The Planetary SocietyApr 07, 2021

Space Shuttle Astronaut Bob Crippen Describes Columbia's First Flight: "A Moment of Pure Excitement"

Bob Crippen
Bob Crippen Astronaut Bob Crippen piloted the first Space Shuttle flight on 12 April 1981.Image: Gordon Auld / The Planetary Society

Rockets designed to carry humans usually fly without them first. That wasn’t the case for the Space Shuttle, which launched for the first time on 12 April 1981 with astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen aboard.

The bold test flight opened NASA’s 30-year space shuttle era. During that period the shuttle flew 135 times, making numerous scientific and technological achievements including building the International Space Station and launching and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope.

Crippen joined us on Planetary Radio to mark the 40th anniversary of the shuttle’s first flight. He and host Mat Kaplan discussed the program’s origins, Crippen’s famous trip to space aboard Space Shuttle Columbia, and the future of space exploration.

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Mat Kaplan:

Bob, when I told my Planetary Society colleagues that I'd be talking with you, they were kind of awestruck. Frankly, so was I. Thank you very much for being our guest on Planetary Radio.

Bob Crippen:

Happy to be here.

Mat Kaplan:

We're going to get to the Space Shuttle and we're going to get to Columbia and STS-1, but I want to talk to you a little bit about what got you to that point. In my research, I found out, among other things, you always loved flying, but you were also a first-generation computer geek. Did that play a part in your NASA career?

Bob Crippen:

Well, it did. When I was attending the University at Texas to get an aerospace degree, my senior year, they started a computer program with the old punch cards and so forth. I was interested in that and I've continued to explore that interest throughout my career.

Mat Kaplan:

Okay, but along the way, you did pick up something like—and I imagine it's more than this now—6,500 hours in air and in space. What'd you fly before you took the controls of the shuttle?

Bob Crippen:

Well, my primary fleet airplane was the A-4 Skyhawk, which I was flying aboard the USS Independence in the Mediterranean and throughout the Atlantic. When I finished up that squadron, I applied for test pilot school and was fortunate enough to be selected. The Navy and the Air Force exchange people for the schools and I ended up being sent to the Air Force school at Edwards Air Force Base and it was a thrill to be there. Chuck Yeager was the commandant of the school when I was there. That was a long time ago. We just recently lost Chuck, but it was quite an experience.

Mat Kaplan:

Got to meet him once in my career doing this and that was a pretty amazing experience as well. You were a tried and true naval aviator. What was it like joining up with the Air Force there? Not that you actually joined.

Bob Crippen:

Well, I spent a lot of time working with the Air Force. They do things a little bit different in flying sometimes, but I learned to fit in. It wasn't that difficult. In fact, I enjoyed every minute. They had some great airplanes. Loved flying the F-104 Starfighter out there and the F-106. It gave me a chance to see a little bit of both sides of the operation between the Navy and the Air Force.

Mat Kaplan:

We're going to get to another plane that you flew. One that you flew for NASA—just not a shuttle. But that's coming up in a couple minutes here. Now, when I was a kid, a budding space geek, the books I got from the library all talked about this amazing spaceplane that the Air Force was developing: the X-20, the Dyna-Soar. It was a follow-on to the actual X-15, which did all that amazing work. I mean, it was a spaceplane, right? And then came plans for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the MOL. Do you think that you might've ended up living up there in the MOL if that program hadn't been canceled?

Bob Crippen:

Well, I was honored to be selected for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. MOL was a military space program as opposed to NASA's civilian space program and I thought there was a distinct role for the military in space. Still do, in fact. But they did cancel Dyna-Soar and, when they canceled that, they wanted to put in another program and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was what came out of that. I was in the second group of people that was selected for it. Al Crews, who was our boss at the time, one of the crew members, was actually on the Dyna-Soar program and he switched over to the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, MOL. In fact, I was out there in California—our home base there in El Segundo, California—hoping to move up to Vandenberg. Unfortunately, that never happened.

Mat Kaplan:

I read a lot about this. These stories about the cancellation of those programs. I gotta tell you—as a kid, I and a lot of other people were sure excited about Dyna-Soar. It did seem like a natural follow-on to the X-15. If these programs had gone ahead, do you ever think about where we might have gone instead of turning all our attention to getting to the Moon? Not that there was anything wrong with that.

Bob Crippen:

Well, we're still learning how to explore space, if you will, and we're now moving on to more commercial applications there, but there still is room for doing classified stuff. We now have a Space Force, so the military is actively involved in what's going on around there.

