In the latest installment of our ongoing series, locals open up about their dramatic life experiences, from swimming with sharks to leaving Earth’s atmosphere to dodging ghosts.
Name: Bob Crippen, astronaut
He may not have known it, but Bob Crippen’s love for speed and flying groomed him to become an astronaut. As a pilot, he eventually joined NASA and went up into space four times, including on the Columbia, the first orbital spaceflight in the Space Shuttle program. Today, the retired Navy pilot and Congressional Space Medal of Honor winner lives with his wife Pandora in Palm Beach Gardens.
The first time I was launched into space was on April 12, 1981. I had been staying at the crew quarters at Kennedy Space Center for about a week with Commander John Young. The morning of the flight, we got up very early, dressed in launch suits, and were taken to the Columbia space shuttle launch pad. It was its inaugural flight.
From there, we lay on our backs for hours, counting down. I wasn’t convinced we were going to actually take off; just two days before, we scrubbed the flight because of computer problems. But a minute before we took off, it hit me—I’m going into space! I think my heart rate went up to 130.
When it actually launched, it was such a thrill. The main engines ignite about six seconds prior to liftoff. It’s a nice kick in the … bottom … to get you off. About the only thing I’ve been able to liken it to is a catapult shot off an aircraft carrier. It was a nice push, and you knew you were headed somewhere.
The ascent is not all that violent, [but] it shakes a lot when the solid rockets are on there. I would liken it to driving on an old country road—bumpy.
When the two white solid rocket boosters come off the shuttle after two minutes, it gets very quiet and very smooth. It’s eight-and-a-half minutes from liftoff to orbit, so it’s very quick. We would actually fly into orbit upside down. It was at the main engine cutoff when the view of the African coast came into view. It’s a beautiful sight. Two of the most spectacular things of being in space are looking at the beautiful spaceship called Earth and … being able to float around weightless.
Floating seemed very natural. John said, ‘Crip, take off your boots.’ I took those off before I climbed out of my seat, since people tend to start kicking as if they’re swimming and you can hit someone or the equipment. I was floating around in my socks, and I learned that it’s very easy to control your movements when you’re weightless, and it’s a little like flying. It’s hard to describe to people who haven’t done it.
But I didn’t have much time to look out the window and enjoy the weightlessness, because we got right to work doing procedures. On that mission, our objective was to see if we could get the vehicle up and bring her back down safely and check out all the systems we could while we were in orbit.
Going into space was one of those things I dreamed about and was lucky enough to achieve. It’s certainly right up there [with] my most exciting life experiences. I was 28 when I was selected to be on the Manned Orbiting Lab, which ended up getting scrapped. That was one of the low points of my life, but I turned it around and I went into space when I was 43. It took me a while to get there, but if you want something bad enough, it’s worth it to continue pursuing it.”