The first orbiting space shuttle mission launched from the Kennedy Space Center on April 12, 1981 at 6 AM (CST) and landed at Edwards Air Force Base on April 14 at 12:20PM (CST). Total mission time was 2 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes, and 53 seconds. Columbia orbited at 166 nautical miles, at an inclination of 40.3 degrees, and travelled 1.074 million miles.

All five previous flights were conducted in 1977 using the prototype space shuttle Enterprise. In these atmospheric flights Enterprise was carried aloft and dropped from a modified Boeing 747. Approach and landing were accomplished.

The objective of this first shuttle spaceflight was simply to ascend, orbit, check systems, and return to Earth safely. The payload carried was a Development Flight Instrumentation package with sensors to record performance and stresses throughout mission from launch to landing. The post-flight inspection found that an overpressure wave had occurred when the solid rocket boosters ignited; causing the loss of 16 heat shield tiles and damage to 148 others.

Columbia was crewed by Commander John W. Young and Pilot Robert L. Crippen.