Astronaut Stories: The World’s First Spaceplane

Shuttle crews from the 1980s recall how their new vehicle took some getting used to.


Dress Rehearsal


We got infinitely smarter
John Young

Because we were flying this vehicle for the first time, we had to be respectful of what we didn’t know. That’s why we had hundreds of meetings beforehand, where we sat around and talked about uncertainties. It was the reason why we landed on the lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, so if anything went wrong we could land anywhere and accommodate our ignorance. Before the flight we were practicing simulations for hundreds of things that could go wrong. You’ve got 2,000 switches and circuit breakers in the vehicle, and most of them are not where a two-person crew could even reach them during ascent or entry. I think we had some failure scenarios where Crip [Bob Crippen] would actually unstrap, get up, and go back in the back during entry. But during the ascent you couldn’t do that. It was a pretty good test flight, and we discovered a lot of things. For example, coming into the atmosphere at Mach 25 we got a really bad sideslip that we didn’t expect, where the orbiter slipped sideways four degrees and dropped in attitude. Fortunately the software canceled it out. If it hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here. Chris Kraft, who was the director of the Johnson Space Center at the time, put it best: He said we got infinitely smarter after the first flight. We were really pretty ignorant of the characteristics of the vehicle before then, but it worked pretty darn well.

Pictured: The first space shuttle crew, commander John Young (right) and pilot Bob Crippen, run through checklists during a dress rehearsal in March 1981.

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