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STS-1 25th Anniversary Interview with John Young
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Podcast Script: STS-1 25th Anniversary Interview with John Young

News Sounder. Narrator V/o: You’re listening to NASA Direct

Opening Music

DILLER: It’s been 25 years since the launch of mission STS-1, the first flight of America’s Space Shuttle…I’m George Diller from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Let’s listen to a launch-day message from President Reagan, read by former Launch Director George Paige on that historic day, April 12, 1981:

George Paige: Once again we feel a surge of pride that comes from knowing that we are the first and we are the best, and we are so because we are free… As you hurtle from earth in a craft unlike any other ever constructed , you will do so in a feat of American technology and American will. May God bless you and may God bring you safely home to us again.

DILLER: Joining us now is John Young, test pilot and veteran astronaut of projects Gemini and Apollo, who made history as he lifted off that morning in April 1981, along with Bob Crippen, aboard the very first reusable spacecraft.

John, when were you assigned to the Space Shuttle program?

YOUNG: I don’t remember. I think it was back in '78 sometime. Bob and I were assigned to the mission and at that time, they said we were going to fly in June of '78 or '79 and of course, we didn't fly until '81. So that's how, that's how first flights go. We did a lot of testing out at, out in Palmdale, on the vehicle. And when they shipped the vehicle to the Cape, it wasn't completed. I mean, it had 7,400 tiles missing and we didn't have any such thing as tile densification. And I think the Cape guys did a great job of building the vehicle because there was a lot of work that had to be done to put it together.

DILLER: What type of pre-flight testing was done on the Space Shuttle?

YOUNG: We ran a lot of, we ran a lot of great tests down at the Cape that have never been run before or since, like we had an integrated test that lasted for 27 hours. And we tested…we tested opening and closing the payload bay doors and we had the software tested and, operated all our systems internal to the vehicle from the crew cabin just like we would in orbit…and it was great test and checkout and of course, the guys down at the Cape put all the tiles on and finally got it ready to go.

DILLER: During its test phase, Dr. Bob Gilruth, then director of the Manned Spacecraft Center – the Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas – remarked on the shuttle’s reliability as a spacecraft. Do you recall what he said?

YOUNG: I remember Dr. Gilruth telling me it's going to be as reliable as a DC-8 and right after he said that, Crip and I, every time we went out to Rocketdyne or somewhere to see what was happening, engines were blowing up. So I wasn't sure it was going to be as reliable as a DC-8. It was a lot of fun.

DILLER: How did flying a mission in the shuttle compare to other vehicles you’ve flown?

YOUNG: I just thought it was a great first flight, and I was really lucky to have Bob Crippen with me because he knew all the software end to end. Of course, the vehicle is totally software controlled, pretty much, and I think there are 500 and something switches that goes through software on the vehicle.

…We had to handle the aerodynamic uncertainties. It was really great, and when we got back from the mission, I think Chris Kraft said it best. He said we just got infinitely smarter, and we sure learned a lot on the first flight.

DiLLER: Chris Kraft, the flight control legend of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions…Do you think, John, in making that transition from Apollo to space shuttle, did it change the job of an astronaut?

YOUNG: I don't think it changed it any. You just had to learn a lot of systems and learn how to operate them and, and be a systems person. That's what we were. We were systems operators. and of course, the software's a lot different now than it was then. It was very sophisticated software, but I mean, we went to the moon and back with 36,000 words. And of course, AP 101 computer first flew in the A-6 Intruder in 1966, so it wasn't like it was brand new, but it was well checked out and ascent, orbit and entry operational modes were really good.

DILLER: During ascent, once you had expended the solid rocket boosters, what was it like flying the shuttle?

YOUNG: It was just like riding on glass.

You could read the instruments while you were flying, so that was pretty good. It wasn't shaking so bad you couldn't read the instruments and you could see, at past the solid rocket motor stage, it worked great.

And we got into orbit…and got the payload bay doors open and everything worked pretty well.

DILLER: Once you were in orbit, how did Columbia compare as a spacecraft, say, with a space capsule?

YOUNG: Well, it was doing all the things it was supposed to do and doing them very well. We had a good time taking it around and seeing what the temperatures were going to be and flying different attitudes and checking those out and opening and closing the payload bay doors, and operating all the systems and firing the orbital maneuvering system's engines to put us in various orbits, and it worked very well.

DILLER: In any ways did this mission changed your life?

YOUNG: No, I don't think so. I just, I was chief of the astronaut office and we're just selecting good people to get to fly the space shuttle and doing that kind of work. I learned a lot about what we're doing and it was really a good education. We sure learned a lot on the first one, and of course, I got to fly STS-9, learned a lot on that one too …

DILLER: So in your mind you were just basically doing your job?

YOUNG: Yup. Still doing it. I'm working on the crew exploration vehicle.

DILLER: This will be the fourth system you ‘ve learned, so to speak – so what lessons can you bring to the development of the crew exploration vehicle ?

YOUNG: Well, I think there's pretty obvious design things and there's nothing magic about it. It’s just common sense stuff.

Of course, you have problems in space flight you don't even experience anywhere else, like debris and meteorites. We didn't even worry about meteorites when we were flying in the Apollo program, but now the orbiter has to worry about getting hit by debris and meteorites, once it gets into orbit pretty much. And of course, I think the crew exploration vehicle's going to have to worry about that kind of stuff all the way to the moon, just about. So, you know, we've come a long way.

DILLER: How does the first flight of Columbia rank in your list of lifetime achievements ?

YOUNG: Well, I mean, all the flights I had was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot from each one of them. And when you're working on a particular flight, if you're not worried about that one the most of all, chances are you probably won't make it. So I just like each flight individually, because they were, you know, Gemini 3 was a first flight, Gemini 10 was a first flight with a double rendezvous, Apollo 10 was a first flight with going to the moon, Apollo 16 landed and then, and then getting the first shuttle flight was good, and flying the first Spacelab mission, that was good too. So, I had a lot of fun with it. I'd like to fly right now, but my wife would kill me if I did. So I'd better not.

DILLER: Looking back on that historic first space shuttle flight, any closing comments?

YOUNG: No, I sure enjoyed it and I appreciate all the work the people did down at the Kennedy Space Center to fix STS-1 to get it ready to go.

But we sure worked a lot, hard and long to get that thing ready to go down there and they did a great job, and the tests we ran were very unusual and turned out to be very successful. And the vehicle performed just like we thought it would, pretty much. We learned a bunch of things.

I'm really proud to be associated with the space program, and I think the people that work down there can be mighty proud to be associated with it too.

Diller: Thank you, John.

Thank you for listening to this podcast from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I’m George Diller.

Music out.

Sounder w/Narrator: You’ve been listening to NASA Direct.

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