Shuttle’s 40th: Recalling The Launch of STS-1


April 12 marked the 40th anniversary of the first Space Shuttle launch, STS-1. For Paul Dye, former Lead Flight Director who was with NASA through the entire lifespan of the Shuttle, the images are still fresh in his mind.

I vividly remember a question the press asked John Young and Bob Crippen before the launch of STS-1. Some reporter piped up and asked, “Are you nervous before taking up a new machine that has never flown?” Young answered (like any seasoned test pilot would): “If you’re not a little nervous before a flight like that, you obviously don’t understand what it is that you are about to do.”

When you realized just how much was at stake for the American space program that day in April of 1981, you have to realize that it wasn’t just the guys in the cockpit who were a bit nervous. Everyone involved—right down to the hundreds of thousands of people in the subcontractor facilities spread across every single state in the union—was holding their breath as the main engines ignited, then the hold down bolts blew as the solid rocket motors came to life and Columbia literally leaped off the pad. It was a magnificent triumph of people, intellect and engineering that ushered in an age where Americans had continuous access to space for over 30 years.

I was an engineering cooperative education student working for NASA at that time, prowling around the back hallways of Mission Control, doing menial tasks and learning everything I could so that I could serve the program for those next three decades. I had started at Johnson Space Center just a few months before, but was already immersed in the technology and procedures required to fly that complex beast.

I remember that when I arrived the Shuttle was always “just about ready to launch,” a status indicated by calendars on the wall that stated at the top, “We WILL launch in March!” Every month on the calendar was labelled “March,” of course. It was a flight team just itching for the vehicle to be ready, like pilots waiting on maintenance to release their bird for an upcoming flight. The teams had been training for years, and they were ready to go—ready to face the unknowns that were sure to arise. Probably the biggest unknown was simply how the big, asymmetric rocket would fly on its way to orbit—and then if the fragile heat shield tiles would still be attached for the re-entry.

I have another memory of entering the stairwell of our building. John Young was standing there with a couple of other senior astronauts talking about a recent test where they glued a bunch of tiles to the bottom of an F-15 and took it flying at supersonic speeds. “Those things popped right off like a zipper” when they disturbed the flow in front of them, Young said with a chuckle, and a little twinkle in his eye that told you he was actually ready to go fly if they would just clear the thing for takeoff. It turned out that some tiles did pop off, but they were up on the top, at the front of the pods on either side of the vertical tail that held propellant for the on-orbit maneuvering thrusters.

Everyone saw that a couple of tiles were broken or missing when the payload bay doors were opened, but the mission proceeded because there wasn’t anything to do about it. The critical bottom tiles were fine, and the “heavy glider” dropped to a perfect landing on the dry lakebed in the California high desert a couple of days later.

I remember “ole John” marching around the base of the Orbiter on the hard-packed lakebed, pumping his arms down around his waist, just enthusiastic as he could be and smiling about what had been accomplished. He knew that while it was the end of a flight, it was just the beginning of an era.

The shuttle was an amazing flying machine, as we learned that day, and continued to learn for the next three decades. The general public might have gotten bored with routine access to space (what about the word “routine” didn’t folks understand?), but every flight was a challenge and a triumph. That first glimpse of Columbia with its white tank and boosters leaping off the pad foreshadowed those triumphs, and some tragedy, that has led to the continuous presence of humans in space since the turn of this century. Just imagine what the next generation of vehicles, some already flying, will do for humanity.

“Go at throttle up!”

Paul Dye
Paul Dye, KITPLANES® Editor at Large, retired as a Lead Flight Director for NASA’s Human Space Flight program, with 40 years of aerospace experience on everything from Cubs to the Space Shuttle. An avid homebuilder, he began flying and working on airplanes as a teen, and has experience with a wide range of construction techniques and materials. He flies an RV-8 that he built, an RV-3 that he built with his pilot wife, as well as a Dream Tundra they completed. Currently, they are building a Xenos motorglider. A commercially licensed pilot, he has logged over 5000 hours in many different types of aircraft and is an A&P, EAA Tech Counselor and Flight Advisor, as well as a former member of the Homebuilder’s Council. He consults and collaborates in aerospace operations and flight-testing projects across the country.

