C. Gordon Fullerton waited years for his chance to go into space but less than six minutes after the space shuttle Challenger took off in 1985, he was starting to rethink it.
One of the Challenger's three main engines suddenly shut down and Fullerton, the mission's commander, didn't know whether the others would follow.
"Absolutely, with no warning — kapow! — there was an immediate drop in acceleration," he later told reporters. "The red light came on, and there we were."
Fullerton and pilot Roy Bridges immediately dumped a load of surplus fuel, worked the two remaining engines harder, and maneuvered the Challenger into orbit just 45 miles lower than planned. The mission proceeded for its scheduled eight days.
"He was just the guy you wanted on your team," said Alan Brown, a spokesman for NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. "He handled high-pressure, high-tension situations very well. He was never someone you would see getting glandular about things."
Fullerton died Wednesday from complications after a severe stroke in 2009, NASA said. He was 76 and lived in a Lancaster long-term care facility.
With shuttle missions in 1982 and 1985, he spent 383 hours in space. Leaving the astronaut corps in 1986 to become a test pilot at Edwards, he flew cutting-edge aircraft until he was 70. Over his 49-year career, he logged more than16,000 flight hours — the equivalent of roughly 22 months in the air.
"He flew just about everything we had on every type of aeronautical research mission," Brown said.
In all, Fullerton flew more than 135 types of aircraft, including a Boeing 747 modified to ferry space shuttles from Edwards to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After his last flight, on Dec. 21, 2007, he hopped out of an F/A-18 and was honored with a water arc streaming into the air from two Edwards firetrucks.
Fullerton was named to the International Space Hall of Fame in 1982 and the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2005. He retired from NASA, where he was an administrator and a pilot, at the end of 2007.
Born in Rochester, N.Y., on Oct. 11, 1936, Charles Gordon Fullerton grew up in Portland, Ore. His father, a pilot in World War II, sent him what became his favorite toy — a cardboard model of a fighter plane cockpit that young Gordon used to set up at the kitchen table.
After receiving his bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from Caltech, he joined the Air Force in 1958.
In 1966, he was chosen for the Air Force's Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, which was scrapped three years later. Fullerton transferred to NASA and was on teams supporting the agency's last four Apollo lunar missions.
Speaking to a NASA interviewer, he recalled strapping Alan Shepard into his seat on Apollo 14 in 1971.
"I remember thinking, 'I could just jump right in and fly to the moon and back,' " he said.
In 1982, he and mission commander Jack Lousma were strapped into the space shuttle Columbia, where Fullerton became the first astronaut to use a 50-foot mechanical arm to hoist cargo in space. Clearance in the cramped cargo bay was less than three inches and Fullerton managed it without help from a video monitor, which had broken down.
He left the astronaut program in 1986. It was a voluntary departure, NASA said at the time, even though Fullerton had recently been public in criticizing the design of a proposed space station.
In 2003, he paid tribute to the seven astronauts who died aboard the shuttle Columbia.
"Heroes, indeed they are," he told a group at Edwards. "But in their own minds, they did not consider themselves heroes. I am sure they felt like the luckiest people on Earth as they snapped in at the pad."
"Columbia was a magnificent machine. She carried us to the greatest adventures of our lives," he said. "It was indeed a magic carpet ride."
Fullerton is survived by his wife, Marie, a former Air Force nurse; son Andrew; daughter Molly Mansubi; grandchildren Kobe, Cameron and Kyle Mansubi, and Kiera and Elise Fullerton; and sisters Jeanne Schulz and Ann Fullerton.
A funeral Mass is set for 10 a.m. Saturday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lancaster. A celebration of Fullerton's life is to take place at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center on Monday at 10 a.m.