Since last week’s anniversary of STS-1 – the first flight of the Space Shuttle – many engineers who helped build the vehicle are starting to speak of their experiences.
Many of those pioneers are still working in the space industry today, some are even playing a role in the design of the Shuttle’s successor, the CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle), although all marvelled at the debut launch of Columbia.
Boeing’s John Erickson worked on the Space Shuttle simulator at the Johnson Space Center (JSC). He took some vacation time to head to Florida and watch the real thing launch out of KSC (Kennedy Space Center). He shared a lot of people’s trepidation just before lift-off.
‘Because the solids had never been used and we thought, ‘Gosh, when they light that if the clamps don’t release right or there’s lots of things that could of gone wrong.’ Actually anytime you have a big tank of fuel like that and you light it off, you never know what is going to happen especially on the first one,’ he said.
‘It was surprising how fast the Shuttle took off with those solid boosters.’
Erickson also recalled STS-1 commander John Young in typical ‘gun-ho’ mood, as during training in the Space Shuttle simulator, the now retired astronaut and Apollo veteran tested the ship through its capabilities, during the final session in the simulator.
‘He was in the motion based simulator over in Building 5 (at JSC) and it was like he was coming in for his last landing and he wanted to see if the Shuttle could do a snap roll and then touch down on the runway and he did it in the simulator.
Former Rockwell specialist Alvin Anderson – now working for Boeing on the Space Shuttle program – remembered watching the launch from just outside the Launch Control Center (LCC).
‘It was unbelievable because of the configuration of it. To see something that un-aerodynamic looking, it was just amazing,’ he said. ‘We had to be in there before 11 p.m. the night before because of security so I spent the night out there sleeping in a van.
‘All of us were just holding our breath,’ added Lance S. Borden, formerly of the US Air Force before heading to Boeing to work on Shuttle navigation systems.
‘My fear was what a disaster it would be if one of the Solid Rocket Boosters fired and the other one didn’t. I think a lot of us were worried about that. There was a lot more to worry about.
‘So just before lift-off, the Shuttle rocked back and then fell forward, my heart stopped for just a second because I thought it was going to fall over, but then it went. Then we all cheered and it took off so fast it was just amazing because we were used to seeing the Apollo rockets that lifted off so slowly.’
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He also got to meet STS-1 pilot Bob Crippen, who was remembered for being a ‘real super nice guy’ by Borden.
‘Later on, I met Bob Crippen at SAIL. We had a SAIL celebration with a picnic, a ballgame, and so forth, and I got to talk to him for quite a while,’ he recalled.
‘He was real excited about the first flight and he’s a real super nice guy and unassuming. He signed my ball cap for me and he said that he thought the age of the everyday citizen being able to fly in space was here.
‘It didn’t really work out to be exactly like that, but those were very exciting times.’