Long serving NASA astronaut, research pilot and U.S. Air Force test pilot Gordon Fullerton died Aug. 21, aged 76.
Fullerton, who logged 382 hr. in space on two space shuttle missions, was particularly well known for his work at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB, where he served for 22 years as a research test pilot. Before flying on the shuttle Columbia on STS-3 in 1982 and commanding the shuttle Challenger on the STS-51F Spacelab 2 mission in 1985, Fullerton was one of the test pilots who flew the space shuttle prototype Enterprise during the Approach and Landing Test (ALT) program at NASA Dryden in 1977.
Born in Rochester, New York, in 1936, Fullerton earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1957 and 1958. After a short stint as a mechanical design engineer at Hughes Aircraft Company, Fullerton joined the U.S. Air Force in 1958 where he trained initially as an F-86 interceptor pilot. Later transferring to B-47 bombers, he went on to graduate from test pilot school at Edwards AFB, Calif in 1964.
Two years later Fullerton was selected for the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, but when this was cancelled in 1969 he transferred to NASA’s civilian astronaut corps at Johnson Space Center where he served on the support crews for the final four Apollo missions. It was with Apollo 13 crew member Fred Haise that Fullerton would later fly two captive-carry and three free-flight ALT tests of the Enterprise to develop procedures for the shuttle’s unpowered gliding landing.
Fullerton’s two space flights were each marked by unique events. His first, the STS-3 orbital test mission in 1982, was the only shuttle to land at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, where it diverted following heavy rains that flooded the normally dry lakebed at Edwards. His second, the STS-5F science research mission in July 1985, was the only shuttle to conduct an abort-to-orbit following the failure of a main engine three minutes before expected cutoff.
In 1986 Fullerton transferred to become a test pilot at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. He also later served as Associate Director of Flight Operations at Dryden and as chief of the directorate’s flight crew branch prior to his retirement at the end of 2007. At Dryden, Fullerton was the project pilot on the NB-52B launch aircraft for the Pegasus rocket, the X-38 Crew Recovery Vehicle and the hypersonic X-43A. He also commanded NASA’s modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft on ferry flights of space shuttles from Edwards to the Kennedy Space Center.
Amongst other high-profile research programs at Dryden, Fullerton was also involved in the F-15 and MD-11 Propulsion Controlled Aircraft project, which demonstrated the feasibility of landing an aircraft safely using computer-assisted engine controls rather than normal control surfaces. The program, which was sparked by the Sioux City DC-10 accident, culminated in August 1995 when Fullerton made the first-ever landing of a throttles-only controlled airliner — a modified MD-11 — at Edwards. Fullerton was also project pilot for high-speed landing tests of space shuttle landing gear components installed on a modified Convair 990 and flew the first test flights of NASA’s 747SP Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.
Fullerton, who logged more than 16,000 flight hours flying over 135 types of aircraft, was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame as well as the International Space Hall of Fame in 1982. He was a Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, and the winner of numerous awards and medals.