Young and Crippen aboard Columbia
Young and Crippen aboard Columbia Astronauts John Young (left) and Bob Crippen (right) sit in the cockpit of Space Shuttle Columbia prior to its first flight on 12 April 1981.Image: NASA / Edited by The Planetary Society

Mat Kaplan:

How did you end up making the jump over to NASA? I guess you had the chance earlier in your career, but you decided that you'd stick with the military.

Bob Crippen:

Well, when I first applied to be an astronaut, both NASA and the military were taking applicants and there came a point in the selection process I had to choose between the two. That was in 1965. NASA was in the middle of the Gemini program and they had quite a few astronauts on board, so I figured my best opportunity was to go with the military, which is what I did. Unfortunately, I was selected in '67 for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory and we were working hard on it. I was looking forward to moving to Vandenberg, as I said earlier. We unfortunately got a call one morning that the program was canceled. I learned early on that, no matter how far along a program is, it can go away in a blink of an eye and that's what happened to MOL. All of us crew members—there were 14 of us at that time—were crying in our beer, if you will, trying to figure out what it is that we're going to do.

Bob Crippen:

One of them, Bo Bobko, one day said in a crew meeting, "Why don't we ask NASA if they could use any of us?" We all poo-pooed the idea, saying, "Hey, they got too many astronauts already." They were already starting to cancel the Moon flights and they hadn't even gone to the Moon yet. But one thing led to another and NASA did decide to take some of the crew members thanks to a guy by the name of George Miller, who was one of the NASA headquarters guys. He kind of directed the astronaut office in Houston that they should take some us. Deke Slayton, who was the big boss there at that time, decided, well, I'll take everybody that's 35 and younger. And that cut the group right in half. Seven of us actually moved over to NASA at that time and the other seven, unfortunately, didn't. But they were quite successful as well.

Mat Kaplan:

I imagine you pretty happy that you made that age cutoff that Deke set.

Bob Crippen:

That's an understatement. Yes, I was very happy.

Mat Kaplan:

Apollo ended, of course—earlier than it should've. But you managed to keep busy. I read about your work with Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz. Those projects didn't actually get you into space, but you did have to spend a whole bunch of time with some other astronauts in a tank, didn't you, for some of the preparation for Skylab?

Bob Crippen:

Yes. Actually, to go back to Deke for a minute: When Deke hired the seven of us, he said, "Look, guys. I don't have any flights for you. They're talking about this thing called a Space Shuttle that may fly around 1980 or something, but I got lots of work for you to do." So, we moved over and started supporting the programs that were pending. The one at that time was Skylab, our first attempt at a space station. I joined that program. I started following the hardware and, in fact, following the computer that was on board as to how it was going to be programmed.

After I'd been there a couple of months, I guess, Pete Conrad, who'd finished up Apollo 12, called me into the office one day and he said, "Crip, I need you to volunteer for this thing." And I said, "What is it?" He said, "Well, they want to do the ground simulation of the environment of the Skylab and they're going to lock you up in a vacuum chamber with five PSI of pressure and you're going to live in there for about 56 days." Being the new guy on the block, you don't turn down an opportunity to volunteer, so I said, "Yes, sir." And he said, "We've got two other guys who are going to volunteer with you, but they don't know about it yet. You have to go talk to them." That was Bo Bobko, who I mentioned earlier, and Bill Thornton. So, we set out to work on this program that was called the Skylab Medical Experiment Altitude Test or SMEAT for short. It was quite a project. We did spend 56 days locked up in that chamber, which was a little bit of an ordeal, but it actually produced some results regarding the medical hardware and things that we needed to do that fit into the actual Skylab program itself.

Mat Kaplan:

I imagine some of the stuff they learned still benefits people living on the ISS today. I mean, it's amazing to think that even today there's still stuff that we're learning about what it takes to keep a human happy and healthy in space and this was an early attempt to do that.

Bob Crippen:

It was. You do have to keep occupied; I learned that. You don't want too much idle time. You want just the right amount of idle time, but you need to be busy. We set that up to work and it turned out that it did feed into the Skylab program. Unfortunately, we discovered we were overworking one crew way too hard and had to back down on that, but there is a balance of what you can do while you're on board, especially if you're new to being weightless. That takes a little getting used to and you're not as productive initially.

Mat Kaplan:

That's a famous story, I guess, for another time, about that Skylab crew that rebelled a little bit—something I think that's coming up on our show. Then came Apollo-Soyuz. You weren't up there shaking hands with the Soviets, but you were playing a pretty important role on the ground.

