Astronaut Stories: The World’s First Spaceplane

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

discovery launch 1997
NASA

No one watched the development of the space shuttle with more interest than the people it carried to orbit. A dozen groups of astronauts trained between 1978 and 2011 to fly as shuttle pilots, mission specialists, and payload specialists. Here some of them recall their feelings as the spacecraft took shape and, later, as they learned to live and work 250 miles above Earth.


Bolting a butterfly onto a bullet
Story Musgrave

Back in 1972, it was impossible to think that the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters would work. We didn’t have solid rockets anywhere near that size, and they kept getting even bigger as the shuttle design kept getting heavier. By 1972, they were horrendously big compared to anything that had ever been thought of. I knew the military was aghast that we were doing this, because they did not have a good record with solid rockets even a fraction of that size. So I expected the worst. What you’re doing is bolting a very beautiful butterfly onto a bullet. The whole concept was frightening. I was scared for a decade about how things were going to work.

Pictured above: Attached to its fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters, Discovery heads for the launch pad in January 1997.

Desert Landing

None
(NASA)

“I missed the whole first part of the flight”
Gordon Fullerton

In August of 1977, Fred Haise and I were the crew for Enterprise’s first free-flight approach and landing test—the very first instance of a shuttle orbiter flying solo in the atmosphere. Our 747 carrier aircraft, with the orbiter on top, climbed to somewhere around 25,000 feet and pushed over. Fred hit the button to initiate the separation, seven explosive bolts released us with a loud kabang, and as predicted, we went straight up. We literally dropped the 747 at separation.

A chase plane flying alongside us called “vertical clear” as soon as he saw us clear the 747’s tail. Then we started a right shallow turn, and the carrier started a shallow left turn. Very soon thereafter, another chase plane called “lateral clear,” meaning we were clear to push over and start getting the orbiter’s nose down for the approach and landing.

So Fred was doing all that. But even before we cleared the tail—immediately after the release—one of our four general-purpose computers, the heart of the orbiter control system, had failed. I saw a big “X” on one of the displays in front of me, so it was clear it wasn’t getting current information. The procedure for a GPC fail, which we had practiced a lot, was for the copilot, which was me, to pull some circuit breakers and turn off some switches having to do with the sensors that went through that particular computer. I referred to a cue card on my instrument panel, and I suddenly got very busy, turning around backward to pull circuit breakers on a panel behind my right shoulder. I did all that, and made the call to Fred when I finished.

Then I realized, kind of as a shock, “Hey, wait a minute! We’re flying great. It’s stable and Fred is right on plan.” I missed the whole first part of the flight, which of course was the big thing we were testing: how the shuttle flew as an airplane. We were probably down to 15,000 feet by the time I was back looking out the windshield to see what was going on.

Pictured: Enterprise heads for a desert landing during an atmospheric test in 1977.

Dress Rehearsal

None
(NASA)

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.

Fluttering Flame

(NASA)

“Dan, how do the engines look?”
Dan Brandenstein

During the STS-8 ascent, Dale Gardner couldn’t see a whole lot because he was sitting behind my pilot’s seat and didn’t have the responsibilities of the flight engineer. But we have these overhead windows, like a moon roof on a car, and he could look back over his shoulder and watch the ground disappear. He was commenting, “There are the solid rockets lighting” and “You can see all the way down the coast” and that sort of thing.

After the solids separated, the light level went real low because this was a night launch. A couple of seconds later, Dale said in an excited voice, “Dan, how do the engines look?” As the pilot, I was monitoring the systems, and I said, “Oh, they look fine.” A couple of seconds later, he said again, “Dan, how do the engines look?” I said, “They’re running fine. They look good.”

Then a little while later, “Dan, how do the engines look?”

“They’re fine, they’re fine.” He did that three or four times.

We got into orbit, and that night over dinner I asked Dale, “What in the world was going on?” He had remembered something from long before the first shuttle flight, when they were first testing the engines. They’d start them up and the flame would be very solid and stable coming out of the nozzle. Then, just before the engine blew up, the flame would flutter. And from his perspective, looking out that overhead window, it looked like the flame was fluttering, especially as we got higher in altitude, where the air pressure was lower. Dale is extremely bright, an amazing individual, and he had put those two data bits together. And because of where he was sitting, he was the only one who saw it. He made a point to debrief the crews after us so that other people wouldn’t share his concern.