Bob Crippen on the Current State of NASA

Astronaut Bob Crippen, along with John Young, made history on April 12, 1981 when they launched on one of the riskiest test flights ever, STS-1 on space shuttle Columbia. Crippen also commanded three other space shuttle missions (STS-7, STS-41C, STS-41G), and was the former director of the Kennedy Space Center and former President of Thiokol Propulsion. Crippen has always been a straight shooter — telling it like it is — and a strong supporter of human spaceflight. Personally, I will never forget the moving speech he gave after the Columbia accident, eulogizing the spacecraft itself. I had the chance to talk with Crippen today following the launch of STS-129.

Universe Today: You had the good fortune to be there for the launch today. It looked great on my little computer screen; how did it look live and in-person?

Bob Crippen: It was a beautiful launch here as well, one of those picture perfect launches where the countdown went smooth, there were no technical problems and the winds cooperated, thank goodness.

UT: I don’t remember a countdown that proceeded so trouble-free.

Crippen: We like it that way!

UT: You were there for the beginning of the space shuttle program. What are your thoughts now as you see this program coming to an end?

Bob Crippen on board Columbia for STS-1. Credit: NASA
Bob Crippen on board Columbia for STS-1. Credit: NASA

Crippen: I’m feeling somewhat nostalgic. It’s been a part of the better part of my life. It’s been a great vehicle and it’s done some great things, but I would very much like to see us go back to the Moon and beyond and the space shuttle is not the vehicle for doing that. But truthfully, my preference would have been to keep flying it until we had another vehicle to bring people to orbit. I’m not fond of the hiatus we’re going to have between the shuttle and whatever is going to follow it.

UT: What are your thoughts on the Augustine Commission Report.

Crippen: First, I applaud them for saying there wasn’t enough money for NASA to do what is on its plate, because I’ve thought that myself for quite some time. Some of the other things they proposed I’m a little bit uncomfortable with. My thought is that the program that was laid out, the Constellation Program, was a good program. It’s been underway now for a few years and to switch over to anything else, I believe, is going to take longer and cost more money.

UT: Do you think anything could be done to close the gap for our human spaceflight capability?

Crippen: I believe that given some additional funds, NASA could come pretty close to their projected timetable of 2015, of having the Ares ready. The Augustine Committee said it probably wouldn’t be until 2017. I think they were allowing for the normal problems you run into in programs. I don’t believe extra money would pull it back any earlier than 2015 at this particular juncture, so I think we’re still going to see at least a five year gap.

UT: How about commercial spaceflight. Can they contribute to human spaceflight?

Crippen: Sure. I’m all for commercial spaceflight. I think NASA has been supporting them with the programs to be able to bring up cargo to the International Space Station. I think it would be premature to rely on commercial to get the crews up there. Maybe someday that is going to happen, but I believe it is a ways down the road. We need to see what happens with cargo before we step up to human crews on those commercial flights.

UT: You’re at the launch today with a group from Coalition for Space Exploration. What kinds of things do you do to support them?

Crippen: The Coalition for Space Exploration is a group of individuals like myself and companies that strongly belive we ought to have an exploration initiative. I support is as one of their advisors by doing interviews and I’ve written some op-ed pieces so try and keep the issue in front of the public, the government and the powers that be that we should continue on the road we are on.

The STS-1 crew of John Young and Bob Crippen. Credit: NASA
The STS-1 crew of John Young and Bob Crippen. Credit: NASA

UT: What are some of your favorite memories from your flights on the space shuttle.

Crippen: I’ve got some great ones. I like to use my friend (astronaut) John Young’s answer to that one: the part between takeoff and landing is the best part. It’s all great. All my missions were different, but all of them had some great aspects to them and I’ll always have fond memories of them.