne

    The unmanned flying manhole cover is only ahead of my personal favorite, the unmanned flying aircraft elevator (ironically from the Enterprise).

  62. Guy H

    8:34 Those rolling indicators! Wow!

    Thank you very much for this video sir.
    What an amazing piece of hardware this was/is!

  63. RazrEdge68

    I’m pretty sure I’ve said much worst while installing software patches than that test pilot. It’s impressive at how calm the pilots were while operating in such dangerous conditions.

  64. Albert van Lingen

    Such a great piece of history 💯✅

  65. C-Jay

    So much respect for the unreal amount of math, engineering and good organisation to make all that work back then

  66. Samson Soturian

    “It’s a flying brick.”

    -Clint Eastwood

  67. Stu Reedy

    I’m just glad you didn’t choose to boldly split infinitives that no man has split before. Thanks for another informative video!

  68. J. O.

    I am just at awe how those brave man tested those things putting everything on the line, to advance our quest to be explorers. Thank you.

  69. James Veerkamp

    Great to hear some discussion of the orbiter and orbiter/carrier wind tunnel testing. For work I regularly go to one of the wind tunnels where a fair number of the small scale tests were done throughout the shuttle’s lifetime, and a lot of the models are just sitting out in the basement there. Always a good time to just walk down there and take in the history.

  70. Cormac Quaid

    Very cool tidbit about the longer attachment pylons for the test flights to achieve the required AOA. I never knew that.

  71. IstasPumaNevada

    PIO in an experimental aircraft is frightening enough, but to have the flight computer adding to the chaos is slightly terrifying.

  72. Thomas Ackerman

    Nice video, but you still short-changed Enterprise’s contributions to the Shuttle program. Before the official decision had been made to not use Enterprise for spaceflight, it was taken (as was the original plan) to Marshall Spaceflight Center where it was mated to the first complete Shuttle launch stack and then put through a series of grueling vibration tests that simulated phases of launch to see how the stack performed structurally.

    By the time that was completed in 1978, it’d been decided that STA-099 would be converted to OV-099 Challenger and Enterprise would be used for fit checks and other duties before being retired. Enterprise was ferried across country to Kennedy, rolled into a Processing high bay and then to the VAB to be mated to another inert launch stack, and then rolled out to LC-39-A for a series of fit and other tests, including a practice countdown with John Young and Robert Crippen.

    After this, it was returned to Palmdale, but many of her components were removed for use on other orbiters to save money and then after a bit of cosmetic work, sent off in1983 and 1984 for a major world tour across the Atlantic to Europe and the U.K..

    Following that, in 1985, it was sent for the fit checks in Vandenburg and then sent to the Smithsonian. After Challenger, Enterprise got used for a series of runway arresting system tests.

    But it is interesting that NASA tried for many years to downplay and deny they ever had any intent to use Enterprise for spaceflight. And you could do an entire video on that alone, including on her initial planned missions that were tentatively scheduled for July 1981 to deploy Intelsat V satellite and retrieve the Long Duration Exposure Facility . You can still find copies of the official NASA Shuttle flight manifests that list Enterprise on it.

  73. Jeremy Truesdell

    Looks like some of my landings. To be fair, that was still a relatively graceful landing for a flying brick.

  74. J. Donaldson

    That digital fly-by-wire footage would be what I look like flying just about anything in KSP

  75. john doe

    Thank you soo much Mr. Manley for all those very interesting videos!

  76. Glenn Pearson

    “Flying manhole cover.” That was a side-splitter! Well done, Scott.

  77. codefeenix

    The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.

  78. Dave's Rocket Shop

    I attended a talk given by James Doohan (Scotty) at Carleton University in the early 80s. According to him the letter writing campaign that got the test shuttle named Enterprise did not do fans any favours. NASAs plan had been to name the second shuttle Enterprise which would have made it the first shuttle to fly.

  79. Ieago

    The former business jet pilot in me is unnerved by how steep the descent angle is on transition to touchdown. When you’re behind the controls, that angle feels like you’re going straight down.

