The crew of the space shuttle Columbia flew home tonight to a hero's welcome and a little rest in their own beds.

John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen touched down at Ellington Air Force Base near the Johnson Space Center about 7 p.m., only a few hours after guiding their orbiter to a successful landing in the barren beauty of a dry lakebed in California.

More than 1,000 people had gathered near the runway for the traditional astronauts' red-carpet welcome; among them was White House chief of staff James A. Baker III with a message from President Reagan and an invitation to the White House.

"You were right, Capt. Crippen, when you said the Columbia and her voyage would mean much to this country and the world," the president said. "Today, both our friends and our adversaries are reminded that we are a free people capable of great deeds. Welcome home."

Young, 50, is the cool veteran of five trips to outer space; Crippen, 43, the raw-boned rookie with the big smile and the "right stuff." When they returned home tonight, they couldn't say enough about each other and their marvelous flying machine.

Earlier today, when he emerged from the shuttle, Young was the irrepressible test pilot, pacing back and forth beside the Columbia, clenching his fists in excitement. Tonight he looked like the calm commander in full control, but only superlatives rolled from his lips.

"Robert and I spent the most interesting and exciting two days of our lives," he said. "The space shuttle Columbia is phenomenal, an incredible piece of machinery.

"Bob Crippen is a very smart young man and he kept me out of a lot trouble on the flight," Young said. "I think he did a helluva job. I'm going to recommend him to be commander of one of the early space shuttle flights."

Crippen was obviously touched by Young's words of praise and seemed as much in awe of the shuttle orbiter as is the rest of America. "I was just hanging on, hoping he'd point me in the right direction," he said as he flashed another grin at the applauding crowd.

For years, Crippen said, "we've been bustin' our buns" to get the shuttle up, but he assured everyone who had played a role it was worth the effort.

"It was the darnedest time I ever had in my entire life," he said.

And picking up on Young's promise of a job recommendation, he quickly added, "I want to go back as soon as I can."

Baker told the Columbia crew they had "opened a door to the future," and said that Reagan wanted them to come to the White House for a full report as soon as it could be arranged.

Others in the official welcoming party were the acting director of NASA, Alan Lovelace; the head of the Johnson Space Center, Christopher C. Kraft, and the flight directors who had run the successful operation from Mission Control in Houston.

After the short ceremony, Young and Crippen went home for the night. After a short rest, they will plunge into a series of debriefings in which they will go over every aspect of the flight in detail.

Because the shuttle had never been flight-tested, there is extraordinary interest in what the astronauts found as they circled the earth 36 times.

The debriefings will last about five working days, and in a little more than a week the two astronauts will hold their first formal news conference, at which they are expected to release an edited film from their flight.