On July 8, 2011, NASA’s clock counted down to a fiery liftoff and an incredible finale.
The launch of space shuttle Atlantis, carrying four astronauts that day beyond Earth’s borders, marked the last flight of America’s shuttle program.
As the United States relies on Russia for space travel and the industry heads into the private sector, the uncertainty of America’s future involvement in space exploration makes the early pioneers of the final frontier even more legendary.
Bob Crippen, a South Florida resident of 12 years, has logged more than 565 hours in space, orbited the earth 374 times and traveled more than 9.4 million miles to infinity and beyond. The former Navy pilot became an astronaut in 1969 and embarked on four space missions, including piloting the first orbital test flight of the shuttle Columbia. Following his space flights, Crippen went on to serve in a variety of high-ranking positions at NASA, retiring in 1995 as director of the Kennedy Space Center.
In 1972, Charlie Duke became the tenth man—and, at age 36, the youngest—to ever set foot on the moon. Like Crippen, he also took part in four space missions, of which his most famous role was serving as the lunar module pilot for Apollo 16. Born and raised in North Carolina, Duke now resides in Texas but hasn’t lost the southern accent America first heard decades ago communicating to missions control from space.
NI spoke with Crippen and Duke, both of whom explored space with astronaut John Young on separate missions, in separate interviews, about their space careers and what they see for the future of space travel. While some of their answers and experiences differ, they each emphasized the importance of investing in science museums.
“We need more ways to excite kids about science, math and engineering,” Crippen says. “The museum is a good format to do that. I would like to see them continue to excel, expand and excite kids. I do anything I can do to support them.”
All photos below are courtesy of NASA.
|Bob Crippen||Charlie Duke|
I’m sure you’re asked this all the time: What’s it like being in space?
CRIPPEN: One word: fantastic [laughs]. It was a great experience. Anybody who’s done it will always remember it.
There are two things I really liked about being in orbit: One is being weightless; the other is looking out at this beautiful spaceship Earth. Astronauts could spend entire days gazing out the window instead of doing work [laughs]. But looking out the window is something everybody enjoys. You’re going around the earth once every hour and a half. Depending on the particular orbit, you’re looking at the majority of a populated area of the earth. It’s a beautiful planet, and we need to be careful about how we treat it.
DUKE: It was one of most exciting adventures I’ve ever had. I was six hours late landing [on the moon] due to a problem in another spacecraft. When we finally touched down, we were so exhilarated—we screamed out. They probably heard us in Houston without the radio.
The first steps on the moon were awesome to me—just the beauty of the moon and the excitement, the emotion of being there; the thrill and thought that nobody’s been on this part of moon. It was very exciting, awesome.
Buzz Aldrin called the moon magical desolation. I called it awesome desolation. To me, it was beautiful. It was a desert, with this gray color, in stark contrast between the blackness of space and the black sky of the moon and the brightness of the lunar surface. The image is still in my mind.
|Crippen does acrobatics on the middeck of the space shuttle Columbia while orbiting Earth in zero gravity.|
Astronauts spend a lot of time training for missions. The first time you went into space, was there any part of the experience that was different from what you expected?
CRIPPEN: My first flight was with John Young, and we spent a lot of time training together. It was pretty much as I anticipated it to be—only a heck of a lot better.
DUKE: The weightless condition was a little bit more unusual and more unique than I had anticipated. We had a few moments of zero gravity on an airplane that we flew, but the constant weightlessness was more like I was at sea in a rocking boat. But then I got used to that. The weightless condition is very nice. You don’t have any pressures on your body, no stresses. It’s really relaxing, especially when you’re trying to go to sleep.
What regular daily task did you find the most difficult to complete in space?
DUKE: The waste management system was very crude. Going to the bathroom was the most difficult, I guess [laughs]. On the moon it wasn’t so bad, but in zero gravity, it was a challenge. Our system was not a triumph of technology.
CRIPPEN: Things tend to float away. Learning how to keep things captured and keep all the things you’re dealing with so they don’t soil the spacecraft [was difficult].
Do you think there is other life out there?
DUKE: Personally, no. But we don’t know. We’re still searching, and there could be. There’s no evidence for or against.
CRIPPEN: I have no doubt that when you consider all the stars (which are suns) and planets—which we keep discovering more of—it’s almost inconceivable that there would not be some forms of life out there. I don’t think any of them have visited the earth, though [laughs].
Some astronauts have left personal mementos on missions. Did you ever leave anything behind?
CRIPPEN: I never went to the moon, so I didn’t have the opportunity. I was always in inner orbit. Every once in a while, an astronaut will lose something. I was lucky enough that it didn’t occur for me. I tried to bring everything home that I set up.
