Out of the blackness of the desert night, the space shuttle Challenger appeared to viewers on the ground only a moment before touchdown in the runway lights, like an apparition from another world, kicking up dust and trailing smoke for a few hundred yards.
But it glided to a stop as smoothly and casually as a commercial jetliner.
Nearly everything about this eighth space shuttle flight was as smooth as its brakes.
''It was the cleanest mission yet,'' said Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration's (NASA) associate administrator for space flight. And as the first flight to land at night, the trouble-free landing indicates that shuttles can land at night routinely, he said.
The significance of night landings is the new flexibility it gives shuttle flight planners, especially at Kennedy Space Center, where Lieutenant General Abrahamson says NASA hopes a shuttle can land by the 11th mission. ''The climatology at night is much better (there) than daytime,'' he said
The lights flooding the concrete runway here - 800 million candlepower xenon arc lamps - are powerful enough to read a newspaper by from more than three miles away. They make the coal-black sky glow pale like a white sun coming up across an open ocean.
Pilot Daniel C. Brandenstein touched the shuttle down just 300 feet from the target point - as good as a daytime landing, according to Abrahamson.
It took the big boxy spacecraft less than two miles to coast to a halt, and Abrahamson noted very little wear on it. Even the tires looked good, he said.
From close range, the space shuttles (there are three: Columbia, Enterprise (a prototype), and Challenger) are monstrous, homely creatures. Each is about the size of a DC-9, but thicker in the waist and more gracelessly curved.
''About as aerodynamic as a manhole cover,'' appraises an onlooking pilot. With portholes cut in their broad, flat riveted sides, their texture is like that of an old battleship. Jules Verne might have imagined space travel this way.
But Challenger's plodding lines belie its smooth return from six days in space in 98 orbits around the earth. Its five crewmembers included the most senior astronaut to date, Dr. William Thornton, and the first black US astronaut , Dr. Guion Bluford, both of whom recieved a rousing ovation from the several hundred guests gathered in a hangar for a brief appearance by the crew three hours after landing.
This eighth shuttle mission was not completely flawless. Abrahamson noted that 18 ''anomalies'' occurred during flight that need explanation. Perhaps the most significantel2UFquote'About as aerodynamic as a manhole cover,' says a pilot at the landing.
el2problem was with the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) system tests.
This flight was to test TDRS's ability to keep constant communication with the space shuttle. The next shuttle mission plans to rely on TDRS as an operating system. But computer problems at White Sands, New Mexico, the ground station for TDRS, made communications sporadic.
Abrahamson said he is optimistic, however, that TDRS will be working right by the Oct. 28 launch date for the ninth shuttle mission, which will put Columbia, the original space shuttle, back in orbit.
The Challenger entered the earth's atmosphere 400,000 feet over Guam about half an hour before landing. The crew spotted the coast of California from about one to five miles out, traveling a mile per second. A double sonic boom sounded their approach.
Reporters and camera crews sat on the hoods of their cars at an elevated site in the dark and watched the sky like a drive-in movie. But the shuttle has no running lights, since they couldn't stand the heat of reentry, and the craft was invisible to the naked eye.
Although daytime landings have drawn more than 100,000 viewers, the nighttime landing was closed to the general public. The press was allowed only the light of flashlights from an hour before touchdown to after the landing, so as not to distract the shuttle pilot. This Air Force base is less than two hours from the glowing sky of Los Angeles, but here on the high desert, only the runway lights can melt away the black pitch of the desert night.