Here’s footage from the first space shuttle flight, 30 years ago today on April 12, 1981. One of the big differences you’ll notice is that NASA used to paint the external fuel tank white to match the space shuttle. However, they found they could save about 450 kg (1,000 lbs) by not using paint. Space shuttle Columbia was also outfitted with two ejection seats (which is why there was only a crew of two), but after four flights, NASA made the decision to take out the ejection seats, and to go with a “shirt sleeve” environment inside the shuttle.
The reasons for taking out the ejection seats, or a launch escape system are because they couldn’t find a way to eject all seven astronauts when the “normal” amount of crew members were on board, and because there was a limited time, speed and altitude when the ejection seats would work. The shuttle would have to be traveling less than 5,470 kph (3,400 mph, or 2,692 knots) and be lower than 130,000 feet (39,624 m). That constitutes a very limited portion of the shuttle’s operating envelope, about the first 100 seconds of the 510 seconds powered ascent. However, that would have been within the time frame of shuttle Challenger’s explosion.
One of my favorite scenes from STS-1 is when astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen come bounding off the shuttle after they landed at Edwards Air Force Base. They are so excited and enthusiastic about their perfect test flight. We interviewed Crippen in 2009 and asked him about his thoughts about the shuttle program. Here are some relevant excerpts:
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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?
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 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.