DUKE: Our children were soon to be 5 and 9 when I went to the moon, and so we decided to get them involved and excited about what their dad was doing. I took this picture of the family in the backyard and got permission to land it on the lunar surface. It didn’t last very long on the surface because it was shrink-wrapped in plastic and the temperature on the surface was 230 degrees Fahrenheit. But it lasted long enough for me to get a picture of the picture. The boys are very proud of it now that their picture was on the moon.
I [also] left a medallion. It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Air Force in 1972, and I was the only Air Force officer going to moon that year, so I got permission to take a special medal about the size of a silver dollar commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Air Face. I took two: One I dropped on the moon, the other I brought back. It’s now at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
What’s your favorite memory from your space career?
CRIPPEN: My most memorable space flight will always be my first one. We worked long and hard on that. John Young and I had three years to train on it. That’ll always stick in my mind. There were three subsequent missions that I commanded, and they were all in their own ways great.
Probably the toughest job I had was after we lost Challenger back in 1986, I got rooted into management trying to get the thing flying again, and we spent three years doing that. That was without a doubt once of the most challenging things I did. It was also one of most rewarding when we started flying it again.
DUKE: [John Young and I] were having fun the whole time [on the moon]. When you listen to the recording on our tapes, we were like two little kids at Christmas—just amazed at the wonder of it all.
At the end of the mission, we were going to do the “Moon Olympics.” I tried to do the high jump and ended up falling over backwards. It was actually really scary, and missions control wasn’t too pleased when I fell. That was the end of the Moon Olympics [laughs].
|Duke collects lunar samples at Station No. 1 during the Apollo 16 lunar module mission’s first extravehicular activity at the Descartes landing site. Duke is standing at the rim of Plum crater, which is 131 feet in diameter and about 33 feet deep. The lunar rover can be seen in the background.|
A lot of kids today want to be astronauts when they grow up. What did you want to be?
CRIPPEN: I wanted to be a pilot. That was my goal all along. When I was in college, I had done enough reading to know we were developing rockets and were going to be able to get things in space. I was a sophomore when the first satellite, Sputnik, went up. It was obvious we would have people not too far behind, and I thought maybe I could help that along.
DUKE: I didn’t know until tenth grade that I wanted to be military officer. My heroes had been World War II soldiers and airman. My dad had gone off to the Navy in World War II. I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I got out of the Naval Academy and then fell in love with airplanes and decided I wanted to be a pilot.
I graduated in June of 1957 and turned 22 in October. Sputnik was launched the day after my birthday. Two years later, the first astronauts were selected. I thought maybe I was too young, too inexperienced to be an astronaut. I didn’t think I had much of a chance, but I kept planning my career, and it turned out seven years later. I was all qualified and decided the best job after test pilot was astronaut.
If you could go back to space today, what would you want to explore?
DUKE: I’d like to go to the moon again and start to establish a moon base similar to what we have in Antarctica. The science station is permanently manned down there in very harsh environment. I’d like to see us do the same thing on the moon and learn how to live for long durations out in that environment. We could eventually use that technology we developed to maybe mine the moon and from there onto Mars. That would be a logical sequence. But there’s not much interest in returning to the moon right now from our government. A lot of scientists are very excited about what we’re doing on Mars with robotics.
CRIPPEN: It would be very interesting to go up to the International Space Station. It’s got a lot of room inside, like a large house, and they’re doing some exciting work there. That would be a fun thing to do. The only thing I’m not fond of is now we have to rely on the Russians to get our crews up there.
I believe we should go back to the moon and Mars and beyond that. Most people aren’t fully cognizant of what’s going on these days.
|The Apollo 16 crew captured this Earthrise with a handheld Hasselblad camera during the second revolution of the moon. Much of the terrain seen here is never visible from the Earth, as the command module was passing onto what is known as the “dark side” of the moon.|
Do you have any ideas for reinvigorating the space program?
CRIPPEN: Bring in money. It’s not inexpensive, but relative to what they do, it’s a pretty good bargain. NASA gets less than half a cent out of every federal dollar, and they make it go a long way. Maybe when the country gets little better …
That is our future. We need to focus on what excites young kids about science and math. We need to worry about our future and slipping in the world as far as producing people that are interested in science, math and technology.
DUKE: The commercial side of space flight is all competing to have next spacecraft to go to the space station. There are a lot of different ideas. SpaceX is probably farthest along. That might be the next taxi we have to the space station.
When you look up at the night sky now, what goes through your mind?
CRIPPEN: It’s always beautiful to observe stars and moon, but I don’t really focus on any particular aspect of it. When I go on a commercial airline flight, though, I always wish I was a little higher.
DUKE: Still very vivid memories of an exciting adventure. I look and I can see the general landing area of where we set down and had lot of wonderful memories. I had a great sense of accomplishment on our flight. We were the only nation to have gone to the moon. I’m just disappointed and can’t believe we haven’t gone back or at least onto Mars. That’s the way budgets and space travel go. But I look up and say, “What an adventure that was.”