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STS-1 Crew and the 'Infinitely Smarter' Flight
04.06.06
 
Young and Crippen give a thumps-up from inside Columbia's cockpit. When Space Shuttle Columbia's roaring engines launched STS-1 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 12, 1981, the enormous jolt at liftoff told Commander John Young and Pilot Robert Crippen they were about to take an adventurous ride into a new frontier. "There was no doubt you were headed someplace," said Crippen. "It was a nice kick in the pants."

Image to right: Commander John Young (left) and Pilot Robert Crippen (right) take a break from their intensive training schedule to pose for pictures in the flight deck of Columbia. Credit: NASA

NASA's new versatile and reusable rocket-glider was a dramatic departure from the slender Saturn V boosters of the previous generation. Powered by multiple engine systems and completely computer controlled, Columbia demanded a crew with exceptional experience and expertise.

NASA's decision to put Young in the commander's seat for the mission was an easy one. Already a veteran of four missions piloting three types of spacecraft, Young had the seasoned skill and steely confidence to bridle Columbia on its maiden flight. "If you want to go into space for the first time on a new vehicle that's never been flown, you want to go with a pro, and John certainly is a pro," said Crippen.

Crippen was the rookie astronaut thrilled to be piloting a mission. "I was doing handsprings," said Crippen. His mastery of Columbia's sophisticated computer systems garnered Young's appreciation. "I was really lucky to have Bob Crippen with me because he knew all the software end to end," said Young. "He was a swell fellow and really smart about the vehicle."

Crippen enjoys a meal on Columbia's middeck. The crew spent two days in space putting Columbia through its paces, testing the ship's radically advanced systems. "We had a good time taking it around," said Young. "I just thought it was a great machine."

In the few spare moments the astronauts weren't busy, Young and Crippen delighted in the unique freedom and spectacular views that flying in orbit offers. "The real pleasure was having a chance to enjoy being weightless and spend some time looking out (at Earth)," said Crippen.

For Young, however, space flight not only provides a means of appreciating the planet, but a way of protecting it. He believes technology developed to send humans to the moon or Mars could one day help in preventing or correcting environmental issues. "Over the long haul, it'll save civilization."

Image to left: Robert Crippen prepares a meal on Columbia's middeck during the STS-1 mission. Credit: NASA

While Columbia featured the latest in rocket technology, spending a couple of days within the sparsely outfitted crew cabin did require the pair to "rough it."

"Living inside the shuttle at the time was a little like camping out," said Crippen. Turning in for the night meant sleeping in the cockpit seats, but NASA's latest ship was equipped with a notably improved creature comfort. "The food system had come a long way since back in the Mercury/Gemini days, and we had good food to eat."

Still, certain aspects of the flight were probably a little more back to basics than Young and Crippen would have preferred. "The potty -- or the waste management facility -- went belly up on the second day," chuckled Crippen. "But John and I dealt with it."

Ultimately, STS-1 was a bold test flight to determine if a rocket launch into space could be a round-trip ticket. Adventure of that magnitude and discovery usually go hand in hand. For Young, Crippen and NASA, the first flight of Columbia was no exception. "We sure learned a lot," said Young. "When we got back, I think (Johnson Space Center Director) Chris Kraft said it best: We just got infinitely smarter."

 
 
Charlie Plain
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center