(WHNT) – 41 years ago, the Space Shuttle Program rocketed to orbit – Columbia launched on April 12, 1981, at 6:00:03 a.m. CT for STS-1, the first mission of the Shuttle program’s 30-year run.

Aboard the 1981 test flight were commander John Young, an Apollo and Gemini veteran who walked on the Moon during Apollo 16, and pilot Robert Crippen, who chased the prototype orbiter Enterprise in a T-38 trainer during the Approach and Landing Tests. Crippen would later fly on three other Shuttle missions: STS-7, STS-41-C, and STS-41-G. Young would fly aboard one final mission before retiring – STS-9.

STS-1, which lasted two days, was a test flight of the then-new Space Shuttle. NASA’s official objectives of the flight included:

Demonstrate safe launch into orbit and safe return of the orbiter and crew. Verify the combined performance of the entire shuttle vehicle – orbiter, solid rocket boosters and external tank.

Payloads included the Developmental Flight Instrumentation (DFI) and the Aerodynamic Coefficient Identifications Package (ACIP) pallet containing equipment for recording temperatures, pressures and acceleration levels at various points on the vehicle.

NASA STS-1 Mission Objectives

Columbia landed on Runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base in California on April 14, touching down at 12:20:57 p.m. CT. Columbia traveled nearly 1.1 million miles during the mission, reaching an altitude of 166 nautical miles (slightly more than 191 miles).

The official NASA mission summary said the orbiter sustained tile damage on launch – landing with 16 missing and 148 damaged. Unlike the ill-fated flight in February 2003, the damage from the ’81 launch was caused by an overpressure wave as the vehicle launched. NASA eliminated this problem with modifications to the water sound suppression system, which fired seconds before the shuttle’s three main engines ignited during every launch sequence.

Following STS-1, Columbia flew three more test flights – STS-2 through STS-4, along with the first non-test flight, STS-5, which launched on November 11, 1982. Following STS-5, the orbiter launched 23 more times to orbit, spending 300 days in space and orbiting the Earth more than 4,000 times during its 22-year career.

As a test orbiter, Columbia was heavier than its sister orbiters due to extra equipment aboard for gathering performance data during the early flights. This made it unsuitable for high-inclination launches, such as missions to the Soviet/Russian space station Mir and the International Space Station, neither of which Columbia ever visited. However, Columbia did visit the Hubble Space Telescope during its last successful mission, the servicing mission STS-109, in March 2002.

Columbia’s final flight launched to orbit on January 16, 2003. When descending to land at the Kennedy Space Center on February 1, 2003, Columbia disintegrated over Texas, killing seven astronauts:

  • Commander Rick Husband
  • Pilot Willie McCool
  • Payload Commander Michael Anderson
  • Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla
  • Mission Specialist David Broan
  • Mission Specialist Laurel Clark
  • Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon

Following the disaster, NASA convened the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which discovered a piece of foam had broken off of a structure that connected the orbiter and external tank, hitting the orbiter’s left-wing. The hole, which was between the orbiter’s tiles, provided a way for hot gases to enter the orbiter structure during re-entry, leading to loss of control and vehicle breakup.

Just shy of eight years after the disaster, Atlantis launched to the International Space Station for the final Shuttle flight, STS-135, bringing the Shuttle program’s 30-year run to an end.

And like the Shuttle’s successor, NASA’s Space Launch System, the Shuttle has a North Alabama connection – Marshall Space Flight Center handled the design, assembly, and operation of all things propulsion on all five space-worthy Shuttle orbiters: Atlantis, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Endeavour. This included the three main engines, the brown external tank – which was painted white only for the first two flights; leaving it in its unpainted brown saved close to 600 pounds for experiments and payload aboard the Shuttle on each subsequent launch, and the two solid rocket boosters which separated from the stack and parachuted back to Earth two minutes after liftoff.

News 19 Photojournalist Gregg Stone, who just marked 43 years at North Alabama’s News Leader, was at the launch. You can watch footage he took of crowds reacting to the then-new Shuttle rocketing into the skies over Florida above.