The history of jokes and pranks between astronauts and the ground crews responsible for strapping them into the spacecraft before launch has become the stuff of legend, since the days of pioneering Mercury missions in the early 1960s. ''John Young made a big deal about the size of the American flag on his suit,'' said KSC spacesuit technician Jean Alexander. ''It came in with kind of a small version and they got several sizes before he was satisfied and it was kind of a joke. So on launch morning, there was a motel that we stayed at Cocoa Beach and they had this
"It will take a hundred flights .
huge flag on a pole [outside] a real-estate office next door. One of the suit tech[nician]s that was down there for launch talked the real-estate people into letting him take that flag down and he took it to the suit room for suit-up morning and had it actually cover[ing] one whole wall! When John walked in, he said 'John, is that big enough?'.'' The mood was sufficiently lightened for what was to follow.
After almost four years training together for the most complex engineering and test flying challenge of their careers, the smoothness of the countdown on only their second attempt surprised both Crippen and his veteran colleague. As the clock ticked inside the final minute, their excitement began to build: despite Young's vast experience and four previous missions to his credit, both men were rookies as far as flying the Shuttle was concerned. Neither man fully knew what to expect.
Six seconds before midday, with a low-pitched rumble that soon turned into a thundering crescendo, Columbia's three main engines ignited. Young and Crippen would later recall that the Shuttle rocked perceptibly backwards and forwards, accompanied by a sharp noise increase in the cabin. Then, precisely on the hour, in front of an estimated three-and-a-half thousand media spectators at KSC, and doubtless hundreds of thousands more glued to television sets around the world, came the ear-splitting crackle of the two SRBs.
''We have liftoff of America's first Space Shuttle, and the Shuttle has cleared the tower,'' exulted the launch commentator over the public-address system as Columbia broke the shackles of Earth and lumbered off the pad. Crippen would later comment that, although the low-pitched roar of the main engines certainly grabbed their attention, it was the punch-in-the-back ignition of the SRBs that convinced them that they were really heading somewhere.
For the first few seconds, as the Shuttle cleared the tower and roared into the clear Florida sky on top of the two dazzling orange columns of flame from its boosters, the cockpit instruments were blurred by the vibrations, but according to the crew were still just about readable. By the time Columbia rolled onto her back under GPC control about 10 seconds after liftoff, setting herself on the correct heading for a 40.3-degree-inclination orbit, the two men reported that the vibrations had lessened to a point that allowed them to read their instruments without problems for the remainder of the ascent.
''When you get the vehicle going uphill and you're still in the 'sensible' atmosphere,'' said Neil Hutchinson, ''there are tremendous aerodynamic pressures on it and you have to get the angle at which it is going through the airstream exactly correct. [The vehicle] has a very narrow performance corridor. In order to get the proper inclination, when the Shuttle takes off, it 'rolls'. What it's doing is getting itself oriented so [it] goes into orbit on its back. It goes upside down, with the crew upside down. You've got to get that roll out of the way and get that whole thing set up long before you get the max[imum] dynamic pressure, [which is] when the amount of atmosphere combined with the direction the vehicle's going and the velocity is the worst.''
''As the Shuttle's main engines come up, you really feel the vibrations starting in the orbiter,'' said Jerry Ross, who has flown the reusable spacecraft a record-tying seven times since 1985, including one mission on board Columbia, ''but when the
[SRBs] ignite, I describe it as somebody taking a baseball bat and swinging it pretty smartly and hitting the back of your seat, because it's a real 'bam'. The vibration and noise is pretty impressive! The acceleration level is not that high at that point, but there is that tremendous jolt and you're off!''
At the post-flight briefings, Young would tell engineers that Columbia's ascent was considerably more rapid that he had experienced during his two Saturn V launches to the Moon. Analysis also later showed that STS-1 had caused significant damage to Pad 39A which could have been catastrophic: the shockwaves produced by the Shuttle's engines and the SRBs had buckled a strut linking Columbia to the ET's liquid oxygen tank. Had the strut failed, it was determined, the result could have been the loss of the vehicle and crew and steps were taken to strengthen the struts in readiness for later missions.
''As [it accelerated] in the first 30 seconds or so, the wind noise on the outside of the vehicle became very intense,'' recalled Ross, ''like it was screaming! It was screeching on the outside!''
A minute into the flight, as Columbia approached an altitude of 15 km, she passed through a period of maximum aerodynamic turbulence which required the GPCs to throttle the main engines back to just under two-thirds of their rated thrust. The passage through this period was described by the astronauts as marked by an increase in the noise and vibration of the engines, although their performance was within expectations. The sound from the SRBs remained sporadic and decreased to virtually nothing as the time approached, 2 minutes and 12 seconds into the flight, for their separation.
