Our SpaceFlight Heritage: Hail Columbia
Before the losses encountered during the final flights of Challenger and Columbia, there was STS-1. With this mission, the U.S. was once again able to send crews to orbit. Six years. Six long years and the U.S. was finally back in the business of sending people to orbit. On this date in space flight history, the nation that landed men on the Moon showed the world a new way of returning crews from orbit.
STS-1 was the first time that the U.S. had launched astronauts since the 1975 joint U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission and was a marked departure from the traditional capsule-based spacecraft that the U.S. and the Soviet Union had fielded up until that time. Looking very much like a plane, the Space Shuttle was a glider that launched like a rocket but landed more like an aircraft.
After launching from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A on April 12, 1981, veteran Gemini and Apollo astronaut (and Moonwalker) John Young, along with the mission’s pilot, Bob Crippen, carried out the first test flight of what would become the Space Shuttle era.
After carrying out an eventful launch, the duo spent two days on orbit; during which they discovered that several heat tiles had come free during ascent. There were concerns that a “zipper effect”, with the heat tiles peeling away one after the other, would occur.
Rather, Young steered Columbia, NASA’s first shuttle, into a perfect landing. John Young, known for his cool, controlled manner, exited the orbiter exultant. Clearly the mission had gone very well.
Since that time, the family of orbiters went on to achieve new accomplishments with every mission. They would deploy NASA’s great observatories, including Hubble and Chandra, and construct the International Space Station, the largest human-made object ever to be placed on orbit. They also allowed astronauts and cosmonauts from many nations to conduct joint missions on orbit. In short: It was an unqualified success and it was NASA’s ride of choice for thirty years.
The program also encountered two very public disasters. The good and the bad is interwoven into a legacy that cannot be written off as being all of one or all of the other.
All of that rich history—each satellite deployed, every astronaut who has flown, and all of the innovations—began with the first flight and landing of Columbia, when she completed STS-1 on April 14, 1981, at Edwards Air Force Base’s Runway 23 in California.
Video courtesy of NASA
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.