Astronaut Stories: The World’s First Spaceplane

Shuttle crews from the 1980s recall how their new vehicle took some getting used to.


Fluttering Flame


“Dan, how do the engines look?”
Dan Brandenstein

During the STS-8 ascent, Dale Gardner couldn’t see a whole lot because he was sitting behind my pilot’s seat and didn’t have the responsibilities of the flight engineer. But we have these overhead windows, like a moon roof on a car, and he could look back over his shoulder and watch the ground disappear. He was commenting, “There are the solid rockets lighting” and “You can see all the way down the coast” and that sort of thing.

After the solids separated, the light level went real low because this was a night launch. A couple of seconds later, Dale said in an excited voice, “Dan, how do the engines look?” As the pilot, I was monitoring the systems, and I said, “Oh, they look fine.” A couple of seconds later, he said again, “Dan, how do the engines look?” I said, “They’re running fine. They look good.”

Then a little while later, “Dan, how do the engines look?”

“They’re fine, they’re fine.” He did that three or four times.

We got into orbit, and that night over dinner I asked Dale, “What in the world was going on?” He had remembered something from long before the first shuttle flight, when they were first testing the engines. They’d start them up and the flame would be very solid and stable coming out of the nozzle. Then, just before the engine blew up, the flame would flutter. And from his perspective, looking out that overhead window, it looked like the flame was fluttering, especially as we got higher in altitude, where the air pressure was lower. Dale is extremely bright, an amazing individual, and he had put those two data bits together. And because of where he was sitting, he was the only one who saw it. He made a point to debrief the crews after us so that other people wouldn’t share his concern.

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