Authors note: I have had the pleasure of meeting Bob Crippen and working with John Young, albeit briefly, during my 25 years as an aerospace engineer at NASA. They have diverse personalities: Bob Crippen is gregarious and friendly, where John Young is reserved and rarely makes eye contact. I found both easy to talk to, though. The following is an account of the first space shuttle mission, with Young as the commander and Crippen the pilot, based on interviews, news coverage, and online videos from a number of sources, including online video, JSC Oral History Project, NASA websites, and my own knowledge.
April 12, 1981, was 20 years to the day after Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.
On launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida sat a space flight vehicle very different from anything ever flown before. Columbia, a delta-winged craft, was ready for its first test flight — a complex collection of solid rocket boosters, large external tank, with the crewed vehicle attached to the side of the fuel tank instead of the top of the stack.
Painted almost entirely white, the vehicle had a science-fiction appearance. The mission carried no payloads in the large payload bay, but did carry myriad sensors to understand the flight dynamics and temperature changes. The purpose of the mission of course was to demonstrate safe launch into orbit and safe return of the orbiter and crew. That return included landing on a runway much like a jet airliner, except as a glider and no engines. Columbia would have to land on its first attempt. In preparation for launch, the Mission Control team and the crew endured more than 1,800 hours of practice simulations. This vehicle had never flown before and was the first human spacecraft to fly a crew without performing an unmanned test flight.
All three major television networks covered the launch throughout the day, a return to the televised space flights of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo eras. Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, served as the system expert for ABC with Frank Reynolds and Jules Bergman. Joe Kerwin, an Apollo Skylab astronaut, joined Tom Brokaw and John Chancellor.
A young Steven Spielberg, who had recently written and directed “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” stood in the VIP area with many other notables.
“We are now t-minus 9 minutes and counting,” Hugh Harris, the NASA Public Affairs Officer at Kennedy Space Center, said with a barely perceptible increase in pitch from his normal calm tone of voice. “The launch events are being controlled by the ground launch sequencer.”
On board was Commander John Young, a 50 year-old veteran of four space flights and a moon walker. He was also head of the astronaut office. 44-year-old Robert (Bob) Crippen joined the senior astronaut, though Crippen had never been in space even though he has been an astronaut for 12 years. Young and NASA management were impressed with Crippen’s knowledge of the on-board software, and since the computer flew the shuttle almost entirely during ascent and entry, the team felt Crippen was a qualified pilot over someone who had already been to space.
Both crewmembers were a little unsure the stack would perform properly, though they both knew that NASA had “engineered the heck out of it.”
After a previous scrubbed launch, the anticipation today was clear. Steps, milestones, and built-in countdown holds were proceeding well. Even so, Crippen felt there would be another problem in such a complex vehicle and was not sure whether it would perform properly. The crew did have ejection seats and Columbia did have the operational capability of returning to the launch site should a problem occur.
However, the return to launch site process, only performed in simulators, would be a very difficult procedure; and no one really expected the crew to survive an ejection when it was likely that the aerodynamics would draw the crew into the solid-rocket booster plume. The only appropriate place the crew could use the ejection seats, Crippen thought, was during landing.
The Orbiter Test Conductor (OTC) radioed Young and Crippen to close and lock the helmet visors on their pressure suits. The countdown passed T-5 minutes. The OTC directed Crippen to perform the auxiliary power unit start process; John McBride, another NASA astronaut, took off from Patrick Air Force Base in one of the two chase planes.
About 800 miles to the west, a tall, lanky Neil Hutchinson, sporting large spectacles, bushy hair, and a full beard, sat in the Flight Director’s chair in Mission Control in Houston. A native of the Pacific Northwest, Hutchinson was rather young when he came to NASA, but made his way into building a telemetry system for the Gemini program in the early 1960s.
He worked his way up through mission control in the Apollo days and was now a flight director. To Hutchinson’s right was astronaut Dan Brandenstein, the capcom — or capsule communicator. “Capcom” was a designation left over from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo days when the crew flew in capsules. NASA just kept the designation for space shuttle. Behind Hutchinson in the Mission Control Management console was Gene Kranz, famous from his Apollo days of flight director, Christopher Craft the Johnson Space Center Director, and Max Faget, one of the engineering managers and designer of the original Mercury capsule.
Brandenstein had never flown in space, either, but was serving as the communicator from Mission Control to the crew. Hutchinson polled his flight control team for a go for launch, which included Jay Greene, the flight dynamics (call sign FIDO) officer, also from the Apollo era. The New York native Greene, well known in the NASA world as the FIDO for the Apollo 11 launch and moon landing was a cohort of Hutchinson. The Mission Control team stood ready to take over the flight when Columbia cleared the tower of the launch complex.
