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Meet Robert L. Crippen: An American Hero
February 8, 2017 | Yes Minded | On a typical April afternoon in 1955, you could probably find 17-year-old Bobby Crippen fishing in his favorite pond in Porter. High in the sky, an airplane might have flown over heading toward Hobby Airport. But young Bobby probably didn’t even look up because his eyes were fixed on the red and white bobber about to be tugged under water by a crappie.
Fast forward 26 years later to April 12, 1981. The pond just off the old Highway 59 is still there, but that young fisherman is now soaring 160 miles somewhere above the earth in the Space Shuttle Columbia. His friends in Porter and New Caney might still know him as Bobby Crippen but to the rest of the world, he is Captain Robert Crippen, a member of the elite NASA astronaut team.
His flight aboard the Columbia was the first space flight for Captain Crippen and also NASA’s first attempt launching with rocket boosters and landing on a runway instead of an ocean. On that mission, he was assisting Commander John Young. It was a two-day mission with 140 objectives to complete.
“I would have liked to have spent more time looking out the window,” Captain Crippen recalled. “It’s really a unique experience.”
Captain Crippen did notice that the commander gets to look out the window more than he did.
“On my subsequent flights I took advantage of that,” he laughed.
In fact, Captain Crippen flew three more missions. All three were on the Space Shuttle Challenger, and on all three he was the commander.
“Getting to look out at and see Earth and then going around it once every hour and a half is phenomenal,” Captain Crippen recalled.
But how did this young boy who grew up in Porter end up as an astronaut?
“I think it really started when I was about four years old,” he remembered. “My dad loaded me up in the car one Saturday and we drove to Hobby Airport.”
He and his dad were standing behind a fence trying to get a look at a massive DC-3. A stewardess saw the young boy and his dad and asked if they would like to get closer.
“Of course, in those days there wasn’t much airport security. We just went around the fence so we could see better,” he laughed. “They even let me sit in the pilot’s seat. That’s when I fell in love with airplanes.”
The year was 1941 and Captain Crippen spent the next 40 years preparing for his first space mission.
All 12 years of his public education was at New Caney ISD where he excelled. In his senior year, he was salutatorian of his graduating class and elected Mr. New Caney High School.
The NCHS class of 1955 had 21 seniors. Most of them had started school together in the first grade.
“My parents knew I wanted to go to college so they offered to buy me a car so I could transfer to a bigger high school in Conroe,” Captain Crippen said. “But I wanted to stay in school with my friends. We were a very close class.”
When it was time to leave New Caney, Captain Crippen chose the University of Houston where his passion for space travel flourished.
“When I was a freshman in college, I remember writing a paper on rockets,” he explained. “It was at that time that the Russians put up the Sputnik. So it was very obvious to me that before long, people were going to be going into space. I guess flying higher and faster is the objective of most pilot types.”
To reach his goal of going “higher and faster,” Captain Crippen eventually transferred to the University of Texas in Austin where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering in 1960.
But this young “astronaut-to-be” had still not ridden in an airplane.
“When I graduated from college, I signed up for the Navy’s Aviation Officer Program. They flew me to Dallas on the Trans Texas Airline to go get my physical,” Captain Crippen remembered. “That was my first time to fly.”
But it didn’t take Captain Crippen long to accumulate hours in the pilot’s seat. After he received his training, he was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Independence as an attack pilot from 1962 until 1964.
“It was during the Cold War and we were flying missions as a threat to the Soviet Union,” he explained. “I felt we were getting ready to go to war with the Soviets.”
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the USS Independence was deployed just off the coast of Cuba. The carrier and its crew took part in the operations which finally forced the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles.
Captain Crippen’s final military assignment was to Edwards Air Force Base where he was a test pilot and then an instructor for incoming test pilots.
By the end of 1966, he left the military. But there was still that lure of exploring space.
“I applied to both NASA and the military space program called MOL, Manned Orbiting Laboratory,” Captain Crippen explained. “I ended up picking MOL because I thought NASA had more than enough astronauts.”
Telling his family in Porter that he had decided to be an astronaut came as a surprise to them.
“They were surprised I’m sure,” he laughed. “Just like they were surprised when I told them I was joining the Navy after college. My mom asked me, Bobby, why are you doing that? You could have joined the Navy without going to college.”
Captain Crippen worked on the military’s secret space projects which are still classified today. Unfortunately, after a couple of years, the military cancelled its space program.
“That was probably one of the lows of my life,” Captain Crippen recalled. “We had a program that was going great and then to get a call to tell us that it’s cancelled.”
About the time his astronaut career was on hold, Americans were celebrating the first moon landing on July 20, 1969. Luckily, just two months later, NASA invited Captain Crippen and the other MOL astronauts who were 35 or younger to join their astronaut program.
“NASA warned us there was lots of work to do but there weren’t going to be any flights until 1980 when the Space Shuttle was scheduled,” he said. “But it sounded good to all of us, and all of us came.”
Captain Crippen did have to wait 12 years until his first space mission on the Space Shuttle Columbia. Unfortunately, his father Herbert W. Crippen had already passed away. But his mother Ruth got to see her son reach his dream of space travel.
