Space Shuttle Astronaut Bob Crippen Describes Columbia’s First…

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.


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