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  1. I was living and working in Houston in 1981–a turnaround situation for a local FBO. My brother Bob came down to visit, and I arranged for a NASA tour–I taught a pilot in Minnesota how to fly gliders, seaplanes, and balloons, and he taught me to fly helicopters–AND, his brother was head of Reality Systems Integration at NASA.

    He explained: “We built the simulator to what we THOUGHT Enterprise (the non-orbital prototype) would fly like. When they dropped it off from the NASA 747, we were able to take the actual telemetry data to correct the simulator to train the astronauts–(thus, Reality Systems Integration). Following the first launch (depicted here) of Columbia on the first orbital mission, we could run the telemetry data and video back against the sim to train the NEXT astronauts. WE FLEW THE ORBITAL MISSION IN THE SIM–THEIR DATA–THEIR VIDEO.

    For someone that flies airplanes, jets, gliders, and helicopters, it was an incredible experience. Columbia had Collins “steam guages”–just like those in the Westwind I flew. Gliders–that’s self-explanatory. Helicopters?–that’s about the “glide ratio” of the Shuttle–like a helicopter in autorotation, or in GA terms–“Like a loaded Tri-Pacer on a hot day!”

    At launch, within seconds, our abort destination was Rota, Spain–and less than two minutes later, we could achieve orbit. Once in “orbit”, the sim instructor asked “by any chance, are you a helicopter pilot?” I replied “Yes, but not a GOOD one–why do you ask?” “You have a good touch on the controls–in orbit, if you start a roll, you will roll for all eternity–you have to ‘null it out’–stop the roll.” He asked “does this high deck angle bother you?” It didn’t, but he continued “some pilots actually get airsick–looking out the window, their minds make them believe the orbiter will stall. We have an elegant solution for that”–he reached over and spun the attitude indicator to match the apparent horizon.

    We fired retros over Guam for a landing at Edwards, and somersaulted back to a re-entry attitude. The 5 onboard computers (they “vote”–if one of them has a discrepancy, the others turn it off) commanded a series of steep turns to scrub speed for re-entry. About 350,000′, the mach meter came off the peg at mach 28–there was a little vibration in the sim, and as we descended, the windshields had flashes of light. I inquired “what’s THAT?” He replied–“plasma flares–the atmosphere is burning.” A bit disconcerting!

    We came up on the California coast just under Mach V, crossed Edwards at 50,000′ and Mach II–made a turn of a little over 270 degrees, and landed. A VERY steep approach, but calculated by the Collins FMS. Gear down at 400′–hold the landing attitude (“very little flare–let it build a ground cushion”) The operator of the sim shut it off at 100′–this was a “clay model” of Edwards, not digital, and they didn’t want to take a chance on damaging the Edwards model.

    Congratultions, you landed the Shuttle–want to do it again? He repositioned back to Guam, and did it again. My brother, a non-pilot, was able to “launch” a satellite from the payload bay with the Canadian Arm.

    One of the best things I’ve ever been able to do!

  2. The Shuttle started losing tiles with STS-1 – so right from the first launch. The fact that basically all missions lost tiles normalized that defect in the minds of program managers.

    Engineers estimated there was a chance of 1/100 of losing a launched vehicle, but NASA managers expected 1/10,000. Why? They couldn’t continue a manned program with a risk of 1/100, so had to construct a different reality, to the extent that an outsider, Richard Feynman, had to step in to pierce their illusion.

    The Shuttle was not reuseable – after each launch, typically it took a year and $1 billion to refurbish it for the next launch.

    What does that remind you of – oya, the F-35 program. I guess every generation has to learn the same lessons over, the hard way.