Bob Crippen:

Yes. Actually, when we finished up Skylab, I moved in to start helping with the design work on the Space Shuttle and worked on that for about a year or so. Then, Tom Stafford called me in and he said, "Crip, I need you to volunteer to be on my support crew for this thing called Apollo-Soyuz," which is a joint mission we were going to do with the Russians. That actually sounded like it would be interesting to do, so myself, Dick Truly, Bo Bobko, and Bob Overmyer, I think, were the support crew on that. We actually ended up going over to Moscow and Star City. We were the first Americans to ever go there. Tom Stafford insisted that we were going to get to go see the launch site, which we did.

Mat Kaplan:

Wow. It strikes me that you got asked to volunteer for some things over and over by a lot of people who are now pretty important parts of history.

Bob Crippen:

Well, I was the new guy, so you get to volunteer a lot.

Mat Kaplan:

So, you were the CAPCOM, right? For Apollo-Soyuz?

Bob Crippen:

I was the CAPCOM for Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz. That was a very important role. Because the people in mission control play a significant role in all of our space flights and learning to work with them on the ground, in the control room, really helped me out later on when I was flying. I could picture what was going on in the control room and what they needed to know and how to communicate with them a lot better because of that.

Mat Kaplan:

Wasn't this a really important decision right from the start? I mean, from Mercury on—to make a fellow astronaut the person who was the liaison with the people who were up there?

Bob Crippen:

I think it was. We owe that to the original Mercury Seven. I'm not sure. It was probably Al Shepard and Deke Slayton behind that. It helps to have somebody you're talking to that kind of understands you and how you're operating and what your limitations are and what you can do.

Mat Kaplan:

Let's go back onto the shuttle. So, you were already working on it, helping to make it into what it became. I'm also thinking back to the 1970s when I used to drive up from my college radio station in Orange County to Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave. I would stand on the side of the dry lakebed for the approach and landing test. There was Enterprise, that test article, first riding on top of the 747, always being lifted up there, but eventually being released. I think it was the first time they actually released it to glide back on its own. There we were, all standing on the edge of the dry lakebed, feeling awfully fortunate to be out there for this. The shuttle glides past us, almost silently, and of course all our eyes are on that. All of a sudden, this earth shattering roar takes place right above our heads and that was the T-38 chase plane. It put us all on the ground. I'm just wondering if maybe you were flying that plane that knocked me onto the dirt.

Bob Crippen:

Not on that particular mission. Actually, I was on the ground out at Edwards along with you, but not beside you. I was over by the runway. One of the things that we also do in the astronaut office is we assign a crew member, an astronaut, to be with the family of the people that are flying on missions like that. And so I was what we call the family escort. So, I had all the wives out there and telling them what was going on. Unfortunately, I had also caught a bad cold earlier and I had lost my voice, so it was mostly with my hands, I was talking to the women. But we did use the T-38s to chase all of those missions. We actually used them for the first initial orbital flights as well. And I did fly some of those chase missions on subsequent flights.

Liftoff of Columbia
Liftoff of Columbia Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off for the first time on 12 April 1981.Image: NASA

Mat Kaplan:

It's one of my favorite stories about being out there. Then, I was out there again, of course, not too long after because Columbia was coming back from space. You were lucky enough, on April 12, 1981, to be sitting next to John Young out there on pad 39A at the controls for Columbia. What was going through your head?

Bob Crippen:

Well, we'd already scrubbed once on April the 10th and I thought there was a good chance that we were going to scrub again because it's a very complex vehicle and there were lots of things that would have to work correctly. I'd been working as an astronaut, but hadn't flown for a very long time, so I was pretty excited, but it was only when the count got inside of a minute that I really turned to John and I said, "I think we might do it." That's when my heart rate went up to about 130. It was a moment of pure excitement and it lived up to everything that I'd dreamed that it would be.

Mat Kaplan:

How was it to fly that shuttle? Once you made it up into orbit, thanks to that giant external tank and those mighty solid rocket boosters, and you were up there in low-earth orbit on your own. And having ridden a vehicle that had not gone through any crewed tests. Not into space, anyway, because you couldn't do that. It was meant for people to fly.

Bob Crippen:

Actually, the program discussed starting about a year prior to flight—and we'd already been delayed—as to whether they ought to modify the vehicle to try to get it where it would fly unmanned. Both John and I lauded against that because we thought it had a better chance if we were on board. Because we're modest, I guess.

Mat Kaplan:

I think they call it the Right Stuff, actually.

