To the great satisfaction of the rocket aces

science / Thursday, January 8th, 2015

Young was the reigning astronaut as­signed to the program. He had flown in space four times and, as commander of Apollo 16, had been the ninth man to set foot on the moon. So Young was named commander of the first space shuttle mis­sion, which would presumably take place by 1979. Crippen was named pilot. He would be the first of the Manned Orbiting Labora­tory leftovers to get any spaceflight at all.


Politically the times were very different. At NASA it was with a sense of old-oaken­bucket sentimentality that they now talked about the glorious days of “budgetless fi­nancing.” That had been during the Apollo program, prior to the landing of Apollo 11, when NASA simply spent whatever it need­ed and Congress was only too happy to take care of the overdrafts.

o the great satisfaction of the rocket aces

Those days were gone. Now they could barely pay the light bills down in Houston. Shuttle development dragged on. The ship was referred to as a lemon. In fact, all that was lacking was the money and the sort of national commitment that had made almost anything possible, overnight, for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Years went by, and Young and Crippen grew older, until Young, like many men his age, had presby­opia, literally “old eyes,” better known as farsightedness, and had to wear spectacles for close work.


Time had taken its toll on the old notion of pilot’s control of the craft too. Ironically, the high speeds that Yeager himself introduced had made automatic guidance systems in­creasingly important. A computerized iner­tial guidance platform had been developed to help X-15 pilots bring the ship back through the earth’s atmosphere at the proper angle. Neil Armstrong, NASA’s backup for Joe Walker in the X-15 project, gave the sys­tem its first lower-altitude tests. To the great satisfaction of the rocket aces, the platform had its problems. It was still the brain, the reflexes, and the body of the pilot that con­trolled the X-15. As the talk of computer-controlled flight grew louder, Scott Cross-field put in a word for the test pilot: “Where else would you get a non-linear computer weighing only 160 pounds, having a billion binary decision elements that can be mass-produced by unskilled labor?”