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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

What It’s Like to Be First to Fly a Brand New Spacecraft

Later this week, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are expected to launch on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to the International Space Station. If the mission is successful, the capsule will become only the fifth American spacecraft in history to be certified for human spaceflight. This will make Behnken and Hurley the eighth and ninth members of an exclusive club of spacecraft test pilots. The last time Americans boarded a spacecraft for the first time was in 1981, when NASA astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen took the space shuttle Columbia out for a few laps around Earth.

Young, who also flew the first mission for NASA’s Gemini program, passed away in 2018. This makes Crippen, now 82, one of just two living astronauts to have ever flown a spacecraft for the first time. (The other is Walt Cunningham, who piloted the first crewed Apollo mission.) WIRED called Crippen at his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, to learn how the Demo-2 flight might compare to the first shuttle flight and if he had any tips for the crew.

Unlike Behnken and Hurley, who served in the Air Force and Marines, Crippen came out of the Navy, where he served as an aviator before enrolling in test pilot school. In 1966, Crippen was selected as an astronaut candidate for the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory, which was supposed to serve as a crewed platform for American military operations in space. But the program was canceled in 1969 after only a single uncrewed test flight, because the Vietnam War gutted the Air Force’s budget. “That was one of the low points in my life,” he says.

Still, only a few months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, Crippen was selected as a NASA astronaut. By the time he completed his training, the Apollo program was finished and the agency was plotting the next big thing for human spaceflight: the shuttle program. Crippen was tapped for its first flight along with Young, a veteran astronaut who was a test pilot for the Gemini program and walked on the moon during the penultimate Apollo mission.

Pairing an old hand with a rookie astronaut was an unusual choice, but Crippen says it was a necessary one. “When you’re a rookie going up, it’s nice to have a pro with you,” he recalls. “The powers that be wanted to expand their experience base as rapidly as possible, so they put someone experienced in the left seat and a rookie in the right seat for all the initial flights.” SpaceX’s upcoming demo mission, by comparison, will have two seasoned astronauts on board. Both Behnken and Hurley have made multiple trips to the International Space Station on the space shuttle.

Although the Crew Dragon capsule is designed to fly autonomously, Behnken and Hurley will pilot the craft briefly during its flight to test its manual control systems. As part of their training, they had to use a simulator to practice using the Crew Dragon’s touchscreen interface to control the vehicle. “We’ll test the manual capability out during the pre-rendezvous phase and once we are approaching the space station to make sure it works the way it’s supposed to,” Hurley told WIRED in an interview earlier this month. “We’ve seen Dragon fly with no people on board, so we’re just there to prove out the crew aspects of manual control.”

Automated systems weren’t nearly as advanced in the 1970s as they are today, and the space shuttle had a lot more manual control baked into its design. The shuttle also had to be landed by hand, whereas the Crew Dragon will splash down in the ocean using a parachute. Like Behnken and Hurley, Crippen says he and Young spent a lot of time using simulators and practicing landing in a plane that was similar to the space shuttle. All told, Crippen says he and Young each practiced landing the plane about 1,500 times before they ever flew on the shuttle.

During the Demo-2 mission, Behnken and Hurley will spend about 19 hours in orbit catching up to the International Space Station. They’ll use most of that time testing systems aboard the Crew Dragon, including its manual controls. When Crippen and Young took the Columbia shuttle on its maiden voyage in 1981, they spent two days in orbit putting the craft through the wringer.

Crippen says many of the tests focused on the shuttle’s bay doors, which were crucial to carrying out its missions. If the doors broke, the shuttle couldn’t release its payloads, and if they didn’t shut properly it could cause a disaster during reentry. Crippen says that most of the tests went fine; the biggest problem they had was with the toilet. “The waste management system initially worked pretty good, but during the latter part of the mission it didn’t,” Crippen says. “It was not a fun experience. We spent several missions trying to correct that before we finally got it operating right.” The Crew Dragon capsule also has a toilet, but when asked about its functionality during a press conference earlier this month, Hurley refused to go into details. “We’ll try it out and let you know when we get back,” he told reporters.

When Crippen and Young flew in 1981, it was the first time the shuttle had ever been to space. This is totally unique within NASA’s human spaceflight program. All of the prior crewed programs—Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo—had uncrewed test flights before a human ever climbed into the capsule. SpaceX also completed an uncrewed mission to the space station last year to test out Crew Dragon.

Despite the lack of uncrewed shuttle demos, Crippen says he wasn’t nervous about being on the first flight. “I was too excited,” he recalls. Like Behnken and Hurley, who have acted as a liaison between NASA and SpaceX, Crippen spent a lot of time working with the consortium of companies building hardware for the space shuttle. “We had a lot of confidence they were going to do the job right,” Crippen adds. “Some people were concerned that there wasn’t a manned flight previously, but John [Young] and I both thought that there was a better chance of success if we were on board.”

Depending on who you ask, NASA’s shuttle program was either the best or worst thing to ever happen to America’s human spaceflight effort. The shuttle was meant to drastically lower the cost of access to space by having a reusable orbiter, but instead NASA’s costs ballooned—each flight cost more than $1 billion. But Crippen defends the program he literally and figuratively helped launch. Without the space shuttle, he says, it would have been impossible to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit or build the International Space Station.

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Forty years later, SpaceX aims to make good on the shuttle’s promise. As the first company to perfect the art of reusable orbital rocket boosters, SpaceX has managed to drastically lower the cost of sending humans to orbit. Each seat on the Crew Dragon costs about $55 million, which is far below what the shuttle costs and almost half of what NASA pays for a seat on Russian rockets.

The tendency for competition to drive prices lower is part of the reason that NASA has embraced the commercialization of space over the past decade. The agency went to the New York Stock Exchange to sell the space station, and it has relied on SpaceX for cargo resupply missions to the ISS for years. Crippen sees lowering the cost of space access as critical for ensuring that America is able to send people to space. He also says having the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program suddenly canceled and the shuttle program come to an end without a replacement was a reminder of how much budgets influence national priorities.

“A program can go away in a blink of an eye,” Crippen points out. “So even though the plans to go back to the moon are far along, I view the current programs with some trepidation, because if they end up costing too much money they can be canceled pretty quickly.”

Launching humans into space has been the exclusive domain of national agencies since the dawning of the space age, and Crippen may end up being the last American astronaut to ever test pilot a spacecraft launched by NASA. When Behnken and Hurley arrive in orbit, they’ll inaugurate the era of commercial crewed spaceflight and join Crippen in the exclusive club of spacecraft test pilots. His only advice to the astronauts? “Enjoy it.”

Updated 5-28-2020, 7:00pm EST: Crippen served in the Navy, not the Air Force.Updated 8-6-2020, 10:00am EST: Aside from Crippen, Walt Cunningham is the only other living NASA astronaut to have piloted a spacecraft for the first time. He flew on the first crewed Apollo mission. This story has also been updated to clarify that Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are now the eighth and ninth astronauts to have piloted a new American orbital spacecraft.

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