By Douglas Martin
The New York Times
Col. C. Gordon Fullerton, an astronaut who performed the first flight test of a space shuttle in 1977, then piloted two shuttle missions - one in which an engine failed shortly after takeoff - died Wednesday in Lancaster, Calif. He was 76.
NASA said in a statement announcing the death that Fullerton had had a severe stroke in 2009, after which he lived in a nursing home in Lancaster.
As a test pilot for both the Air Force and NASA, Fullerton logged about 15,000 hours flying more than 130 types of aircraft. In his two shuttle missions, he was the commander on board the Challenger and one of two pilots on the Columbia.
Both spacecraft failed in later flights with disastrous results, the Challenger breaking apart on its ascent over Florida in 1986 and the Columbia disintegrating in 2003 as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere over Louisiana and Texas, both crews perishing.
Perhaps the most harrowing moment of Fullerton's career came July 29, 1985, when the Challenger lost one of its three main engines 5 minutes and 45 seconds after the launch. Fullerton ordered his crew to unstrap their flight harnesses in case they had to make a quick escape.
However, with the help of technicians, astronauts and other NASA personnel, he was able to continue the mission and guide the shuttle and its six crew members into orbit, where they completed most of their scheduled scientific experiments.
"We breathed a great sigh of relief to get into orbit at all," Burton Edelson, NASA's associate administrator, said after the mission.
"We all had our fingers crossed."
The engine failure came after the flight had been delayed July 12 because of engine problems.
Fullerton was chosen as an astronaut in the late 1960s but waited more than 15 years for his turn to fly a spacecraft.