“Beyond my wildest dreams.” Robert Crippen, the first-ever Shuttle pilot talks about his maiden flight and the Space Shuttle programme
How did it feel to finally get your first flight on the first Space Shuttle mission, STS-1?
Well, that was fantastic. When I was asked if I’d like to fly the first one I was turning handsprings. I couldn’t imagine that they would let a rookie go on the first flight but that was beyond my wildest dreams.
You had quite a long wait for your first mission, how did you find that?
Well, when we were transferred over to NASA early in 1969 we were still doing the lunar flights. Deke Slayton, who was in charge of all the astronauts, told us that he didn’t have any lots for us to fly. Back then we had a lot of work to do supporting some of these programmes like Apollo and Skylab, but the probability was that there wasn’t going to be anything to fly until this thing they were working on called the Space Shuttle was done, and it probably wouldn’t be until around 1980. I didn’t anticipate flying in those early days but I had lots of fun working on those programmes.
“I even dosed off during the countdown, and it was only when the counting got inside of a minute that I really got excited”
What was it like on that first flight?
True excitement. I was selected as an astronaut when I was 28 years old and there I was finally at 43 about to fly the first flight [laughs]. It was something I’d worked long and hard on and initially we had quite a few technical problems, mostly associated with the main engines and our thermal protection system, and so John Young and I had been selected about three years before that flight ever took off. The fact it all finally came together was really exciting. We scrubbed the first attempt on 10 April 1981 due to a computer glitch, and when we went back out on 12 April I thought there was a high probability we would scrub again. In fact, I even dosed off during the countdown, and it was only when the counting got inside of a minute that I really got excited and I turned to John and said, ‘I think we might really do it’, and sure enough we did. It was great doing that first Space Shuttle flight, it will always stick in my mind. The best part, as my buddy John Young said, was the part between take-off and landing, but it was all fantastic.
How did steering the Space Shuttle compare to manoeuvring a jet?
It was quite manoeuvrable. It had a computer modelling system so you were actually flying it through the computers and when you have a flight control system like that you can tweak it to be however you want, and since all of us astronauts at that time had been flying high performance small jet aeroplanes we tweaked it to make it pretty responsive. It flew a nice course as a glider, and even though it doesn’t look all that streamlined because of the way you’re flying it, it responded great. It was a fine flying machine.
What was it like to witness the end of the Space Race between the US and USSR in 1975?
It was kind of funny having been a soldier of the Cold War to then be involved with Russia at that time in 1975 [the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project]. I can recall on May Day [1 May] standing beside Lenin’s Tomb with Brezhnev watching the May Day Parade and I thought, ‘Boy, how did we get here?’ But you know working with the cosmonauts was great, we were the first ones to ever go to their launch site and some pilots the world over became very good friends with some of the cosmonauts.
What were your highlights from your other three Space Shuttle missions?
Well, all of them were great. That first one will always stand out in my mind, but to be commander on the subsequent three flights and have great crews to fly with was something I thoroughly enjoyed. The mission that we probably had the biggest trauma on was STS-41C when we were going up to capture a satellite [Solar Max] that had a problem with its attitude control system. Unfortunately, like what quite often happens with technical stuff, it wasn’t built exactly according to the drawings we had. George D Nelson was going to go out in a free flying Manned Maneuvering Unit [propulsion system] and capture it with a little device that he had, but it turned out the little device wouldn’t latch on and the satellite bounced around a while and started tumbling. We tried to catch it but that didn’t work, so we finally backed off and the ground managed to get it rotating slowly and we came back in the next day and did capture it. That was quite a bit of trauma, but we were glad to be able to do it and we did repair and re-deploy it.
Did you ever train to do a spacewalk [Extra-vehicular activity]?
I did train for an EVA on the first flight because it was critical with the large payload bay doors that we had that they were closed before re-entry. You would not survive with the doors partially open. I did train to go outside by myself with this big wrench to pull the doors closed and latch them shut, but fortunately I didn’t have to go and do that.
Did you have any heroes in your time at NASA?
One of the people I admired the most, mainly because of the way he ran things and was straightforward, was Deke Slayton. I really admired Deke, he was one of the best bosses I ever had. But there were lots of great guys, and John Young was sort of a hero to everybody. He had flown four times in space including working on the Moon on Apollo 16 and I trained with him for three years so John will always be near and dear to me.
“It was devastating when we lost Challenger… I had a lot of good friends on board the vehicle”
You flew on both Challenger and Columbia, so it must have been especially poignant when those two vehicles and their crews were lost…
It was devastating when we lost Challenger [on 28 January 1986]. I was preparing to fly a fifth flight at that time and I had a lot of good friends on board the vehicle including the commander Dick Scobee, who had been the pilot on my third flight [STS-41C], so that was a terrible time. That was when I ended up getting out of the astronaut programme to go into the Space Shuttle programme and get it flying again. That was probably one of the most difficult things I ever did in my life, working through all the issues and getting the vehicle back flying but it was also one of the most rewarding. I was retired when we lost Columbia [on 1 February 2003], and my daughter who taught astronauts how to fly the Space Shuttle was in mission control and she gave me a call at home and told me they’d lost contact with Columbia. In retrospect, even though it was a different kind of an accident, a lot of the management issues that we had encountered back when we lost the Challenger were still there, so it was disappointing to see us forget some of those lessons we learned. But they did get it back flying again, it took them a while but both of those vehicles were near and dear to me, and the people as well.
“I thought it was totally inappropriate to retire the Shuttle until we had another capability to get Americans into space that was ours”
What were your thoughts on the retirement of the Space Shuttle?
I thought it was totally inappropriate to retire the Shuttle until we had another capability to get Americans into space that was ours. The Shuttle could have continued flying, but I also wanted to see us get beyond Low Earth Orbit and that meant we needed another kind of vehicle. Unfortunately, the way the budgets were, there was no way we could continue flying the Shuttle and build a new vehicle. But now we’re kind of back on track, although I’m still not clear where America is going with her human space flight programme.