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STS-1: A Monumental Spaceflight Milestone Recalled

April 13, 2011

By Alan Brown, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center

It was 30 years ago this week that NASA ushered in a new era of spaceflight with the inaugural launch of space shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981, setting the pace for three decades of monumental leaps in environmental and space science achievements.

Thirty years and 133 missions later, NASA is winding down the space shuttle program, with the three remaining shuttle orbiters and the prototype shuttle Enterprise slated to be enshrined at several museums around the country after the last two missions, STS-134 and STS-135, are flown.

At a ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center on April 12, 2011, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden announced that the shuttle Atlantis would be placed on display at the Kennedy Space Center, Discovery would be donated to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C., Endeavour would be displayed at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, and the Enterprise prototype would be transferred from the Udvar-Hazy Center to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City.

With triumph came tragedy, however, with the loss of two shuttles and their crews, Challenger upon launch in 1986, and Columbia upon return in 2003.

After more than two years of checkout of Columbia following its delivery to NASA in 1979 and years of training by astronauts in shuttle simulators, the program kicked off with the successful launch of Columbia on mission STS-1. Columbia was boosted into orbit by seven million pounds of thrust supplied by its solid-propellant rockets and liquid-hydrogen engines. The flight, the first of four orbital flight tests of Columbia, served as a two-day demonstration of the first reusable, piloted spacecraft’s ability to go into orbit and return safely to Earth.

The launch coincided with the 20th anniversary of the first human spaceflight, that of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the Vostok 1 capsule on April 12, 1961.

That first operational test flight from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida carried Commander John Young and Pilot Robert Crippen into orbit.

“We were delighted when we got into orbit,” Young said at a 25th anniversary commemorative program at Kennedy in 2006. “We learned that we can build a complicated vehicle and make it work very well.”

The early flights helped NASA build on its knowledge of the vehicle and its capabilities. On its first mission, Columbia carried as its main payload a Developmental Flight Instrumentation pallet with instruments to record pressures, temperatures, and levels of acceleration at various points on the vehicle during launch, flight, and landing. In flight, Young and Crippen tested the spacecraft’s on-board systems, fired the orbital maneuvering system for changing orbits, employed the reaction control system for controlling attitude, and opened and closed the payload doors.

One of many cameras aboard–a remote television camera–revealed some of the thermal protection tiles had disengaged during launch. As Columbia re-entered the atmosphere from space at Mach 24 (24 times the speed of sound) after 36 orbits, aerodynamic heating built up to over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing some concern during the time when the shuttle was out of radio communications with ground stations. But at 188,000 feet and Mach 10, Young and Crippen reported that the orbiter was performing as expected. After a series of maneuvers to reduce speed, the mission commander and pilot prepared to land.

While multiplied thousands of onlookers witnessed from public viewing sites established on the east short of the lakebed and other vantage points at Edwards, Young and Crippen flew the orbiter Columbia to a picture-perfect, unpowered landing on Runway 23 on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards AFB, Calif., to conclude it’s first orbital flight on April 14, 1981.

“We learned that humans in space are very adaptable and capable. And we also learned that the vehicle required a lot of care and was not forgiving of mistakes,” Crippen said.

Image Caption: Space Shuttle Columbia touches down on lakebed runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to conclude STS-1, the first orbital shuttle mission on April 14, 1981. (NASA Photo)

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