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Engle and Truly
Astronauts Joe H. Engle, left, and Richard H. Truly greet reporters upon their return to Ellington Air Force Base near NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC), from Kennedy Space Center (KSC) after learning their flight (STS-2) has been postponed a week. (credit: NASA)

Ode to Engle and Truly

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To paraphrase Don Draper, sometimes I think the early Space Shuttle program wasn’t about spaceships at all, but it functioned in some way as a time machine. Every time I think about the early days of the shuttle, I can’t help but think of my “gateway drug” into spaceflight: November 1981’s STS-2, helmed by astronauts Joe H. Engle and Richard Truly. I was three, but I had enough awareness of my surroundings that I remembered when my mother took me outside to watch the “new spaceship going up.” By then, Columbia had only completed one test flight, April’s STS-1. I can close my eyes and still see that launch as vividly as the day it took place.

We looked toward Florida’s eastern side—home to Kennedy Space Center and a space mecca—and I still can visualize the tiny orange flame that signaled a spaceship flying into orbit. Then, I remember two tiny “matchsticks”—the shuttle stack’s solid rocket boosters—falling off. The spacecraft then glided on an arc into orbit on a bluish flame until it disappeared. For a toddler, this sight was electric. From then on, I had to get my hands and eyeballs on everything space, from Space Shuttle-branded toys and models to endless stacks of library books. It’s an obsession that hasn’t quit for nearly 43 years.

The spacecraft then glided on an arc into orbit on a bluish flame until it disappeared. For a toddler, this sight was electric.

My story isn’t more exciting or meaningful than other space buffs’ histories about the origins of their enthusiasm. Some people got into spaceflight during their childhoods, and some became transfixed during adulthood; there’s no “gatekeeping” (or should be, at any rate) of whose fandom is more authentic because spaceflight is a universal language that appeals to millions. Spaceflight is full of themes that are honorable and broadly fascinating: adversity (it’s tough even getting to space, much less staying there), hard work, mental and physical toughness, and the poetic world of what it’s like to be off the Earth—complete with stunning visuals. These are just a few of the reasons that even during a media-saturated 2024, people were still obsessively following the Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus Moon lander story (yes, it tipped on its side.) Space is still captivating, and any mission can be a portal into a lifelong appreciation of spaceflight, whether crewed or uncrewed.

But back to Engle and Truly, my personal gateway drug into the Space Shuttle program and beyond. At age three, I did not know the political and technical history of the shuttle program, and I did not yet understand that during this mission, the national press was roundly trouncing NASA because STS-2 was less than picture-perfect. Shortly after STS-2’s launch, Columbia suffered a fuel cell failure, an immediate ground for shortening its planned mission. Due to this, the crew’s resources—including drinking water—were halved. The press pounced; this mission was supposed to prove the shuttle was wholly reusable, and the space agency fell short.

According to Marianne Dyson, one of the first women flight controllers during the Shuttle program, the fuel cell failure caused the crew to become dehydrated. From her excellent book A Passion for Space: Adventures of a Pioneering Female NASA Flight Controller: “I heard post-flight that the [water] flow rate was so reduced, and their time so oversubscribed, that they had gotten very little to eat or drink.” Dehydration can pose massive problems during reentry when bodily fluids and blood shift back downward. It’s a testament to Engle and Truly’s skill as individuals and as a team that they got Columbia back on the ground safely on November 14, 1981—and Engle even flew manual maneuvers during reentry, no easy feat. Of course, I knew none of this until many years later when I read about STS-2 as a whole: in 1981, for me, STS-2 was symbolized by the spectacular flame that dominated the morning sky, with people aboard that were going on an epic voyage. It was perfect.

Space is still captivating, and any mission can be a portal into a lifelong appreciation of spaceflight, whether crewed or uncrewed.

It bears mentioning that together and apart, Engle and Truly had incredible spaceflight careers. An X-15 program legend, Engle flew in space before he became a NASA astronaut; before STS-2, he and Truly flew two of the three 1977 Enterprise free flights (Approach and Landing Tests) that verified a shuttle could land on a lakebed and a runway. This program was essential for further shuttle development. Both astronauts flew the shuttle again as commanders following STS-2. Even though Engle hasn’t been in space since 1985, he always will be remembered as one of the consummate shuttle fliers. Truly’s career was no less spectacular, even though it went in a different direction. Truly became NASA’s associate administrator, then its administrator, post-Challenger, and guided the shuttle program through some of its most difficult years when it looked like there might not even be a shuttle program anymore.

I never met Truly and thus did not get to tell him what STS-2 meant to me, but he was one of the original two astronauts who spurred my love of spaceflight. His death on February 27 marked the loss of a transitional figure whose career spanned the uncertainty of the 1970s through the thrilling early days of what John Young called “the world’s greatest all-electric flying machine…I’ll tell you that.” Truly, like Young, may be gone now, but his memory is evocative of a time and place I ache to go to again.

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