Bob Crippen:

I'm not sure about that. It was an interesting test flight. Both John and I are trained as test pilots and being first is something that a lot of test pilots want to do, so we were pleased to be on the first flight. And it lived up to our expectations. Eight-and-a-half-minutes from sitting on the pad to going 17,500 miles an hour is quite a ride. But I thoroughly enjoyed my first time being weightless and getting a chance to observe this beautiful planet Earth that's our spaceship and was lucky enough to get to do it a few more times after that.

Mat Kaplan:

We're going to talk about some of those. They kept you pretty busy, I'm sure, but you did get some time to look out the window and enjoy that view?

Bob Crippen:

Well, I did. However, there were only two of us on board. There was quite a bit of work going on, so I didn't get to look out as much as I might've wanted to. I discovered the commander gets to look out more than the pilot does, so on my subsequent flights when I was commander, I did spend more time looking out the window.

Mat Kaplan:

It's good to be in charge sometimes. You already talked about how complex it is and we've talked about that on this show—what an amazingly complex machine it was. Can you give some idea of the complexity of this system? Because it was much more than just a flying machine.

Bob Crippen:

Well, it was. The computers we talked about a little earlier were very much involved with the whole operation of the Space Shuttle. And we didn't have that much memory. Not nearly as much as you've got in your phone or probably in the computer you're using. The computer looks at all of the systems. That's how the crew monitors most of the systems. We did have some hardware displays but predominantly we depended on the computer to see those. You've got first an environmental control system that has to allow you to breathe and keep the temperature reasonable and keep the pressure right. The vehicle builds up a lot of heat because of the electronics on board, so we have to have a radiator, which was the inside of the bay doors that were required to be open for you to stay in orbit for very long. We used what we'd call a flash evaporator to keep it cool going up and coming back down.

So, you've got all that system to deal with. Then, you have to generate power. We had three fuel cells to do that. No batteries at all—strictly the three fuel cells. That also is part of what's building up heat. You also need to worry about the structure of the vehicle, which is an interesting thing, and the thermal protection system, which was required to keep it cool. The vehicle basically has a skin of aluminum which melts at around 300 degrees and you're going to come back to Earth at 3000 degrees. So, we depended on the thermal protection system to keep the vehicle at a reasonable temperature and also a material called reinforced carbon-carbon, which is on the leading edges of the wings and the nose of the spacecraft. You've got very complicated main engines that are the most complex thing we built. In fact, a derivative of those is going to be used on the new Space Launch System that NASA is working on right now.

So, there's a lot of complexity in the vehicle. You have to have a hydraulic system that's run by auxiliary power units that allows you to control the vehicle, including the flaps and the main engines to some extent as well. There's a lot going on. It weighs around 200,000 pounds when it's empty—just the orbiter itself. It'll take a payload of almost 50,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit. And it has a crew of seven that allowed us to fly a lot of people in space—much more than we'd ever had before.

Mat Kaplan:

Still an amazing vehicle. Still utterly flabbergasting.

Bob Crippen:

It'll be a long time before we have anything nearly as complex or capable.

Mat Kaplan:

You mentioned the memory you had on those original shuttles. I remember that it was magnetic core memory, which computer geeks out there know was the earliest form of Random Access Memory, RAM, and not very much of it, as you said.

Bob Crippen:

Yeah, we started out with only 64K; that boosted up to 100K before we flew. There were 32-bit words on the thing. We also had the programs stored on magnetic tape, so we had to load the programs... They had one in it for the pre-flight, when they were getting ready to launch for the countdown. Then, you loaded the ascent program in at about 20 minutes prior to liftoff. You get on orbit and you have to load the orbital program in for the flight control. And then you've got an entry program you have to load in. All those things need to work.

Mat Kaplan:

So, if the system crashed, you had to reload from magnetic tape while you were on orbit?

Bob Crippen:

That's correct.

Mat Kaplan:

Wow. I did not know that one. Okay, I'm going to add that to the stories I tell people. You were the pilot—how did it fly? I mean, how did it handle, first of all, in space when you had to maneuver around some, but then bringing it back down to the dry lake bed here in California?

Bob Crippen:

Well, it flew very well, actually. The flight control system is also digital, so when you're controlling it, your hand controller fully inputs into the computer, which goes out and drives the aero systems to do what you want or the jets. When you're on orbit, we had some large 800 pound reaction control jets and we had some smaller ones, Vernier jets, that we also used to control attitude. And we had a large Orbital Maneuvering System that allowed us to change the orbit when we were on orbit and to do the de-orbit. Coming back in, you're initially using the jets until you get to around 400,000 feet and you start to get a little atmosphere and you blend in using the flight control system with the jets. It's when you go subsonic, which is usually right over your landing site at around 45,000 feet, then you're strictly on aerodynamic controls. The jets are not used after that.

