Calculated Risk

Never in the history of the American space programme had a crew been on board for the first launch of a new spacecraft. The Mercury capsules, which carried Al Shepard and John Glenn on their historic ventures into space, had been extensively tested unmanned, as had Gemini and Apollo. The Soviets, too, had never flown a crew without first testing their spacecraft in an unmanned capacity. The risks were just too high. There can be little doubt, therefore, of the heroism and bravery of the first Shuttle crew: Commander John Young and Pilot Bob Crippen.

One astronaut closely involved in the Shuttle's development was Fred Haise, a veteran of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. He had been instrumental not only in its aerodynamic testing in the low atmosphere, but also would probably have commanded one of its early missions had he not resigned from NASA in 1979. He saw an unmanned first flight as potentially much trickier than a manned one. "It would have been very difficult to have devised a scheme, in my view, to have flown [the Shuttle] unmanned,'' Haise recalled in a 1999 interview.

"I guess you could've used a [communications] link and really had a pilot on a stick on the ground like they have flown some other programmes. But to totally mechanically programme it to do that, and inherent within the vehicle, would have been very difficult. There was initially a planned unmanned flight, [but] it was of great complexity and handling the myriad of potential systems problems [made it hard to automate]. With a crew on board [to] be able to handle the multitude of things that you could work around, inherently made the success potential of a flight a lot greater.''

Others, including NASA's former director of engineering and development, Henry Pohl, were more sceptical about sending the first Shuttle aloft with a crew on board. "I didn't see any need in risking humans and I didn't think humans would be as proficient as automated equipment," he said. "By that time [the late 1970s], we had the know-how and we could build robots or the automated equipment that can detect things long before a human can detect it, and I thought the vehicle was going to be so difficult to land that we really ought to land it with automated equipment.''

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