“NASA was very gracious and they flew my mom and sister Betty to Florida for the launch and then to California for the landing,” Captain Crippen said. “My mom enjoyed the excitement and being the center of attention.”
Her son may have been the one on the space shuttle, but the press enjoyed interviewing Miss Ruth. The colorful Porter resident had owned a local tavern for 40 years and loved to share her opinions.
“The press loved her,” he laughed. “They even came to her house in Porter and filmed her and my sister leaving for their trip to Florida. She got to the car and then stopped and said, ‘Wait, I’ve got to go back. I forgot my teeth.’”
Captain Crippen’s sister, Betty Monroe, still lives in the Porter area. Her memories are vivid of the day she watched her big brother blast into space.
“Watching that shuttle take off just scared you to death,” she recalled. “Bobby had warned us that it would look like it had blown up. But I was shocked that it was so loud.”
Also standing among the Crippen family at the Columbia lift-off was their aunt, Velma Crippen, who they called Aunt Dink.
“When that rocket took off, Aunt Dink said, “Well, there goes Bobby and his dream,” his sister remembered.
Apparently Bobby’s dream was evident to a lot of people in Porter, according to his sister.
“There was a country store run by Mrs. Weckter,” she remembered. “Mrs. Weckter told me once that Bobby would come in her store when he was just a little boy to buy little model airplanes she had on her toy rack.”
Family and friends weren’t the only ones who were proud of the courageous astronaut. Even one of Captain Crippen’s childhood heroes became a fan.
“When me and Bobby were little, we went to the rodeo in Houston to see Roy Rogers,” his sister explained. “We even got to shake his hand. And after my brother went into space, Roy Rogers wanted to shake Bobby’s hand. Now that was really something. We were all so proud of Bobby -- especially our mama.”
The Columbia was the last mission Captain Crippen’s mother got to see her son complete. About a year later, Miss Ruth passed away at age 67.
Captain Crippen’s next three missions were all on the Space Shuttle Challenger. He commanded STS-7 in June 1983, STS-41C in April 1984 and STS-41G in October 1984.
Although all four missions were significant to the space program, his second mission was especially important because his crew of five included Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space.
Years after Captain Crippen completed his missions on the Challenger and the Columbia, both shuttles tragically exploded. The Challenger disaster occurred Jan. 28, 1986 when the orbiter broke apart 37 seconds into flight. NASA lost seven crew members. On Feb. 1, 2003, the Columbia disintegrated over Texas as it re-entered the Earth atmosphere. Seven astronauts lost their lives.
Captain Crippen was asked to speak at the memorial for the Columbia.
“At the memorial, I tried to explain how you spend so much time with the space shuttles that they almost seem like a living entity,” Captain Crippen said. “Besides losing the crew, which was extremely painful, you feel like you’ve also lost a part of yourself.”
Captain Crippen helped put together the NASA Mishap Report for the Challenger accident.
“I am proud of what the shuttle has accomplished,” he explained. “We did have two horrible accidents but flying in space is never going to be risk free. Both times, NASA picked itself up, put the program back together and got it flying in a safer manner.”
Captain Crippen’s leadership and experience helped NASA rebound after the Challenger disaster. He served as deputy director of Shuttle Operations for the NASA Headquarters at the Kennedy Space Center from 1986 until 1989. He eventually became the director of the Kennedy Space Center before retiring from NASA in 1995.
By the end of Captain Crippen’s NASA career, he had logged over 565 hours in space, orbited the earth 374 times and traveled over 9.4 million miles in space.
With so much experience and knowledge about the space industry, Captain Crippen became president of Thiokol Propulsion, a company that builds rocket boosters. He and his wife Pandora finally retired in 2001 to Palm Beach, Florida. She was NASA engineer and the first female lead orbiter project manager for the Atlantis and Challenger.
Captain Crippen has three daughters from a previous marriage. They are proud of their dad, just as he is proud of what they’ve accomplished.
His oldest daughter Ellen is a retired aerospace engineer who worked with the Air Force satellite program. Susan, the middle daughter, still works at the Johnson Space Center where she teaches astronauts how to fly the flight simulators. The youngest daughter, Linda, is an assistant principal for La Porte ISD.
“I’m proud of all three of my daughters,” he said. “They each have been so successful.”
Although Captain Crippen earned many awards for his contributions to the space program, one of the most prestigious was receiving the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 2006.
Another honor that Captain Crippen cherishes came in 1997 when New Caney ISD named its new elementary school after him. Just like the rest of the world, his friends and family back home in Porter were proud of their hometown hero.
“That was so neat,” he remembered. “It was such an honor to have a school named after me.”
Perhaps the 79-year-old former astronaut is now spending his retirement afternoons fishing, just like he did as a young boy on the banks of that pond in Porter. He admits that he has always loved the outdoors.
But his real love will always be the 565 hours he spent in space.
“When people ask me to describe the best part of a flight, I use Astronaut John Young’s answer: The best part is between takeoff and landing,” Captain Crippen explained. “It was all great!”
Story by Judy Milling, Photos courtesy NASA Media Services