Tuesday, April 12, 2011

T+30: Hail, Columbia

[Ed. Note: Another anniversary from 1861 is here. And another anniversary from 1961 is here.]

Thirty years ago...

There's high-stakes testing, and then there's high-stakes testing.

In principle, there's nothing particularly wrong with all-up tests. It had worked pretty well in the Apollo program. In a traditional test program, you would have tested each stage individually, before trying to stack them all together. The problem was, if NASA had done that, they would never have met the goal of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. So, to save time, they tested all three stages of the Saturn V rocket together. Twice the rocket flew unmanned, and it performed well enough that managers felt confident that they could put men on top of it for Apollo 8.

This philosophy was carried forward into the Space Shuttle program, with one additional twist. When the Space Shuttle flew into orbit on April 12, 1981, that would be the first time it flew into space. Its first flight would also be its first manned flight. For reasons known only to its designers, the Shuttle simply could not be flown automated. Oh, it could do just about everything by itself, with only one key exception.

The landing gear handle? It had to be pulled by hand.

So, on that April day in 1981, two men rode up the elevator to participate in one of the highest-risk test flights ever attempted.

Fittingly, the commander was the most experienced astronaut then on NASA's payroll. John Young had been selected as part of Group 2 in 1962. Prior to that, he had set time-to-climb records as a Navy test pilot as part of the F-4 Phantom II test program. He flew with Gus Grissom on the first flight of the Gemini spacecraft, and flew again as commander of Gemini 10. He would also fly twice in Apollo, first as Command Module Pilot on Apollo 10, then as Commander of Apollo 16. He had flown three different kinds of spacecraft, and had experienced five liftoffs and five landings (having had two of each on Apollo 16, obviously).

Young's co-pilot for this mission was a rookie astronaut, Robert Crippen. A rookie, maybe, but not a youngster, nor an inexperienced pilot. He had initially been selected as an astronaut in 1966, for the Department of Defense Manned Orbital Laboratory program. MOL was, to all intents and purposes, a manned reconnaissance satellite. Many of the details are still secret, but it's generally agreed that the cameras for the MOL were recycled into the unmanned KH-11 satellite. When the MOL program was cancelled in 1969, six of the MOL astronauts were recruited by NASA. So, why was a rookie flying the right-hand seat on the first flight? Simple: NASA needed experienced astronauts, and there was only one way to make them. The first four flights would be commanded by Apollo-era veterans: Young, Engle, Lousma, and Mattingly. Of the four, Engle had not flown in Earth orbit, but had flown the X-15 high and fast enough to make him the most experienced hypersonic glider pilot they had. Each of the four would be paired up with a "new guy", to give them experience so that they could enter the rotation as fully qualified commanders. The first four of these would be Crippen, Truly, Fullerton, and Hartsfield.

So, on that day, NASA's most experienced astronaut and its most promising rookie strapped into the cockpit of Columbia, and waited. Young's heart rate wasn't exceptionally high. He'd done this before, he knew the drill, this wasn't anything that worried him too much. Besides, if anything went wrong, that's what the black-and-yellow candy-striped handle was there for, right? Crippen's heart rate was somewhat higher. This was all new for him, something he'd eagerly anticipated for fifteen years now. (The large number of astronauts selected in the late 1960s, combined with the collapse of post-Apollo programs, led to some very lengthy waits.)

Finally, at almost exactly 6AM local time, the final count commenced.

Once they were shed of those oversized Roman candles, the rest was easy. Columbia made it into orbit for a two-day shakedown flight. There were a few unsettling things they found as they inspected the exterior of the ship: during launch, some of the protective tiles had come loose of the OMS pods. The really scary thing was ... did any come loose underneath? Because that was the only thing between Columbia and the searing heat of re-entry. Well, on the 14th of April, they'd find out. Now that they were in orbit, there was only one way home. They would have to fire the OMS rockets long enough to bring their orbital path down into the atmosphere. Then, John Young would have to fly the ship through re-entry, and land it on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Now, the biometrical data was reversed. Crippen was excited, but not terribly so. Young, on the other hand, was concerned. This was something he'd never done before. This was something no one had ever done before.

There were no guarantees they'd make it. A large crowd waited, hoping to greet them.

Of course, Columbia made it back, and made a perfect landing on April 14th. John Young would go on to command one more Space Shuttle flight, and since then, only eight people have equaled his record of six launches from Earth, and only two have surpassed it. Robert Crippen went on to command three more Space Shuttle missions, but none on Columbia.

Columbia herself would go on to fly into orbit 27 more times. Sadly, on her 28th and last mission, she would not land.

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