Mat Kaplan:

Really?

Bob Crippen:

Because of the reaction control system going through a digital system, we were able to tune the vehicle. It actually flew much more like a small fighter airplane because you could set the gains and most of us in the crew were former fighter pilots, so we tended to want it to be pretty responsive, which it was.

Mat Kaplan:

That's also amazing when you think it's often compared to a Boeing 737, that you were able to tune that thing so that it could fly like the fighters you were used to.

Bob Crippen:

Not quite as responsive as the fighters, but much more so than some 707s, which I flew at that time.

Mat Kaplan:

Did you have control over that balance between the reaction control system and the traditional control surfaces or was that also something determined by the computer as you came down in altitude?

Bob Crippen:

That was all programmed into the computer. It modified the system as you came down.

Mat Kaplan:

That's amazing sophistication, considering it was state of the art of the time. It still amazes me.

Columbia Touches Down
Columbia Touches Down Space Shuttle Columbia touches down on the dry lakebed runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California, concluding its first mission on 14 April 1981.Image: NASA

Bob Crippen:

It worked very well. I mean, considering that we couldn't really simulate that prior to flight, the fact that it did behave so well was remarkable. Let me go back to the approach and landing tests because they played into that. The last landing Fred Haise was doing on the concrete runway out at Edwards, he actually got in what's called a pilot-induced oscillation with the nose. Because we needed to change the gains to correct that, it allowed us to come in and fly the orbital flight so well. But it was something that we discovered in the tests and that's why you do tests.

Mat Kaplan:

I'm just thinking of how much my pilot brother is going to love hearing this part of this conversation. He's just going to go nuts. That first return, when you set it down and it slowly came to a stop behind the parachute there on the dry lake bed and all those vehicles start coming out—I was standing off of the dry lake bed again, cheering, jumping up and down with everybody else. It had to feel pretty good.

Bob Crippen:

That's an understatement. The fact that it worked as well as it did and it all came together, and I've never seen John Young as excited as he was. We needed to keep doing something to bring the systems down and we were working with mission control to do that. John let me do that. He unstrapped, got off of the flight deck, and went down to the mid-deck, but they wouldn't open the hatches until they cleared that there weren't any noxious fumes outside. So, John was bouncing back and forth between the mid-deck and the flight deck and he was very excited, to say the least. When they opened the hatch, he immediately exited. I still was busy working with the mission control, trying to get the vehicle shut down properly. I came out shortly thereafter.

But let me go back to one point. You mentioned you were out on the lakebed. When John and I came over Edwards at around 45,000 feet, and when he put the vehicle on a big left turn to do our circling approach that we use out there, I looked out his window and I saw all these people out there on the lake bed. I pointed it out to John. I said, "I hope none of them are on the runway."

Mat Kaplan:

They let us closer than I thought they would, actually. I was surprised. But yeah. I mean, the night before—because I'd been up all night—I was wandering around just outside the fence. There were hundreds of thousands of people; thousands and thousands of RVs who had pulled up there and all those people sitting on top of their vehicles to watch you guys make that first landing. It was a glorious experience. I also have a photo of people milling around outside what was then the Dryden Research Center—now the Armstrong Center, of course—walking around Enterprise. That test article that you had worked with for so long on the approach and landing test. It was really amazing. It was such a touching experience to see the people who had helped to build, who had paid for this system, being out there to enjoy its success.

Bob Crippen:

Yeah, it was. I was amazed that as many people came out as they did.

Mat Kaplan:

And to say nothing of the tens of millions of people who were watching on live TV all around the world. Tell us about John Young, a guy who walked on the Moon—another legend.

Bob Crippen:

John was a great guy; I’m glad to have called him my friend. I'm just sorry he's not here to celebrate this 40th anniversary coming up. But John is perhaps one of the funniest human beings I've ever met. He had these one-liners that he delivered in sort of a wry manner; I wish I'd written them all down in a book somewhere and I could have sold it and gotten us rich. He was also a brilliant engineer. I learned early on, when John was worried about something on the vehicle or what we were doing, that I ought to be worried as well. He and I had three years to train for that initial flight because we kept getting delayed due to problems with the main engines and the thermal protection system, so I got to know John very well and he was a pleasure to fly with. When you're a rookie going up, you like to have a nice experienced guy to go with and John was our most experienced guy. He was chief of the astronaut office. He had flown four flights, including walking on the Moon on Apollo 16. So, I had the best to go fly with.

