Space Shuttle Program: 40th Anniversary Of The First Launch Of Columbia

For those who grew up watching the endless coverage of the Apollo program in the 60s and 70s, the sight of OV-102, better known as the Space Shuttle Columbia, perched on pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center was somewhat disconcerting. Compared to the sleek lines of a Saturn V rocket, the spacecraft on display on April 12, 1981, seemed an ungainly beast. It looked like an airplane that had been tacked onto a grain silo, with a couple of roman candles attached to it for good measure. Everything about it seemed the opposite of what we’d come to expect from spaceflight, but as the seconds ticked away to liftoff 40 years ago this day, we still had hope that this strange contraption wouldn’t disappoint.

At first, as the main engines ignited, it seemed that Columbia would indeed disappoint. The liquid hydrogen exhaust plume seemed anemic, at least compared to the gout of incandescent kerosene that had belched out from every rocket I’d ever seen launched. But then those magnificent — and as it later turned out, deadly dangerous — solid rocket boosters came to life, and Columbia fairly leaped off the launchpad. Americans were on their way to space again after a six-year absence, and I remember cheering astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen on as I watched the coverage with my dad that early Sunday morning.


Crippen and Young training aboard Columbia for STS-1.

The seeds for what would become the Space Transportation System (STS), which was the official name for the Space Shuttle program, were sown even before the famous flight of Apollo 11 in 1969. The incredible expense of launching an almost completely expendable rocket to get astronauts into orbit or beyond was becoming untenable, so the focus switched to building a new generation of spacecraft with reusability in mind. Dozens of ideas were floated, but eventually the rocket-boosted spaceplane concept won out and the STS program was funded by Congress in 1972.

The first flight of Columbia on that April morning, which by sheer luck coincided with the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s ride to space aboard Vostok-1, was a record-setter in many ways. Not only was it to be the first orbital flight of a reusable spaceplane, but it was also the first time America had a crewed maiden flight. Every rocket used for crewed missions to that point had had at least one uncrewed flight. Columbia had been tested on the pad with her main engines lit, and sister ship Enterprise had done extensive unpowered drop tests for approach and landing training, but everything between the countdown clock reaching zero and the end of reentry had never been done before.

STS-1 was a brief mission filled with technical tests; it was intended to make sure the orbiter was spaceworthy and did very little if any science. Young and Crippen stayed aloft for a little more than two days before deorbiting over the Indian Ocean, beginning the unpowered, Mach 24 reentry process. Much of the early reentry maneuvers were handled automatically by Columbia’s on-board computers, but Commander Young eventually took the stick and guided the spaceplane to a smooth landing on the dry lake beds of Edwards Air Force Base in California. STS-1 was complete, and the age of the Space Shuttle had begun.

Columbia’s Legacy

As with any major system, the design of the Shuttle was a compromise, but given its high profile as a successor to Apollo and the competing factions vying for the capabilities it wanted to see in a launch system, it’s a wonder the spacecraft ever got off the ground. Along with the test article Enterprise, the five STS orbiters — Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour — have been called the most complex machines ever built by humans. The truth of that is probably open to debate, but there’s no doubt that the complexity of the orbiters was at odds with its reusability, and the desired quick turnaround times from each orbital mission were never delivered.

Still, the Shuttle fleet delivered a total of 133 successful missions, ferried 355 individuals to space, and delivered thousands of tons of payloads into orbit and beyond. The Hubble Space Telescope, both its initial delivery and later repairs, were courtesy of the Shuttle, and a great many of the modules of the ISS were delivered in the orbiter’s ample cargo bay. The interplanetary missions that started in the payload bay of orbiters — notably Magellan, Galileo, and Ulysses — are still paying dividends in terms of understanding the nature of the universe.

Still, the Space Shuttle program suffered from a pair of catastrophic losses. As much as I remember the launch of STS-1, I much more keenly remember the loss of Challenger at launch on STS-51-L in 1986, and the reentry breakup of Columbia on STS-107 in 2003. Those losses plus the failure to deliver the rapid turnaround and lower costs needed to maintain a reasonable tempo of launches were the final nails in the coffin for the STS program, which was canceled after the 2011 landing of STS-135. Still, the program had staying power, and for 30 years it was the only way for America to get payloads upstairs.

17 thoughts on “Space Shuttle Program: 40th Anniversary Of The First Launch Of Columbia

  1. I remember this as clear as yesterday, not the actual launch but the scrubbed attempt on the 10th.

    I was 11 and school was 5 minutes away, back then you could go home for lunch, great I thought go home and watch the first ever lift off live before most people would have seen it. Gutted when countdown was delayed (cancelled some time later) so had to make a quick exit back to school, on the way passed my dad coming home for lunch, lump in my throat telling him it was delayed nearly burst into tears.

    1. A few of us from Ga Tech drive down to watch the shuttle not launch on the 10th. They didn’t know how long it would take to clear up the problem (a disagreement among computers?). We debated staying or not, but decided to return. As luck would have it, it launched two days later, and we kicked ourselves for missing it — after all the commander John Young was a Ramblin’ Wreck.

    2. I also watched this on UK TV, I was 15 and staying at my elder cousin’s house in Edinburgh, it was the Easter Holidays. I remember the cancelled launch and then the first launch 2 days later.

      The other thing I remember from that Easter break, was writing BASIC programs on my cousin’s very expensive TRS 80. That gives an idea of the technology of the time.

