More than four decades ago, King Charles III got an up-close look at NASA’s very first space shuttle, a test vehicle known as Enterprise.
Charles greeted Enterprise and its four-astronaut crew at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California on Oct. 26, 1977, shortly after the shuttle had completed its fifth and final “free flight” in Earth’s atmosphere.
NASA gave Charles, a 28-year-old prince at the time, a commemorative photo album that day. He also scored an original watercolor by space artist Robert McCall.
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Enterprise was built to test the shuttle’s design on test flights in Earth’s atmosphere. The vehicle didn’t have a functional heat shield or engines; it was carried aloft by NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, then dropped at altitude.
Enterprise completed five such free flights, with two NASA astronauts at the controls each time. Those two were either Fred Haise and Gordon Fullerton (Crew 1) or Joe Engle and Richard Truly (Crew 2).
Charles — who became king upon the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, on Sept. 8, 2022 but is being officially crowned today (May 6) — met all four of the Enterprise crewmates on Oct. 26, 1977.
Though Enterprise never reached space, five shuttle orbiters did: Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discover and Endeavour combined to fly 135 space missions between April 1981 and the program’s end in July 2011.
Two of those 135 missions ended in tragedy: Challenger and its seven-astronaut crew were lost shortly after launch in January 1986, and Columbia broke apart during its return to Earth in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board.
The three surviving space-flown orbiters are in museums now, as is Enterprise. Since 2012, the test shuttle has been on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There (opens in new tab)” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).