On board Columbia, the computer began flexing the aerosurfaces, body flap, and main engines. Young and Crippen could feel the motion. Chuck Hannon, the launch director, radioed the crew with “smooth sailing, baby.” The count proceeded past T-1 minute and Crippen turned to his commander and said “Hey, I think we might really do it!'”
The media was strangely quiet during the final minutes. On board, John Young’s heart rate steadied at 90 beats per minute (he later said he was just too old for his to go any faster); Crippen’s heart rate was 130. The ground launch sequencer, a computer that controlled the countdown, continued inexorably. When Columbia’s computer took over the final 31 seconds, the two astronauts each crossed their arms in front of themselves. Hugh Harris continued his commentary.
“T-15, 14, 13….” he then paused. The water sound suppression system began dumping thousands of gallons of water below Discovery’s engines to suppress the pressure waves from the engine keeping them from bouncing back up and damaging the vehicle. “T-10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4…we’ve gone for main engine start…” Radial solid propellant motors began spraying sparks the area under the engine, not to ignite the engines, but to burn any hydrogen pockets to prevent a small explosion should the engines start with extra hydrogen underneath the orbiter.
In the internals of the main engine, six prevalves, three hydrogen and three oxygen, began a programmed opening sequence. The three engines shuddered noticeably and stirred increasing thrust to 100 percent in 5 seconds. The high-speed turbopumps were spinning up to 35,000 rpm.
The three powerplants began sucking cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen into their complex ducts of inconel and other non-corrosive metals. The engine bell, really a cone of hundreds of feet of tubing, quickly pressurized with 6000 psi of gaseous hydrogen that kept the engine from burning up from the 5000-degree combustion. Exhausting from each of the three engine bells were at first a yellow oxygen rich flame, which changed to a white, almost invisible exhaust of excess unburned hydrogen and water vapor. The engine hydraulic actuators at first quivered with the initial belch of the engines, and then powerfully pushed the engine bells together to the launch position. The crew heard, and felt, a rumble below them and a gentle movement toward their feet for a second and then a return.
At the same moment, at the top of the twin solid-rocket motors, two sets of pyrotechnic NASA standard initiators (NSI”s) exploded like a pair of large firecrackers. Instantly, a basket of boron potassium nitrate pellets ignited and just as kindling in a fire, but incredibly faster, these pellets activated a solid propellant booster igniter. A large flame shot down the borehole of the solid propellant; each booster’s core was already at close to 1000-psi one-tenth of a second after the initiators fired. At the base of each booster four hold down nuts fractured with the explosion of eight more NSI’s releasing the vehicle from the launch pad. The dull main engine roar was replaced by a much louder gush and was accompanied by a sharp acceleration upward. Columbia was on its way. At that moment, a shock wave bounced down off the launch pad and back up to the tail of Columbia resulting in the loss of 16 heat shield tiles and damage to 148 others.
Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on April 12, 1981, at seven seconds 7 a.m. Eastern Time. In Mission Control, Max Faget jumped up and exclaimed, “They’re off!” scaring the “beejesus” out of the Mission Control team. The ABC news coverage Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan began talking in superlatives. Onboard Columbia, Young and Crippen felt a “kick in the pants” (Crippen’s description) and the vehicle lurched straight up, though all Young probably saw was the launch tower dropping away to his left. The space shuttle was already traveling more than 100 miles per hour by the time it cleared the tower. John McLeish, the public affairs officer in mission control, also an Apollo era veteran, picked up the commentary. A few seconds after liftoff, Young calmly report that Columbia was rolling to the right per the computer program.
“Roger, roll,” responded Brandenstein, with Young and Crippen jostling to the vibration of seven and a half million pounds of thrust, like a car on a rough road. The first few seconds of flight passed without incident, but in Mission Control, Jay Greene noted a problem. Columbia was not exactly following the predicted flight path and was in fact lofting higher than it should have.
On the plot board in front of Greene, and on the screen in the Mission Control room, the track of Columbia curved extremely high in altitude, and it looked like it was going off the plot board. The shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, running at a higher thrust than predicted, were sending Columbia too high. Neither Mission Control nor the crew could do nothing but watch what was happening for the first two minutes of flight. Greene called to Hutchinson the problem, even though everyone in the room could see the predicament. Hutchinson passed this information along to the crew through Brandenstein.
At 1 minute and 45 seconds into the flight, Young reported a “nice ride.” Brandenstein responded: “Roger, Columbia, on the nice ride, you’re lofting a little bit, you’ll probably be slightly high at staging.” Twenty seconds later the two solid rocket boosters, finally spent, separated with a loud bang in the crew module.
After the booster separated, the flight computer brought Columbia back to the proper trajectory. With the weight of the boosters gone, the vehicle began accelerating faster toward space. The crew felt the reduction in vibration and the ride smoothed out considerably. The acceleration noticeably increased, as well.
