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STS-1: 'A test pilot's dream'

Columbia astronaut recalls first shuttle flight on 25th anniversary

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The space shuttle Columbia roars into space on April 12, 1981.
start quoteAny time they're getting ready to light off seven-and-a-half million pounds of thrust under you and you aren't a little bit anxious, you don't understand what's going on.end quote
-- Commander John Young to his rookie pilot Robert Crippen

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(CNN) -- Veteran commander John Young and his rookie pilot Robert Crippen faced a lot of uncertainties April 12, 1981, as they waited for the space shuttle Columbia to lift off from Florida's Kennedy Space Flight Center.

It was a test flight, after all, and the first time that NASA had launched a crew into space without first conducting an unmanned mission.

The now-familiar design -- an airplane-like orbiter standing on its tail mounted on an external fuel tank and two rocket boosters each filled with more than a million pounds of solid propellant -- was a dramatic departure from the towering, staged rockets used in previous manned missions.

Despite the risks, Young said recently that every member of NASA's astronaut corps "would have killed to be on the first flight."

"I knew it had its potential dangers, but a lot of things in life do," Crippen said. "As John told me, he told me: 'OK Crip, any time they're getting ready to light off seven-and-a-half million pounds of thrust under you and you aren't a little bit anxious, you don't understand what's going on.' " (Watch Crippen and Young as they remember the first shuttle flight -- 3:37)

The shuttle, officially known as the Space Transportation System, was loaded with new technologies. (Explore the space shuttle)

Among them was the system of delicate tiles that protect the orbiter from the heat of re-entry and the computer-aided controls that enable the crew to fly the craft to Earth, instead of parachuting into the ocean like previous capsules.

"It was a fantastic experience from where I sat," Crippen said. "You've got to realize I had worked on the shuttle design requirements since the early '70s, and to have an opportunity to fly the first one is a test pilot's dream."

Young and Crippen spent 2 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes and 53 seconds in space -- testing Columbia's systems, opening the cargo bay doors and taking measurements. NASA estimated that more than 200,000 people gathered in the desert at Edwards Air Force Base, California, to watch the shuttle's final test -- its April 14 landing.

Young was at the controls for that landing even though Crippen was the pilot.

"We do that to confuse the public," Crippen said with a laugh. "None of us red-hot test pilots want to be called a co-pilot, the reality is the commander is the guy doing the flying and the pilot is really the co-pilot that's taking care of the systems."

Young previously had flown on two Gemini missions and two Apollo lunar missions, landing on the moon in 1972.

Both Young and Crippen, who was on his first space flight, were U.S. Navy test pilots before joining NASA.

Crippen went on to command three shuttle missions.

He said the big ship handles more like a fighter plane than a jumbo jet.

"Of course, you're doing it un-powered. So, it's a gliding kind of an entry that has some similarities to doing flame-out approaches in high-powered aircraft," Crippen said. "But the way we designed the flight controls, the orbiter is very responsive, much more so than flying something like a 747 or any kind of big passenger plane."

Young flew the shuttle one more time, becoming the first person to blast off from Earth six times.

NASA built six orbiters for the shuttle program, Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis have flown a total of 112 successful missions. .

The Challenger exploded after liftoff in 1986 and Columbia broke up during re-entry in 2003.

The Enterprise was used for testing and was never launched.

Crippen called the shuttle a "fantastic, one-of-a-kind vehicle that's allowed us to do a lot of things in space that we wouldn't have been able to do with any other kind of launch vehicle."

He said the reusable shuttles have been upgraded to the point that "in many ways they're almost as good as the first day that they rolled out of the plant."

"I believe the shuttle could be flying beyond the 2010 date that they've set for [the program to end]," he said. "But, like any program, there comes a time when you need to move on."

Crippen said that the shuttle has not lived up to the ambitious flight schedule that was supposed to keep mission costs down.

"The shuttle could have reasonably, in my opinion, flown around a dozen times a year," he said. "But some people had it up flying about 20 to 30 times a year, which was not a real thing you could do." Plus, there aren't 20 to 30 things that the shuttle is needed for, Crippen said. (Full story)

Safety concerns also cut down on the number of missions. The shuttle was grounded for 2-1/2 years after the Challenger explosion and for almost as long after the Columbia disintegration.

"I'd like to see us back flying again. I think [NASA officials] feel reasonably confident in the July date they're shooting for," Crippen said. "I believe they are being very cautious, which is appropriate. But it's also important to get back flying again. They get a lot of naysayers who would keep you on the ground forever because the safest thing to do is not to fly."

The shuttle's first launch came exactly 20 years after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space.

Now NASA is preparing to retire the shuttle program in 2010, once the international space station is completed. (Test your shuttle knowledge)

The shuttle will be replaced with the crew exploration vehicle, which will be used to carry people back to the moon and eventually to Mars. (Full story)

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