Joe H. Engle, one of the most experienced aviators ever to become an astronaut, was a key man in the development and employment of America's Space Shuttle. Born 26 August 1932 in Abilene, Kansas, Engle attended the University of Kansas and graduated in 1955 with a BS in Aeronautical Engineering. Commissioned through AFROTC, he earned his pilot's wings in 1958. He flew F-100 Super Sabres with the 474th Fighter Day Squadron and the 309th Tactical Fighter Squadron, George AFB, California. After graduating from the Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School in 1961 and the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School in 1962, Engle became a test pilot in the rocket-powered X-15 aircraft research program at Edwards AFB, California.
Over the next 3 years, he flew it 16 times and on 3 flights, he reached altitudes of more than 50 miles and qualified for astronaut wings--the nation's youngest astronaut at age 32. Assigned to NASA in 1966, Engle was the first and only astronaut recruit to have previously flown in space. First assigned to the Apollo program, he served on the support crew for Apollo 10 and then was named backup lunar module pilot for Apollo 14. Later assigned to the Space Shuttle program, Engle was one of four astronauts named to conduct approach and landing tests on this revolutionary vehicle. He returned to space on 12 November 1981 in command of STS-2 in the Columbia .
It was a highly significant mission--he "manually" flew Columbia from space through atmosphere reentry to explore the shuttle's aerodynamic characteristics. Following this flight, he served as the Deputy Associate Administrator for manned Space Flight at NASA Headquarters. He returned to flight status at Johnson Space Center in 1983, and on 27 August 1985, Engle again flew as commander of an action-packed mission in the Discovery.
During STS-51I, the crew not only captured, repaired, and redeployed the SYNCOM IV-3 satellite, but also deployed three new communications satellites. Engle's varied NASA experience was again valuable in the Challenger accident investigation and subsequent Shuttle Improvement Program. Engle retired from NASA and the Air Force in November 1986 and was simultaneously promoted to brigadier general in the Kansas Air National Guard.
On 12 October 1977, at the Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards AFB, California, the Space Shuttle Enterprise, with astronaut Joe Engle in command, was poised for its fourth free flight from the NASA Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, piloted by "Fitz" Fulton. Adding uncertainty and danger to this particular portion of the shuttle approach and landing tests, engineers had removed the streamlined tailcone from the Enterprise and exposed three dummy rocket engines. In the absence of the shuttle's tailcone, it was uncertain if Fulton and his crew could withstand the buffeting and noise created by the shuttle's high drag configuration. Without this critical test, the shuttle's first landing in this configuration would have been on return from its first space mission. Separating from Fulton's 747 at 25,000 feet, 2 minutes and 34 seconds later, Engle landed the Enterprise precisely as planned on the dry-lake runway at Edwards AFB. Fulton and Engle had flawlessly accomplished the complex flight profile and the mission was a total success. Aerodynamic buffeting on the 747 did not prove to be a major problem, and removal of the tailcone did not dramatically change the shuttle's approach and landing performance.