Columbia continued to increase acceleration until about the seven and a half minute point in the flight when the engines began to throttle back to protect the stress upon the structure. The three engines shut down on time and the crew immediately experienced weightlessness. Eighteen seconds later, their huge fuel tank separated. A few minutes later they fired smaller engines and the space shuttle was in orbit.
Young and Crippen doffed their pressure suits, configured for Columbia for orbit, and floated back aft to the payload bay panel. There, Crippen turned on lights to the payload bay and began the process to open the doors. By now, the crew had already orbited the Earth once.
While in orbit, the crew opened the payload bay doors and immediately noticed the damaged tiles at the back of the vehicle.
“Hey, there’s some tile missing back there,” Crippen told mission control. When the television was available, the crew gave the ground views of the tiles that were missing. Fortunately, the mission tiles were not critical. In an earlier interview, Young was asked a question about the possibility of missing tiles. It was all quite simple: “If you don’t have any tiles on the bottom, the vehicle’s going to burn up; if you have a lot of tiles on the bottom, the vehicle won’t burn up.”
“Living inside the shuttle at the time was a little like camping out,” Crippen later said. 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.”
Young and Crippen were on orbit for about two days. The on-board toilet immediately “crapped out” (so to speak) but the rest of the vehicle seemed to function normally.
The time on orbit, a little over two days, consisted of testing of the onboard equipment, orbital maneuvering burns, attitude control testing, and testing the living areas. They talked with Vice President George H.W. Bush and dealt with an environmental control system that was just a little too cool the first night. Creative music provided for enjoyable morning wake-up calls.
Entry and landing
On the 37th orbit, Columbia was over the Indian Ocean when Landing Flight Director Don Puddy and his Mission Control team monitored the computer controlled deorbit engine burn, which lasted about two minutes.
Puddy, another Apollo Mission Control veteran was on the communications console when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Astronauts Joe Allen and Rick Hauck were now taking their turn as capcoms. The two had also never flown in space before, though Allen previously worked as capcom for Apollo. Hauck was admittedly nervous about Columbia entering the atmosphere and since there was no communication due to the blackout, it was tense in Mission Control. Near the time when Columbia appeared from blackout, the landing site acquired a signal. John Young’s voice suddenly broke the silence.
“Hello, there, Houston. Columbia’s here,” Young announced. Whew, they’ve survived so far, Hauck thought to himself. Allen reported to the crew that the vehicle was on a perfect ground track. Approaching the coast of California over Big Sur, Columbia began dropping rapidly while taking navigation data.
“What a way to come to California,” exclaimed Crippen. Through descending altitude and speed, the Columbia tracked the predicted trajectory almost perfectly. Young continued rolling the shuttle left and right, much like a skier bleeding off energy downhill. The rest of the descent was “textbook.” About 30 miles prior to landing, the Columbia began flying more like an airplane at less than the speed of sound. Two sonic booms announced its arrival.
Allen radioed Young, “…and turning on to final the winds on the surface are calm,” where Young responded, “My kind of winds.”
The Navy captain glided steeply to the dirt runway at Edwards Air Force base. The runway was 17,000 feet long so he knew he had plenty of room. John McBride, another astronaut, was flying one of the chase planes to the right. “You look real good underneath!” McBride called to Young. He was commenting on the condition of the tiles on Columbia’s belly.
Smoothly, almost effortlessly, Young guided Columbia from the steep descent to a preflare, and then final flare. Crippen’s job was to lower the landing gear. McBride gave Young calls to let him know how close he was to the ground. Touchdown was about 10:21 a.m. Pacific Time. A rooster tail of dust followed Columbia to wheel stop. Young could not resist a bit of levity.
“Do you want us to take it to the hanger, Joe?” he offered capcom Allen.
“We’re going to dust it off, first,” Allen responded.
Don Puddy announced to his Mission Control team, “All controllers, you have 15 seconds for unmitigated jubilation, and then let’s get this flight vehicle safe.” The controllers in the room yelled and cheered for 15 seconds, and then he called, “Time’s up.” After a few switch throws to shut down the vehicle Young got out of his seat and was “bouncing around.” Crippen felt like applauding.
After a few minutes, the ground crew rolled a portable room and stairway to the side hatch of Columbia. About 40 minutes after landing, Young crawled out the side hatch and then bounded down the stairway to the ground helmet in hand. Young began double fist pumping his arms walking around the spacecraft. A few minutes later, a grinning Crippen came down from Columbia.
The Mission Control team heard something at the back of the room. Some turned and saw Christopher Craft, the Johnson Space Center director, in the viewing area. He had taken a blank sheet of paper, and a pen, and had written on it, “We just got infinitely smarter,” and he was holding it up against the glass.