  80. Brydanyourday

    “For a brick, he flew pretty good” -sgt Johnson

  81. Jordan Miller

    I was under the impression that flying manhole covers were very fast…

  82. Colin Ritchie

    “A flying manhole cover”, nice Scott excellent video, and I remember watching it live , my god I’m old

  83. Klymahnn

    6:10, wait SOMEONE needs to make a full video on that 70s flight simulator, it sounds awesome! I wonder if they kept the whole map and camera system somewhere? I really want to see what does it look like inside the cockpit in high quality, there’s barely any infos about it on the Internet

  84. Les Hemmings

    I once heard an air crash investigator say that “Oh shit!” was THE most frequent phrase heard on flight deck recorders just before impact.
    So those pilots DEFINITELY had their hands full with that shuttle at that point!
    And the guy with the “Let go of the stick Luke, use the Force!” advice needs a medal! Talk about calm under fire!

  85. Jacco van Schaik

    “Enterprise had gone to places in the flight envelope that no Shuttle had gone before.”

    Very smooth, Mr. Manley.

  86. Mikiness Analog

    “it’s not a fighter jet, it’s a flying brick on approach” LMAO

  87. Robert Pledge

    I remember going to see enterprise and the 747 at London Stansted airport in 1983 when it was on tour!

  88. Graham Baxter

    I love that detail of the simulator using a control-slaved camera filming a model of the area and feeding the images back to the simulator.
    Analogue solutions like these are always ingenious and often overlooked.

  89. runcows

    A few years ago I got to see Shuttle Enterprise at the Intrepid Air and Space Museum and its the only shuttle ive seen in person and it was amazing to see. I’d always wondered what it had been used for. I didn’t expect to find out today, but its amazing to be able to look at the video and say “hey ive seen that in person” Thanks so much for the video

  90. Yaivenov

    If memory serves the first Flying Manhole Cover was both unmanned and extremely hypersonic.

  91. WeBeGood

    As a side note, decades later, those “inside” the Belt Way were still laughing at the Trekkies because they had named the only Orbiter never flown in space, “Enterprise”. I learned this years later when I went with group of space enthusiast, not in costume like the Trekkies, to get a “Space Tourist” bill passed. It passed. Being a Trekkie myself, I didn’t appreciate their joke, and still don’t.

  92. TG McCoy

    “Aw sh** “nothing like an audience to bring out the landing gremlins😁..

  93. Chris M

    I once spoke with a NASA astronaut. I asked him about the differences between piloting a military jet and the shuttle. He went over several differences. The most important difference, he explained, is that you only get ONE CHANCE to land the shuttle (even if something goes wrong). He said that this means that you’re obviously making every effort to get it right — but prepared for any number of possible issues.

  94. Make-A-Woosh-Foundation

    Comm: Capcom Enterprise, altitude and speed looks good, all green here.
    Ground: Enterprise Capcom, engage internal guidance and prepare for decoupling.
    Comm: roger prepare for decoupling and internal guidance what?
    Ground: ENGAGE!
    cue meme music

  95. WinstonSmith0824

    That near tail-strike actually caught my breath in my throat.

  96. Austin Trammell

    “Ah shit”
    Not what you wanna hear from your test pilot

  97. Edward Summey

    The carrier aircraft is on display at the Space Center in Houston with a mock-up space shuttle. It is a great display.

  98. Make-A-Woosh-Foundation

    I imagined a landing more like that landing in Hot Shots

  99. Bill Washburn

    I was fortunate enough to be related to an astronaut and got to witness his first launch live. I got to go to another but there was an issue with one of the main engines at T-9 seconds and they had to postpone the launch for like 2 weeks and we couldn’t stay in Florida to wait so we had to go home. But he is retired now and in the astronaut hall of fame. I really miss the Space Shuttle!!

  100. mlnrtms

    Kind of smooth landing for a brick tbh…

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