Mat Kaplan:

Truly a legend. You got to fly three more times; all three times as commander of Challenger. What strikes me most maybe about these three later missions is that they were all about getting work done up there in space.

Bob Crippen:

It was. We had to keep testing out things during the initial flights to make sure that they would do what we wanted them to do. On my second flight, STS-7, I had a great crew. As you said, I was commander on that. We wanted to go see if we could work in proximity to satellites and capture satellites and deploy them again with our remote manipulator system. The arm that's on the shuttle. We actually did deploy a couple of communication satellites and then got down to the basic work to find out whether we could turn a satellite loose and pick it up again. I had John Fabian and Sally Ride doing that, and Rick Hauck was my pilot on that. He and I flew around the vehicle that we deployed, flew back in, and picked it up a couple of different times. That was early on tests to find out if that worked like we would want it to.

My second flight, we had a satellite on orbit that had malfunctioned. It was called SolarMax. It was put up there to observe the Sun during the maximum phase of the Sun. We had not done a rendezvous yet prior to that flight, so we were the first rendezvous with the Space Shuttle and then came in to capture it. We had planned to use Pinky Nelson, who was going to fly over and grab it with this manned maneuvering unit that we had. Unfortunately, the capture device on that was not designed correctly and it didn't do the job, resulting in a tumble of the SolarMax. But the ground was able to stabilize it again to get it where we could come in and capture it, with it just rotating in a slower manner. Terry Hart was the guy that did the capture with me on that.

Then, the last flight was more of an operational flight. It was primarily with instruments designed to observe the Earth, and we tried to figure out whether we could actually refuel satellites on orbit. Dave Lisma and Kathy Sullivan did a space walk and proved that we could do that. Sally Ride was also with us on that. It was a great mission. I didn't know that was going to be my last flight, though. When I came back down and after working for a while, I was assigned to do the first initial mission that we were going to fly out of Vandenberg Air Force Base and that was going to be a polar orbit. I really regret that I never got to do that. In fact, we were going to launch off the same pad that we had planned to launch off of for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. But after we lost Challenger, all that went by the wayside and I hung up my flying boots and got into management, unfortunately.

Mat Kaplan:

Well, fortunate for the rest of us maybe, but yeah, I can understand your feelings about it. I'm going to come back to that elephant in the room of Challenger, because it was your bird on those later flights that you made. So many of the names that you just mentioned have also become legends. I mean, I'm very proud that Sally Ride became a friend of mine. I live in the San Diego area and she actually made a regular contribution to this show for a while and I was pretty devastated by the loss. I just wondered if there's anything else that you want to say—not just about her because you must have all been thinking somewhere in the back of your minds, “hey, we got the first American woman up here in space”—but also all these other amazing colleagues who you worked with over those missions.

Bob Crippen:

Yeah, Sally was special. She was a great crew member. I flew with her twice. In fact, her only two flights were on my crews. We lost her way too early. I was pleased with the work that she did while she was out there in San Diego trying to inspire more young women to get involved in some of the more technical projects. Sometimes women don't seem to go into that direction and she did a lot to inspire women to prove that they can do anything they want to.

Mat Kaplan:

Yeah, Sally Ride Science is still going strong as far as I know. There's a ship that I pass by every now and then here that's an oceanographic research vessel called the Sally Ride.

Bob Crippen:

That's great.

Mat Kaplan:

It always makes me feel good to see it. Let's talk about Challenger and what happened. We don't need to dwell on this, but that had to be pretty devastating. I know that you were involved in the recovery from that and in making sure that it wouldn't happen again. What can you say about that?

Bob Crippen:

Well, as you said, it was pretty devastating. I lost a lot of close friends on that mission and in a vehicle that I had grown to love. It was an accident, in my opinion, that never should've happened. We launched on a cold day and the solid rocket joints didn't handle it very well. That caused the loss. The initial recommendation out of the solid rocket manufacturer was not to launch because of the temperature, but because of some communication issues, I guess, and various reasons, that it was decided to override that to get them to change their mind. Unfortunately, they did go launch and the accident happened.

