Columbia descends for its first landing, on Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA Photo) › View Larger Image
Huge crowds gathered on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base to witness the first landing of Columbia. When President Ronald Reagan attended STS-4, it was estimated that more than 500,000 people were at Edwards Air Force Base for the landing. (NASA Photo) › View Larger Image Astronaut Bob Crippen spoke to Dryden employees April 15, 2011, about his mission as the pilot of the first space shuttle mission, which had concluded at Dryden 30 years earlier.
Crippen and shuttle commander John Young landed Columbia on April 14, 1981, on Rogers Dry Lake. Unprecedented crowds came to Edwards to see the landing.
Crippen explained that, early on, there had been debate about leaving the crew off of the first flight in favor of an automated landing. But 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 – seats taken 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."
Astronauts John Young, left, and Robert Crippen (wearing tan suits) are greeted at Edwards upon Columbia's return. (NASA Photo) › View Larger Image On launch day, he said, only after the clock started ticking down to under one minute did he believe the STS-1 mission would begin. The shuttle 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" traveling 17,000 miles per hour. The solid rocket boosters shook Columbia, which 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 and across the vehicle's windshield. Then the acceleration began to tail off, and it was quiet. "I thought we had lost the main engines," he said. But 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; 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 to release 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 used to protect the orbiters during re-entry.
From left, Dryden orbital flight test program manager Melvin Burke, then-Dryden Center Director Isaac "Ike" Gillam, pilot Fitz Fulton and JSC orbital flight test program manager Donald "Deke" Slayton give Columbia a humorous sendoff before its ferry flight back to Florida. (NASA Photo) › View Larger Image The missing tiles were not essential, but the two men were concerned about what might be missing on Columbia's hottest areas on its underside. They were fairly confident they would land safely.
The engines were fired for the de-orbit burn halfway around the world from the landing site. The shuttle's exterior glowed pink, and it felt like he was "flying through a neon tube," he recalled.
As Columbia approached the landing site, Crippen said he could see the huge mass of vehicles and people gathered on the lakebed to welcome the crew back to Earth.
As the shuttle program drew to a close in July, there was a lot of conversation about the achievements of the program and the inspiration it created. It was a crew of two, however, that completed what is considered one of the greatest flight tests in history and one that ushered in a new era in human space flight.