ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - One of the two astronauts who flew the space shuttle to its only landing in New Mexico has died.
C. Gordon Fullerton. who was 76 when he died Wednesday, was in the pilot's seat of the shuttle Columbia when it landed at White Sands Missile Range in 1982.
Fullerton died from complications of a stroke suffered in 2009, according to NASA. He was a resident of a long-term care facility in Lancaster, Calif.
He was a native of Portland, Ore., and served in the military and at NASA in a career spanning 50 years.
Lousma had spent weeks in space on Skylab; Fullerton, a seasoned fighter, bomber and test pilot on earth, was a rookie in space.
They were to test shuttle systems in part by overheating their craft.
"And so for the first 30 hours we're going to point the tail to the sun," Lousma said before the mission.
There were still ejection seats in Columbia in case anything went wrong. Those were removed a few months later.
The Columbia launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 22, 1982, and landed eight days later at Northrup Strip, a training and landing site carved out of a gypsum flat at White Sands Missile Range.
The primary landing strip at Edwards Air Force base in California had been flooded by season rains, so the shuttle, support staff and equipment and the national news media decamped to the gypsum lake beds of Northrup Strip at White Sands Missile Range.
All the support equipment was rushed by special train from California to New Mexico routing through Gallup and Belen to El Paso, Texas, and then to Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo.
The public was allowed to drive onto the missile range to watch the landing but was warned about unexploded ammo.
"We don't want anyone hurt at all," a WSMR spokesperson said. "No souvenirs!"
On the approach and landing there were some glitches found in the auto pilot, but the landing went well.
Afterwards a ferocious windstorm blasted the shuttle with gypsum dust. NASA said it was still finding little white grains throughout the ship for many years after the New Mexico landing.
A few weeks after the landing Fullerton and Lousma came back to New Mexico to express their appreciation to all who supported their mission.
Fullerton commanded the shuttle Challenger during a 1985 mission supporting the Spacelab project.
He was an astronaut from 1969 until 1986 logging 382 hours in space, according to his NASA biography. After working with the Flight Crew Branch at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, he retired from NASA in 1988.
In 1982 Fullerton and Lousma were inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo.
“It saddens us all to lose a man of Fullerton’s caliber,” museum Executive Director Chris Orwoll said in a statement released Thursday. “In addition to his accomplishments as a NASA astronaut, his contributions to aerospace research as a test pilot are incredibly significant.
"In fact, he piloted nearly all the research and support aircraft flown at the Dryden Flight Research Facility, and all told has piloted 135 different types of aircraft logging more than 15,000 hours of flight time.”
Last year as NASA retired the space shuttle program the 747 hauling the Endeavor on its back flew low over White Sands and the nearby NASA White Sands Test Facility as a gesture of appreciation for their roles in training and supporting shuttle astronauts over the years.
A funeral Mass for Fullerton will be said at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lancaster. A memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. Monday at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif.
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