As you said, I know that I felt the crew very strongly would want us to get back to flying again. I made some recommendations to my boss at that time, who was Dick Truly in Washington, that we needed more operational people running the program and he said, “if you believe that, hang up your flying boots and come help run the program,” which is what I did. Arnie Aldrich was the director of the program, Dick Kohrs was in Houston, and I was in the Kennedy Space Center; we worked very hard on overcoming a lot of stuff to get back flying again. Because there were a lot of things that needed to be corrected on the shuttle besides the solid rocket motors. We took advantage of a two-year-plus period to do that. It's probably one of the tougher things I ever participated in.

Mat Kaplan:

Back before I started doing this show 18 years ago, there was a short-lived TV show. I actually went and did an interview at Rockwell with one of the leaders of the work to redesign the shuttle after the loss of Challenger. I still am blown away by how many upgrades were made, how many changes were made, from the early design. I guess that's some of what you're talking about.

Bob Crippen:

That's correct. I mean, when you fly a vehicle, you discover things that you'd like to improve on. We had discovered quite a few, so we took advantage of that period to do that. One of the big things is the wheels and brakes were not up to what some of us wanted, so we improved those, put nose wheel steering in, and improved a lot of the systems on board.

Mat Kaplan:

And then of course, along came Endeavour, which I never get tired of visiting when I make it up to LA nowadays. It is truly awe-inspiring to stand underneath that vehicle and know that it was part of this family of vehicles that did such amazing work up there in low-Earth orbit. Do you ever get to see any of the shuttles now on display around the country?

Bob Crippen:

Oh yes. I've visited them all. It was kind of heartbreaking for me to see them go into museums instead of flying, but I'm glad that they're out there where people can see them. Usually, the first time anybody walks around one of the shuttle orbiters, they're amazed at how big it is. They don't fully appreciate it until they see it. Another amazing thing is... You were mentioning about Enterprise. The first time I heard they were going to put that in the museum out there by USC, I said, "They're never going to be able to get it there." I didn't see how it would ever work. But the people managed to fly it into LAX and they did manage to move things to put it there. But we have Discovery up at the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy in Washington and we have Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center on display there.

Mat Kaplan:

Well, I share your regret that they're not still flying, but I also regret that the Challenger and Columbia aren't also on display where people can come and remember the amazing work that they did. So, you went into management, as you said, and you became the director of the Space Shuttle program, working out of NASA headquarters. There were a lot of good years left in the program.

Bob Crippen:

That's true. After a couple of years where I'd been working at the Kennedy Space Center, Arnie Aldrich wanted to move over into another position there and Dick Truly, who was running our manned spaceflight at that time asked me to come up and be the director of the program, so I did that. A couple of years is about all I could tolerate of working in Washington, though. It's not one of my favorite workplaces. But it was educational. Let me say that.

Mat Kaplan:

Not the first person I've heard that from; I think you're being polite. But then I guess that helped that prepare you for, as far as I know, what was your next big job and that took you back to the Kennedy Space Center.

Bob Crippen:

It did. I was always fond of the Kennedy Space Center. I first visited there in 1967, I think. That’s where the rubber hits the road for the space program. The opportunity came for me to take over as director, to replace Forrest McCartney—those were hard, big shoes to climb into. But other than sitting in the cockpit, probably being director of the Kennedy Space Center was my next most favorite job.

Mat Kaplan:

From there you went to private industry, which I’m sure was quite a jump. What was that transition like? I think first it was to Lockheed Martin?

Bob Crippen:

That's correct. I decided at some point while I was at the Kennedy Space Center that if I ever wanted to be able to retire, government pay and military pay is not all that great, so I probably needed to get out into private industry. And so I retired from NASA without ever having looked for a job and started my job search after I quit NASA. I ended up getting an offer to work in Orlando at one of the Lockheed Martin facilities there and was primarily working on simulators for the military. Because of the management roles I had, I was restricted from working on anything with NASA for a while. But after a couple of years there, I got a call one day from a headhunter telling me about a position out in Utah with this company called Thiokol, which I knew very well, and I said, "There's no way my wife is ever going to go to Utah. It's too cold for her out there." But I talked it over with my wife, and one thing led to another, and I went out to be the president of Thiokol at that time.

Mat Kaplan:

So, that's a name that people ought to remember because this was the company that was building those amazing solid rocket boosters, right?

Bob Crippen:

It was. It was actually Morton-Thiokol until we had the Challenger accident. After that the Morton Salt company decided they didn't want any part of the rocket business, so they spun that off. When I joined Thiokol, we had a corporate headquarters that had gone out and acquired a couple of other companies and so there were three companies in the corporation. Huck and Howmet were the other two. We changed our corporate name to Cordant, I think. I had the Thiokol portion of the business until, one day, I got a call from one of the corporate office guys and told me that they were selling the company to Alcoa. I handled that transition and then Alcoa decided they didn't particularly like the rocket business either and so I put it up for sale and sold it to a company called ATK at that time.

