Astrobiology Top 10: The Lure of the High Frontier

Roll out of Space Shuttle Atlantis, the end of an era for human spaceflight. Image credit: Ben Cooper / Launch Photography.

On April 12, 1981, I was on a rare visit home from University. I sat in front of the TV with my parents while we waited for STS-1 to get through its countdown. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9ThSnMxBNw

Even in a small terraced house in a northern suburb of London, the tension was all but unbearable. Goodness only knew what it was like on board the flight deck of the glittering white machine that the camera, positioned at the calculated minimum safe distance of eight miles, showed only as a distant speck.

The Space Shuttle had never been tested before in its entirety. Individual sections had, of course, been tested but the whole system as a unit had not. Even Enterprise – the first Shuttle space-frame to be built – had been an unpowered mock-up flown by two crews; one comprising Fred Haise (of Apollo 13 fame) and Gordon Fullerton, the other comprising Dick Truly and Joe Engle to test approach and landings only.

On the tiny foreshortened image on the TV screen in our living room, we could see the orbiter itself bolted to the massive external fuel tank bracketed between the two Thiokol solid rocket boosters (SRBs).

STS-1: The launch of Space Shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981. Image Credit: NASA

Twenty-nine years later, I finally got to ask Bob Crippen how it felt to be sitting there. He told me that both he and Young had been excited – not scared, just very excited. They were living the test pilot’s dream he told me: the first ‘all-up’ flight of a completely new vehicle. For Crippen and Young it was the culmination of their years of training, making all their time in the wilderness worthwhile. They also were conscious of all of their comrades who were wishing that they could have been in their places that day.

There were a couple of unusual aspects to this first flight. One was that it carried only two crew members, Mission Commander John Young and Pilot Bob Crippen. The Shuttle had been designed to carry a crew of up to seven but for this and the next three flights it would fly with only two test pilots on board to make sure that all the bugs had been ironed out of the system. As an aside I asked Bob Crippen about the nomenclature of crew titles – why was one a Commander and the other a Pilot? He laughed and told me, “Simple, no test pilot likes to be called ‘co-pilot’… The answer: make one the Commander and the other the Pilot.”

Another atypical aspect of the first Shuttle flight was that the rest of the crew compartment that would eventually carry the other five astronauts was given over to the bulky and risky ejection-seat gear. Crip himself observed to me that he was not at all sure that it would work. Mission Control told the astronauts one minute and 47 seconds after launch that they were ‘negative for seats,’ or beyond the safe altitude for ejection seat use. That was the moment when Crippen and Young knew that they were committed – that they had to ride the beast to orbit.

Bob Crippen was the Pilot on STS-1. Image Credit: NASA

The third unusual aspect of STS-1 was that Crippen had spent long hours practicing to spacewalk. This was because a big question mark hung over the cargo bay doors. In the event there was any uncertainty that they were fully closed prior to the de-orbit burn and re-entry sequence, then the Pilot – in this case Crippen – would have to do an EVA to physically close them.

Back in London, my parents and I watched as the countdown reached zero and the giant main engines of the orbiter roared to life. Time seemed to slow down as the arms swung back from the tower, the solid rocket boosters ignited and together the five giant, howling motors flung the gleaming white bird towards the sky. Even the noise of the launch was awesome, an ululating roar that rattled the TV’s tinny speaker.

Crippen takes up the story from inside the cockpit. “It was our second attempt at the launch. The first had been scrubbed on the 10th due to a computer glitch. On the 12th, we had entered the cockpit about three hours before lift-off, and then it was a long wait. It was a smooth count however, and once we got to be inside of about a minute I remember turning to John and saying, ‘Hey, I think we may be able to do it.’”

At about this time, Crippen remembers his heart rate soaring. “It went up to about a hundred and thirty beats a minute,” Crippen laughs, “and John’s stayed down at around ninety.” No test pilot worth his ‘Right Stuff’ likes his vital signs broadcast to the world, and Crippen, I sensed, was no exception. Crip continues, “But as John said to me, ‘Bob, anytime they’re about to light off seven million pounds of thrust under you and you’re not a little bit excited, then you don’t know what’s going on.’”

Mark Kelley and the crew of STS-134. Image credit: NASA

When the orbiter’s main engines ignited, to Crippen’s surprise the vibration was not as severe as he had thought it might be. But, as expected, the orbiter rocked forward under the thrust about a meter and half and then rocked backward – something Shuttle pilots call the ‘six-second twang.’

“And then as the orbiter came back upright as the SRBs cut in — that’s when you know you’re headed someplace,” Crippen observes dryly. “There is a lot of noise – an unbelievable amount of noise – and it’s a big kick in the pants, a bit like the catapult in an aircraft carrier.”

Within seconds they had cleared the launch pad and were into the roll maneuver. A few seconds later they entered Max-Q (a region of aerodynamic pressure) and throttled back to minimize strain on the orbiter. Then it was back to 100 percent full power, and off into the wide blue yonder at the beginning of America’s second great adventure in space.

As it turned out, the doors worked well and Crippen’s space walk was not necessary. STS-1 came to a successful conclusion when Columbia landed at Edwards Air Force base on April 14, 1981 – the same place where Yeager had broken the sound barrier only thirty-four years before, and the lifting bodies that had led to the Shuttle had been tested in the 1960s and 1970s.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Shuttle has had many, many successes and two disasters – Challenger in 1986 and the venerable Columbia itself in 2003. The Shuttle has made space – the high frontier – accessible in a way that the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts could not have comprehended when they started their own work, not to mention the pilots of the lifting bodies and the other ‘true brothers’ at Edwards.

Launch Pad 39A under construction in the 1960s. Note the flame trench taking shape as earth movers build the pyramid base of the pad. The area has been modified since Apollo/Saturn V to meet the unique needs of the space shuttle. Credit: NASA

And now it is coming to an end. Before Space Shuttle Endeavour had its final launch in May 2011, I spoke with its Commander, Mark Kelly. He was sanguine about the future, if a little regretful. He pointed out that the US had been here before, without space flight capability in the interregnum between the Apollo and Shuttle eras. Despite the current uncertainty about the nature of America’s future in space, Kelly is optimistic that America will remain a significant player in space. In the meantime he points out one reason the Space Shuttle program had to end was because construction of the external fuel tanks had already ceased. No matter when the Shuttle program ended, there was going to be another time gap between the second and the third phases of America’s adventure in space.

Chris Riley, co-producer of the highly-acclaimed documentary about the Apollo mission, “In the Shadow of the Moon,” observes that the era of government-funded missions to low Earth orbit is effectively over now. With the technical challenges largely met, it is time time to hand the baton, at least in part, to private industry.

Personally I am optimistic about the involvement of the private sector. After all, it was precisely this that opened up the American West one hundred and thirty years ago. It is simply not in America’s nature to quit at the threshold of a new frontier.

One day very soon I expect to hear again the thunder of giant motors at Cape Canaveral as the country that first put humans on the Moon returns to the high frontier.