Enterprise at Stansted

5th June 1983, 38 years ago today (at the time of writing this), the Space Shuttle approach and landing test vehicle OV-101 “Enterprise” visited Stansted Airport – way back before Stansted was the sprawling behemoth that we know and love today.

Sometimes, when I tell people that a Space Shuttle visited Stansted I get “that look” and I begin to doubt it myself – but it really did happen, and I was there.

OV-101 never made it into space, it was used solely as a test vehicle to make sure that Shuttles returning from orbit could land safely and was named “Enterprise” after the Starship Enterprise of Star Trek fame; a vigorous campaign by Star Trek fans made sure that NASA got the message…

The test vehicle was hoisted aloft on the back of a modified Boeing 747 and released at around 20,000 to 30,000 feet to glide back to the runway, much as the subsequent ‘real’ Shuttles would do after returning from orbit.

The first orbital Space Shuttle ‘Columbia’ flew into space on April 12, 1981, and in 1983 NASA thought it would be a good PR exercise to do a Tour of the United States, Canada and Europe, taking in the Paris Air Show. For the European leg of the tour, Enterprise, sitting on top of its 747 ferry, visited the UK (RAF Fairford) Germany, France and Italy and then on the way back across the Atlantic, visited Stansted Airport.

5th June 1983 was a Sunday so we, three of a group of four friends, decided that we should go and see the shuttle arrive at Stansted. Me, Kerry, Keith and Paul, four chaps who had met in 1971 in one of those newly opened Middle Schools – The Augustus Smith School, Berkhamsted – and have remained friends ever since, but only three of us went, I don’t remember why Keith wasn’t with us, maybe he was playing golf or something, hey-ho, each to their own, but us three set off on the Sunday morning and arrived at what seemed nothing more than an airstrip, fairly early on in the proceedings. We weren’t first by any means, there were already hundreds if not thousands there.

We sat around waiting for something to happen, every now and then someone would hear an aeroplane and there’d be a commotion and fingers would point up into the sky. It must have been over two hours later that the 747 with its cargo made an appearance. It flew in low, making a pass in front of the crowds then turned and landed.

There was some sort of official reception held on the runway but when that was over, we three and the many other thousands of people who had turned up, were free to wander about more or less where we wanted to. There were barriers around the immediate vicinity of the stacked aircraft, but apart from that, what we would now recognise as ‘security’ was almost non-existent.

After we’d rambled about and shot our allotted quota of film, 35 mm film in an SLR camera back then, 36 exposures, maybe 37 if you were careful, you had to make your shots count, none of this digital malarkey doing hundreds of shots in the hope that you get three or four good ones, we decided that it was probably time to go back to Berkhamsted, that’s when we really noticed how many people had come to Stansted, when we were sitting in the queues trying to get out…

Apparently somewhere around 200,000 people had turned up to see Enterprise and of course, as we’d arrived there earlyish, we weren’t going anywhere in a hurry.

Here’s a few photos I took of the proceedings, scanned from the original photo prints.

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