STS-1 Marked The Beginning Of A 30-Year Program That Concludes Later This Year
Launching The Era Of Space Shuttles
Astronaut Bob Crippen spoke to Dryden employees April 15 about his mission as the pilot of the first space shuttle mission, which concluded at Dryden 30 years earlier.
Crippen and shuttle commander John Young landed Columbia April 14, 1981, on Rogers Dry Lake, as unprecedented crowds came to Edwards Air Force Base to see the landing.
Crippen explained that early on, there was debate about leaving the crew off of the first flight in favor of an automated landing. However, it was determined that the shuttle system's complexity required a crew capable of reacting to an emergency, he said.
Although there were ejection seats on the first four shuttle flights – acquired from the high-altitude, Mach 3-plus SR-71 – they were "primarily a placebo," Crippen said.
"There was a ton of flame from the solid rocket boosters. If you ejected, you would have to go through that and you would get very toasty," he added.
On launch day, he said only after the clock started ticking down under one minute did he believe the STS-1 mission would really begin. The computers had not been communicating with each other a few days earlier, and he was expecting a scrub.
But all systems were go and it was "quite a ride" going 17,000 miles per hour. The solid rocket boosters shook Columbia, a feeling he likened to "driving my pickup fast over a washboard country road."
The Columbia was "well above our trajectory," he said, and he watched as the solid rocket boosters jettisoned from the orbiter. Then the acceleration began to trail off and it was quiet.
"I thought we had lost the main engines," he said. Everything was fine and it was time to start the mission.
Once Columbia was in orbit, Crippen released himself from the confines of his seat and began to make his way around the shuttle. "It's topsy-turvy without gravity," he said. "'Up' was whatever direction I was pointed."
He floated over to the control panel facing the payload bay doors to open them, standard practice when an orbiter gets to space as a means of releasing heat from the radiators. Once the doors opened, he said, "John, look at that," as he pointed to some areas where there were dozens of missing tiles, the thermal protection needed to safely return the orbiters to Earth.
The missing tiles were not essential, but the two men were concerned about what might be missing on the hottest areas of Columbia's underside. The two astronauts were fairly confident they would land safely.
The engines were fired for the deorbit burn halfway around the world from the landing site; the outside glowed pink and it felt like "flying through a neon tube," he said.
As Columbia approached the landing site, Crippen said he could see the huge mass of vehicles and people there to welcome them back to Earth.
As the final flight in the shuttle program nears, later this year, there will be a lot of conversation about the achievements of the shuttle program and the inspiration it created.
However, it's the crew of two that completed what is considered one of the greatest flight tests in history that ushered in a new era in human space flight.
By Jay Levine