WHENEVER a space shuttle blasts off, Robert Crippen starts two separate countdowns. One fast. One slow.
"It takes 8 1/2 minutes from liftoff until you get main engine cutoff. Eight-and-a-half minutes and you're going 17,500 miles per hour.... Wow! And it's over," he says.
"Real time" during a launch runs much more slowly, says the pilot of the maiden shuttle voyage in 1981 and veteran of four spaceflights.
"It takes several hours to get to main engine cutoff, the period when the vehicle is most vulnerable to having something happen to it," says Mr. Crippen.
Appointed this month as director of the Kennedy Space Center, (KSC), Crippen is now in charge of one of the most operationally complex agencies in the federal government, with a $1.49 billion budget and 19,000 employees here.
He also is a major advocate for the space program in Washington, D.C.
Shuttle and shuttle-related matters comprise 80 percent of KSC operations, Crippen said in an interview last week in his spacious office overlooking the flat, armadillo-inhabited landscape of Cape Canaveral.
The following are excerpts from that interview:
The plans for 1992 are for eight [shuttle] launches. Last year and the year before there were only six. And all this with budget cuts of 15 percent?
We have taken a challenge to reduce the shuttle budget 3 percent a year for five years. This [fiscal 1992] is the first year that 3 percent comes out. So that cumulatively, over a period of time, it comes out to 15 percent.
Three percent a year seems very manageable.
We're trying to do this in a very orderly fashion. People need to understand this. We're trying to take the cuts in a careful, judicious manner.... Safety will not be compromised. I am very comfortable with the hardware.
The American people's imagination seems to have been more attentive in previous times to what NASA and the KSC were all about. Currently, it's not at that level. Why do you think this is so?
I'm not sure we'll ever get it up to the level [it was] when we went to the moon for the first time. It's a little bit like, when I grew up there wasn't a space program, and all of a sudden people were going into space. The very concept was mind-boggling.
For a great deal of the American public today, there's always been a space program - ever since they've been alive. Consequently it's not that unusual, not that different. When we go back to the moon - which we will - we would like to put in a lunar base we could leave people at permanently. We're in the process of studying that.... The first thing we need to do is to build a space station. We need that part of the infrastructure to learn how people physically respond to long periods in space ... and th en we'll go on to the moon.
Will there be any possibility now of speeding this up by trading information with the Russians?
We're trying to. Before the demise of the Soviet Union we had some things kicking off.... Things [now] are somewhat in a state of disarray. And we are trying to establish communication links with the Russians and see what might be possible with them. Truthfully, as tight as our economy is right now, there's obviously a much more serious situation. So I am not really sure that there is going to be anything reasonable that we can do, in the near term at least.
Five to 10 to 15 years out do you see any breakthroughs occurring in propulsion systems?
Technology development takes funding. Funding takes programs. It's one of the reasons we had the space program and the mission to the moon. It was a super way to push technology. The national aerospace plan is working in a technology phase right now that is trying to develop new engine technology.
If you are looking at the space program as you went through it and training as an astronaut and today ... what are the similarities and disimilarities?
People from my generation, most of us came from test-pilot military backgrounds. As we move into the space shuttle and space station you don't need pilots. Consequently, the astronaut population is shifting over to classifying people as mission specialists, from astronomers to medical doctors to physicists, those kind of folks.... Their backgrounds are different, but the personalities, I find there's a lot of similarities.