Mat Kaplan:

Another company with a pretty important history. During your time at Thiokol, weren't you involved with work on the solid rocket boosters and making them better to help get the shuttle up there?

Bob Crippen:

Yes. We'd done improvements to the solid rockets ever since the accident. We were doing the big solid rockets on the shuttle and Minuteman missiles and the Trident missiles for the Navy.

Mat Kaplan:

I'll take it back to the shuttle for a minute as we get close to wrapping up here. You've been very generous with your time. When I hear people nowadays, and even at the time, criticize the shuttle, the Space Transportation System—and there's room for criticism, you have to admit—I always tell them, "Yeah, but look at what it accomplished." And just look at it. Look at what took all these people and payloads up into orbit. With all its flaws, it's still magnificent. Do you agree?

Bob Crippen:

I'm obviously biased. I'm very proud of the Space Shuttle program. Yes, we had two tragic accidents that should've never happened. It was a complicated machine and it required a lot of tender loving care, TLC, but it was able to do fantastic things. It flew 130 flights, with those two accidents, and carried hundreds of people into orbit, including satellites that did things like the Hubble Space Telescope. That has revolutionized our knowledge of the universe. Early on, we did some military flights; they decided to quit flying those following Challenger, but I personally think some of them helped us win the Cold War. They were very important. Like I said earlier, it's going to be a long time before we have a machine that's anywhere near as capable as the Space Shuttle was.

Mat Kaplan:

Do you want to add any thoughts about NASA's current efforts to get humans back up into space? I mean, we've seen that happening now on Crew Dragon, of course. But Orion, the Space Launch System—sounds like they may finally be making it up there. Maybe even by the end of this year.

Bob Crippen:

Well, first, I was very chagrined when we didn't have a capability to put our people up in space and were dependent totally on the Russians. I was very pleased when SpaceX finally was able to launch crews from the United States again. Hopefully Boeing is going to be able to do that with their Starliner maybe before this year is out. As you mentioned earlier, the United States is working on the Orion capsules. Similar to what we flew to the Moon, but a little larger. A new large rocket called the Space Launch System. It's going to end up being a little more capable than the Saturn V. It's going to allow us to go back to the Moon and hopefully eventually land people on the Moon. I know that a lot of people think, well, we ought to be going on to Mars. We need to learn to work and live on another world that's a little bit closer to Earth than Mars is going to be. We'll eventually get there. I don't think you or I are going to see that, but the lunar program is something we're working on and now China and Russia have just united to go work on a lunar program themselves. So, we've got a little competition again.

Mat Kaplan:

So, when you see that big Space Launch System rocket and you know that those engines, as you'd said, are derived from the Space Shuttle engines and you see those solid rocket boosters strapped to the sides, does it make you think back?

Bob Crippen:

Well, we did take advantage of the technology we'd had before with the main engines and built a larger solid rocket based on what we used in the Space Shuttle. And I think it's a smart thing to do—take advantage of technology you've learned. I'm somewhat chagrined that it's taken so long and as much money as it has to get the Artemis program going, which is what they call the program at this time with the Orion and the Space Launch System, but hopefully we'll get there. Maybe get it off this year on an unmanned launch.

Mat Kaplan:

Yeah, it's good to see it progressing. Bob, I got just one more for you. The town of Porter in Texas. It's about an hour-and-a-half drive, I think, from your birthplace, Beaumont. Have you visited Robert L. Crippen Elementary School?

Bob Crippen:

I was there for the opening. I'm pretty proud to have a school named after me back in my hometown. I have one sibling, a sister, Betty Monroe, and I think she did some lobbying around there to have the school named after me. That was nice. I've been back to visit the school a few times. It's been a few years, but I get back to Porter every now and then because my sister still lives there.

Mat Kaplan:

I bet that lobbying effort didn't have to be too strenuous to get them to adopt that name. I also hope, Bob, that you and I are both around to see a lot more great things happen up there. Certainly the return of humans to the Moon, but I'm not willing to rule out footprints on Mars yet. Would you go again if you had the chance? John Glenn got to go again.

Bob Crippen:

If I could drive.

Mat Kaplan:

That's great. Bob Crippen, thank you. This has been absolutely delightful and an honor to talk with you. Thank you for your many decades of service that are going to have you remembered for a long, long time.

Bob Crippen:

Thank you, Mat. You have a good day.