Robert L. "Crip" Crippen piloted the first orbital test flight of the space shuttle program. Born in Beaumont, Texas in 1937, Crippen earned a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas in 1960. Following graduation, he received his commission through the US Navy's Aviation Officer Program. Following flight training at Whiting Field, Florida, and Chase Field in Beeville, Texas, Crippen spent the next 2 years with Attack Squadron 72 (VA-72) flying the McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawk aboard the USS Independence.
He later attended the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards AFB, California, and upon graduation, remained there as an instructor until his selection in 1966 to the USAF Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program. In 1969, Crippen became a NASA astronaut. He began his NASA career as a member of the astronaut support crew for the Skylab 2, 3, and 4 missions and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission. In April 1981, he and commander John Young opened a new era in space travel flying the Space Shuttle Columbia-the first viable multi-mission spaceship. After mission STS-1, Crippen commanded mission STS-7 in 1983. This first mission with a 5-person crew performed the first deployment and retrieval exercise with the Shuttle Pallet Satellite and conducted the first formation flying of the orbiter with a free-flying satellite.
On his third space flight, STS-41C in 1984, his crew retrieved the ailing Solar Maximum Satellite, repaired it on-board the orbiting Challenger , and replaced it in orbit. Crippen's final space flight, STS-41G also in 1984, was the first mission with a 7-person crew. Here, the crew deployed the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite as well as demonstrated potential satellite refueling with a space walk and associated hydrazine transfer. In all, Crippen has logged over 565 hours in space, orbited the earth 374 times and traveled over 9.4 million miles. During the next decade, Crippen served as Deputy Director for Shuttle Operations at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, Director of Space Shuttle at NASA Headquarters in Washington, and KSC Director. Crippen left NASA in 1994 to become a vice president at Lockheed Martin Information Systems. Then in 1996, he was named President of the Thiokol Propulsion Group. Crippen retired in 2001 after over 40 years of service. His long list of awards and honors includes the International Harmon Trophy, the Goddard Trophy, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal (the highest honor that NASA confers), and three Department of Defense Distinguished Service Medals. Moreover, Crippen is a member of the Astronaut Hall of Fame.
On 12 April 1981, Crip Crippen was the pilot of the first orbital test flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia, the first operational reusable spaceship. It was also the first manned vehicle to be flown into orbit without benefit of previous unmanned "orbital" testing, the first to launch with wings using solid rocket boosters, and the first winged reentry vehicle to return to a conventional runway landing. Crippen instantly became a role model and hero to millions, especially young Americans as he ushered in a revolutionary new form of space travel.