Wired interview with NASA’s only surviving test pilot: Flying a ship is a treat

The last manned space flight from the U.S. mainland was in July 2011, when NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis carried four astronauts from Florida to the International Space Station. This week NASA will have a historic moment to send astronauts into space from home again. What do Robert Crippin, an older man, think of this up-and-down manned flight?

This week, NASA astronauts Bob Bainken and Doug Hurley will travel to the International Space Station on SpaceX’s manned Dragon spacecraft. If successful, the spacecraft would become the fifth U.S. spacecraft in history to be certified for manned spaceflight. Mr. Bainken and Hurley will also be the newest members of the Spaceship Test Club, which currently has only seven members.

The last manned test flight by the Americans was in 1981, when NASA astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen circled the Earth aboard the space shuttle Columbia. Yang was the first astronaut in NASA’s Twin Program, and after Yang’s death in 2018, the 82-year-old Crispin became the only surviving spacecraft test pilot.

Wired interview with NASA's only surviving test pilot: Flying a ship is a treat

Robert Crippen took part in the first flight of the space shuttle Columbia in 1981.

Wired magazine spoke by phone to Crippen at his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, to find out how the Demo-2 flight differs from the shuttle’s test flight and whether he had any advice to the crew.

Crippen: An uneven astronaut career

Like Bainken and Hurley, Crippen was an Air Force veteran and was a Navy pilot before entering the Test Pilot School. In 1966, Crippen was selected as a candidate for astronaut in the U.S. Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory, which was once considered a manned platform for U.S. space operations. But in 1969, the Vietnam War led to cuts to the U.S. Air Force’s budget, and the program was canceled after completing only one unmanned flight test. “That was one of the lowpoints of my life,” Crippen said. “

Just a few months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, Crippen was chosen as a NASA astronaut. But by the time he finished training, the Apollo program was over, and NASA was planning its next major manned space program: the space shuttle program.

In the end, Crippen made his first flight with Yang, an experienced astronaut who was a test pilot for the Gemini program, and completed the feat of walking on the moon during the penultimate mission of the Apollo program.

Wired interview with NASA's only surviving test pilot: Flying a ship is a treat

NASA astronauts John Young and Robert Crippin.

Pairing an old hand with a rookie astronaut is a bit unusual, but Crippen says it’s a necessary option. “NASA WANTED TO ADD TO THEIR EXPERIENCE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, SO IT HAD EXPERIENCED PEOPLE IN THE MAIN DRIVER’S SEAT AND NOVICES IN THE CO-PILOT POSITION DURING THE TEST FLIGHT,” HE RECALLS. SpaceX’s upcoming manned test mission will be manned by two experienced astronauts, and Both Benken and Hurley have flown to the International Space Station on several occasions.

Manual driving system for space shuttles and Dragon spacecraft

Although the Dragon spacecraft is designed to fly automatically, Bainken and Hurley will briefly pilot the spacecraft during the flight to test its manual control system. In training, they must use simulators to practice how to control the ship through a touch screen interface.

“We’ll test the manual driving capabilities before docking to make sure that when we get close to the space station, the spacecraft will operate as presetas,” Hurley told Wired earlier this month. Previous Dragon ships were unmanned, so we were there just to prove that manual control was possible. “

The autopilot system was not as advanced as it is today in the 1970s, and the space shuttle sits in design with more manual control. For example, a space shuttle landing must be manually operated, and the Dragon spacecraft will use a parachute to splash into the ocean. Like Bainken and Hurley, they spent a lot of time using simulators to practice the shuttle’s landing, Kripen said. Before taking the shuttle, Mr. Crispin said, he and Mr. Young practiced about 1,500 landings.

Wired interview with NASA's only surviving test pilot: Flying a ship is a treat

NASA astronauts Bob Bainken and Doug Hurley.

A test flight is a “experience” of the spacecraft system.

During the Demo-2 mission, Bainken and Hurley will fly in orbit for about 19 hours before docking with the International Space Station. Most of their time on the ship will be used for testing systems, including manual control systems. When Crippen and Young first flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1981, they spent two days in orbit, allowing the shuttle to complete its experience.

Crippin said many of the tests were focused on the shuttle’s hatches, which are critical to the mission. If the hatch breaks, the shuttle will not be able to release the payload, and if the hatch is closed properly, it could cause disaster on re-entry. ‘Most of the tests went well, but there was a big problem with the toilet, ‘ Mr. Crippen said.

“The waste management system worked well at first, but it didn’t work in the second half of the mission,” Crippen said. It wasn’t an interesting experience. It took us a long time to try to solve this problem and finally make it work. The Dragon ship also has a toilet, but Hurley declined to give details when asked about its features at a news conference earlier this month. “We’ll test it and tell you when we come back,” he told reporters. “

Wired interview with NASA's only surviving test pilot: Flying a ship is a treat

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft.

Columbia, which flew directly to humans without testing.

Crippin and Young’s flight in 1981 was the first time the space shuttle Columbia had entered space. This is unique in NASA’s human space flight program. All previous manned programs, including Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, have been tested unmanned before humans boarded the spacecraft. SpaceX also completed an unmanned space station mission last year to test the Dragon spacecraft.

“Even though There was no test flight, I wasn’t worried about the first flight,” Crippen recalls. I’m so excited. “Benken and Hurley became liaisons between NASA and SpaceX, and Crippen, like them, spent a lot of time working with the space shuttle’s hardware makers. “We’re confident they’ll do the job, and there are concerns that there’s no manned test flight, but John and I both think there’s a better chance of success if we’re on a plane,” Crippen said. “

Reducing space costs has always been NASA’s quest

NASA’s space shuttle program is a Mixed Review of America’s efforts to mannspace flights. NASA had intended to significantly reduce aviation operating costs through reusable spacecraft, but the ultimate cost has skyrocketed, costing more than $1 billion per flight. Crippin defended his project, arguing that without the space shuttle, it would be impossible to repair the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope or build the International Space Station.

Wired interview with NASA's only surviving test pilot: Flying a ship is a treat

The space shuttle program was canceled because of the high cost.

Forty years later, SpaceX’s goal is to fulfill its space shuttle commitments. SpaceX, the first company to refine reusable spacecraft technology, has successfully reduced the cost of space flight significantly. The cost per seat on the Dragon spacecraft is about $55 million, far less than the cost of the space shuttle and almost half the cost of NASA’s purchase of seats for a Russian rocket.

Reducing costs is one of the reasons NASA has driven the commercialization of space flight over the past decade. FOR YEARS, NASA HAS RELIED ON SPACEX TO DELIVER SUPPLIES TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION. Crippen believes that reducing the cost of space travel is crucial to ensuring Americans go into space. He added that the sudden cancellation of the Manned Orbital Laboratory program and the end of the space shuttle program are constant reminders of how much the budget affects them.

“A space program is likely to disappear in the blink of an eye, ” Kripen said. So, although the plan to return to the moon has been going on for a long time, I’m still a little worried about the current project, because if it ends up spending too much, they’ll be canceled soon. “

Wired interview with NASA's only surviving test pilot: Flying a ship is a treat

The manned flight of the Dragon spacecraft is of great significance to NASA.

Sending humans into space has been the exclusive domain of national institutions since the beginning of the space age, and SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has broken that tradition. Crippen is likely to be the last U.S. astronaut to test a spacecraft launched by NASA. When Bainken and Hurley reach orbit, they will usher in a new era of commercial manned spaceflight and join Crippen’s Spaceship Pilots Club. Crippin’s only advice for the two astronauts is to enjoy the process.