Columbia's First Launch Pushed Crew, Workers and Technology
NASA's Columbia orbiter launches skyward on April 12, 1981 on NASA's first-ever shuttle flight, STS-1. Commanding the 54-hour mission was astronaut veteran John Young with then-rookie flyer Robert Crippen as pilot.
Credit: NASA.

CAPE CANAVERAL - No one really expected the first space shuttle to fly on April 12, 25 years ago.

It was only the second countdown for Columbia. A computer glitch scrubbed the first attempt two days earlier. After struggling through the ship's creation, workers and astronauts alike were sure several more counts were in the works.

Then it got down to the last minute.

Pilot Bob Crippen and Commander John Young were the only two people aboard, taking the highly unusual risk of riding a vehicle that had never taken an unmanned test flight.

Crippen turned to Young. "I think we might do it!"

When the engines and solid rocket boosters lit, Gene Beckett could see the shock wave rolling across the grass toward where he stood outside the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center.

"It physically moves your skin, your clothes and everything else, when you get that initial thunder when those SRBs light," said Beckett, now director of United Space Alliance's Florida Program Office.

In the launch control center, chief shuttle project engineer Bob Sieck and his colleagues hugged one another, shook hands and waved flags.

"The marathon that it took to get us to that point . . . it was just lost in the euphoria that overcame us," said Sieck, who lives in Viera. "We actually pulled it off, and it worked."

It wasn't easy.

The new ship

Crippen became an astronaut in 1969. He saw the end of the Apollo moon program in 1972 and thought he would fly a lot sooner than 1981.

"The space shuttle main engines were having problems," he said. "We had a lot of blowup on the test stand, and of course that's something you don't want to happen, so we were busy working those. And also, our infamous tiles, the shuttle heat protection system, would not adhere to the vehicle very good."

Since the foam that coated the external fuel tank was expected to pop off, engineers wanted to understand how dangerous it would be to the tiles. So Sieck provided a testing tool -- his race car. With an array of tiles on the rollbar, he would drive at 100 mph or more under a structure on the shuttle landing strip, running the tiles into slabs of foam until they broke.

Apollo veteran Beckett, who lives on Merritt Island, was charged with keeping track of the ship's parts after it arrived at KSC from Boeing's plant in Palmdale, Calif. "Without computers, we'd have never been able to do it," he said.

This was no "gumdrop" capsule like Apollo had been. "All of a sudden, we had tires, we had wheels, and we had wings, and we had elevons and control surfaces and payload bay doors."

The new systems needed documentation. Gary Henderson of Melbourne, now with United Space Alliance's procurement office, was hired to write instruction manuals. "I have no idea what they're talking about," he told his wife after the first day. "They all speak in acronyms. I'm never going to learn this."

He stuck with it, deciphered the technology and listened to the doubts of the steely-eyed missile men who had sent astronauts to the moon.

"I can remember the Apollo guys sitting next to me and saying, 'This isn't going to work.' They were ready to go back to a single stick at that point."

Tile damage

Crippen and Young trained endlessly, for any problem they thought they could do something about.

"People at Kennedy had really done great work on the vehicle," Young said at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Friday. ". . . We spent lots of weeks down here where we were in the vehicle learning every switch and circuit breaker and what it did and operating it, and so it was a lot of fun."

Crippen's only worry was that he might mess up.

"All of our previous space launch vehicles had been flown unmanned before we put people on them, so this was a test pilot's dream to get to fly this flight," Crippen said.

Crippen, a Navy pilot, compares the launch to a catapult shot off an aircraft carrier. The ascent wasn't violent, he said, but "any time you go from sitting on the pad to going to 17,500 mph in eight and a half minutes, it's a pretty exciting ride."

On orbit, they saw a problem.

Ignition of the solid rocket boosters had prompted a pressure wave -- later mitigated by changes to the water sound suppression system -- that caused Columbia to lose heat-shield tiles.

Nonetheless, the orbiter, which had launched on the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic flight, landed with aplomb at Edwards Air Force Base in California on April 14. The people at KSC were exhilarated, but there was no way they would launch 24 times a year, as the hype would have it.

"There wasn't a question in my mind that somebody didn't understand how complicated this vehicle was to maintain," Beckett said.

Legacy

NASA hopes the three-ship fleet will finish building the International Space Station by the time they retire in 2010.

Even so, the shuttle has a legacy, and it's already taught lessons for the designers and operators of NASA's next spaceships.

"In hindsight, we'd have made it simpler," Sieck said. "It's got a lot of good features in it and lots of redundancy, but it was designed to be a multipurpose vehicle for any kind of customer. . . . As a result, we have a very complex vehicle, and it's very heavy, and we don't have the customers for a lot of its capability today."

Fourteen astronauts and two ships are lost -- Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. NASA still wrestles with the dangers and implications of the latter tragedy. The accident inspired new goals considered worthy of the risk: flying to the moon and Mars.

"That represents a sea change in American space policy for the first time in more than three decades, so that truly is the legacy of the Columbia crew to me," NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said.

The decision to build a shuttle, to "retreat back to low-Earth orbit" after flying to the moon, is now regarded as a policy mistake, he said.

Even so, people look back and see a technological wonder that deployed scientific observatories such as the Hubble Space Telescope. "It also put up a number of Department of Defense satellites that I believe helped us win the Cold War," said Crippen, who flew four missions.

The ship enabled the development of a broad range of capabilities in space, said astronaut Ken Bowersox, director of flight crew operations. "We've dabbled in a lot of areas, and we've exposed a very large number of people to spaceflight."

It's also a workhorse that made the International Space Station possible, Henderson said.

"When we got back down," Crippen said, "John said it was, I guess, like the world's greatest all-electric flying machine, that we'd never built anything like it before, and I'm not sure we will afterwards."

Published under license from FLORIDA TODAY. Copyright © 2006 FLORIDA TODAY. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any way without the written consent of FLORIDA TODAY.