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.
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.”
Fullerton died Wednesday from complications after a severe stroke in 2009, NASA said. He was 76.
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 than 16,000 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 fire trucks.