    3. I remember getting up early on a weekend to watch the launch. Later when my mom came down and I told her why I was up so early, she got mad at me because I didn’t get her up to watch it too.

      Later I had to make sure I saw the final launch, telling my wife I had to “bookend” them.

  2. I loved all the awesome things the Shuttle did.

    God, those free flight backpacks, satellite launches and captures for repairs would have been impossible with SaturnV technology.

    Thank you everyone who made this possible.

    1. I second that. I’m merely European, but I found the Shuttle program quite interesting. It paved the way for interesting stuff like the Huble Space Telescope, the first amateur radio communications between astronauts and schools/private people in space/orbit, the collaboration between USSR/USA (MIR-Shuttle missions).

      Here’s an example of people that enjoyed the shuttle missions. It’s from the 1980s.:

  3. 40 years! I was almost 10 years old then.

    I remember on the day it launched, the TV coverage played a song that was composed for the event. Unfortunately I don’t remember the title of the song, except it likely had Columbia in it, the writer or the singer.

    Attempting to find songs with Columbia in the title is of course @%*%ed with by the existence of Columbia Pictures, Columbia Records, and everything else with Columbia in the name that isn’t such a song getting in the way. And that’s compounded by it being very pre-WWW so the only way info about it can be online is for someone else who knows all the details to have posted it somewhere on the web.

  4. “For those who grew up watching the endless coverage of the Apollo program in the 60s and 70s”

    Yeah. That must have been nice.

    I don’t get why anyone celebrates the space shuttle.

    Being “reusable” it was supposed to move space travel towards being affordable. But it’s design was re-directed not to be ideal for space travel but for dropping as many bombs as possible on Moscow. That was supposed to keep NASA fueled with military dollars but those dried up shortly after when it became obvious that ICBMs were way better for the job. Meanwhile only part of the shuttle was re-usable and just re-tooling it for re-use cost more than assembling a whole new Saturn-V.

    Now people in their late 50s just may have seen a lunar launch but they were probably too young to comprehend what they were looking at and certainly don’t remember it. To anyone any younger it’s just part of the mythology of history that anyone has ever been anywhere beyond low earth orbit.

    Is it any wonder now that NASA can’t get enough funding to actually finish a project and go somewhere again? That so many people think we should forget space and just stick to trying to solve problems on Earth? The shuttle has stolen faith in the idea that progress is even possible from three generations. How many generations will it take to undo the damage?

    1. I guess it’s both quite complicated and simple. Unfortunately, we (the world) perhaps still don’t know about all the details and secret agreements of these eras. I assue, when the space race came to an end, the money that NASA etc and its soviet counterpart got became less and less. That’s why when after the iron curtain fell, the USA and Russia -along with other nations- worked together on bigger/more expensive space projects. The ISS is an example for this, I guess. The core modules (Zarya, Swesda?) were originally ment for MIR v2, if memory served, but were reused for the ISS. Or “Alpha” , as it was known then in the USA.. That being said, I’m from Europe and perhaps know comparably little of all the circumstances and the details. Or these west/east conflicts. Also, I’m probably too young. I have neither watched the moon landing nor the first Shuttle flight. Most things are indeed historic events to me. 😅

      PS: My apologies for my ignorance and my poor English.

  5. I remember that day as well. My first job out of the University of Texas at Arlington with a degree in Aerospace Engineering was with McDonnell Douglas Technical Services Team to support NASA. We moved to Houston in Clear Lake and worked in what is now the Clear Lake Police Station building near the back gate of the NASA complex. I was put on the Entry Analyses Team supporting Joe Gamble at NASA. One of the many interesting tasks was to evaluate the Shuttle’s Stability Derivatives during entry. Entry phase was where they would perform the simple flight maneuvers and record data for analysis. We used the static base cockpit simulator to perform our analysis late at night while it wasn’t being used, and Joe said to me: “Fricker, you fly the thing because you’re the only one with a pilots license”, so I flew the maneuvers (push-overs and pull-ups, and yaw pedal steps) from Mach 25 to touchdown, while Joe put delta values on the stability derivatives to see how much error we could take. After a few hours of this, guess who shows up; Crippen and Young. They said hey, heard you were down here and you might need a pilot, so Young flew the rest of the maneuvers. Still one of my lifetime experiences to always remember.
    On launch day, everyone brought in TVs to set on there desk to watch the launch. After that things got very busy again, and they put us in the MER (Mission Evaluation Room) next to Mission Control. This was the OTHER room where the engineers were for 4 hours on and 4 hours off. To this day, I still have my STS1 and STS2 badges for the MER. A wonderful time in our countries history.

  6. What always bothered me about the STS program was that, as time went on, and funding dried up, NASA had to approach the DOD to get more funding. This changed the scope of the project and the payload bay size required a whole different launch platform. Had the original intent of the STS come to pass the 2 accidents we had on the Shuttle would never have occurred. Not that other issues wouldn’t have come to pass possibly….but the risks and flaws in the design we ended up with were directly responsible for both disasters.

    If we’re ever going to get serious about human space travel, NASA needs funding to complete a goal without having to kiss Congressional butt to get approval.

    I remember watching the launch of STS1 on that Sunday morning. I got to watch up until they started opening the Payload bay doors then my Mother made me go so I could do my altar boy shift for mass that Sunday. I DID NOT WANT TO LEAVE!

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