Shortly before the boosters burned out, the Capcom, rookie astronaut Dan Brandenstein, told the crew they were now ''negative seats'', meaning that Columbia was too high to use the ejection seats; questionable though their usefulness would have been. Fortunately, the vehicle was performing admirably. The SRBs actually turned out to generate more 'lift' than predicted and they separated at an altitude 2.9 km higher than anticipated. When the separation rockets fired and the SRBs fell away, Young and Crippen reported a bright, orange-yellow 'flash' which appeared to stream up in front of the Shuttle's nose and back above the front windows.
''As the [SRBs] tail off, like at 1 minute-45 or so [after launch],'' said Ross, ''it almost felt like you had stopped accelerating, like you'd stopped going up. At that point, [you are] already Mach 3-plus and well above most of the 'sensible' atmosphere, some 20 miles high or so. And at [SRB] jettison, then you're at four times the speed of sound and 25 miles high!''
The SRB separation was also accompanied by a harsh grating sound which Young likened to the noise made by the Saturn V's final stage. Both SRBs parachuted into the Atlantic Ocean, splashing down five minutes later about 250 km downrange of KSC. With the cumbersome boosters gone, the crew found it much easier to flip switches in the cockpit. At this stage, the so-called 'T-fail-pitchover' manoeuvre was executed, placing the horizon in their view for the first time, and the two men spotted penny- to fist-sized white particles flooding past the windows.
''What a view! What a view!'' radioed a jubilant Crippen four-and-a-half minutes into the ascent.
"Glad you're enjoying it," replied Brandenstein. It was equally as exciting an experience for him, sitting at his console in Mission Control, as it was for his two colleagues rocketing into orbit. In fact, although Brandenstein would later fly four Shuttle missions of his own - including one on board Columbia in January 1990 - he has described STS-1 as the most exciting episode of his astronaut career. His main concern was the clearance between the vehicle and Pad 39A and he had listened carefully for the first few seconds, breathing a sigh of relief when the Shuttle cleared the tower safely.
Columbia flew on for six more minutes after SRB separation, reaching Mach 19 -close to 23,340 km/h - at which point her engines were throttled back to maintain a 3g environment in the cockpit. Throughout the ascent, not surprisingly as it was his fifth launch, Young's heart rate rose no higher than 90 beats per minute. That of first-timer Crippen, on the other hand, peaked at nearly 130. After the mission, Young would quip that "I was so old my heart wouldn't go any faster,'' but according to Ascent Flight Director Neil Hutchinson, "John was kinda asleep at liftoff!"
"As [you get] to about the seven-and-a-half-minute point, [that] is when you get to the 3gs of acceleration, that's a significant acceleration," said Jerry Ross. "It feels like there's somebody heavy sitting on your chest and makes it pretty hard to breathe. You have to grunt to talk, and you're just waiting for this 3gs to go away. [This period] is when the orbiter's three main engines start reducing their power output so that you don't exceed the structural limit of 3gs. And so for that last minute, the Shuttle's main engines are coming back. You're getting lighter and lighter. You're accelerating at 100 feet per second [per second], which is basically like going from zero to 70 miles per hour every second. So it's pretty good. And then at the time that the [orbiter's] computers sense the proper conditions, the main engines basically go from around 70% power, on a 3g acceleration, [then] shut off and you're in zero-g. And for me, I had the sensation of tumbling head over heels: a weird sensation.''
At 12:08 pm, some 8 minutes and 32 seconds after leaving Pad 39A to the cheers of thousands of spectators, the main engines of America's first Space Shuttle were shut down and more than 2,000 kg of residual propellant was dumped into space through their nozzles. During the procedure to stow the engines for orbital operations, Columbia's nose unexpectedly pitched 'upwards' about five degrees. Nineteen seconds after the engines went out, the ET was jettisoned to follow a ballistic, suborbital re-entry and burned up over a sparsely inhabited stretch of the Indian Ocean.
The astronauts pulsed Columbia's Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters to push themselves away from the now-useless ET; they later called it a very obvious ''seat of the pants'' manoeuvre. They also reported no noise associated with the separation of the tank and that, in fact, the only indication they had was that the red main engine lights on the control panel suddenly went out. Young and Crippen were in space; although still tightly strapped into their seats, the first trace of orbital flight came when bits of debris - washers, filings, screws and wire - began floating around the cabin.
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