Columbia lifting off from Launch Complex 39A for STS-1. ©NASA

STS-1 - An icon spreads her wings

On the 12th of April 1981, a new launch vehicle took to the skies for the first time from the United States. This debut flight would be like no other as crew were onboard too, with a plan to land a part of the vehicle on a runway too. The vehicle would be none other than the Space Shuttle.

On board Space Shuttle Columbia for the first flight were Commander John Young and Pilot Robert Crippen. This flight was Young's fifth trip to space and the first time Crippen would head into orbit. Young was chosen due to his nineteen years of experience at NASA, having flown for both Gemini and Apollo programs. Crippen was chosen due to his test flight background and as an expert in the Space Shuttle's computer systems.

John Young (left) and Robert Crippen (right) with a model of the Space Shuttle in April 1979. ©NASA
John Young (left) and Robert Crippen (right) with a model of the Space Shuttle in April 1979. ©NASA

Having scrubbed two days earlier due to a timing problem with Columbia's computers, the Space Shuttle lifted off for the first time at 7:00:03 am, Eastern Standard Time, from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. The objective of STS-1 was to prove a safe ascent to orbit and return to Earth safely with a landing of the orbiter.

Two minutes and eleven seconds after liftoff the two solid rocket boosters separated successfully for the first time, followed six minutes and twenty-three seconds later by the three main engines on Columbia shutting down. Eighteen seconds later the external tank separated to allow the orbiter to enter orbit, which Columbia did with two burns of its Orbital Manoevruing System engines. Following the two burns, Columbia was in a 274 by 246 kilometer orbit of the Earth.

Columbia during ascent for STS-1 shortly after booster separation. ©NASA
Columbia during ascent for STS-1 shortly after booster separation. ©NASA

Upon entering low Earth orbit, the crew onboard was tasked with opening Columbia's payload bay doors. This needed to be done as the Orbiter's radiators are part of the doors, and need to be exposed to space to manage the internal temperature. As this was the first time the doors were opened, they were opened slowly starting with the starboard (right) door opening closing and then opening again to make sure the launch had not damaged the door, or if microgravity had affected the door's shape. The same was also done with the port (left) side door too.

While on orbit, Young and Crippen noticed that several tiles near the aft of Columbia were damaged with engineers believing up to seventeen were damaged. It was later determined that no tiles were missing from the underside of Columbia and that the lost tiles would not affect re-entry due to their location.

A minor issue that was noticed during the duration of the mission was that one of the Development Flight Instrumentation recorders, located in the payload bay, would not turn off and could run out of tape before re-entry, where NASA wanted to gather data ahead of future flights. This problem was solved by cycling the circuit breaker that fed power to the instrument when needed.

A view of Columbia's payload bay during STS-1 with the two Development Flight Instrumentation boxes inside. ©NASA
A view of Columbia's payload bay during STS-1 with the two Development Flight Instrumentation boxes inside. ©NASA

During their time on orbit, the crew received a telephone call from Vice President George H.W. Bush, located in the White House. Bush told the crew:

"Your trip is going to ignite the excitement and the forward thinking for the country.” and “We’ll be watching that re-entry and the landing with great interest on behalf of the whole country.”

Young and Crippen also practiced putting on their pressure suits in microgravity, as well as testing the payload doors, prior to re-entry the following day.

As the crew slept during their second, and final, night in space, an alarm woke the crew due to the temperature in one of Columbia's three auxiliary power units, these were used to control the aerodynamic control surfaces during atmospheric flight. It was thought that the heater for the power unit had failed with mission control advising the crew to switch on a backup heater, which was believed to have solved the problem. Young and Crippen went back to sleep after solving the problem.

Not long after waking up, mission control informed the crew that the backup power unit heater had also failed but was believed to be operational during return to Earth. Ahead of performing re-entry, Young and Crippen got into their pressure suits and closed the payload bay doors. Columbia was then oriented for the de-orbit burn where its engines then burned for two-minutes and forty seconds, beginning return to Earth.

After passing over the island of Guam, Columbia encountered the upper atmosphere beginning sixteen minutes of communications blackout. Communications with Columbia were re-established after is passed over the coast of California while traveling at ten times the speed of sound. Not long after communications were re-established, Crippen said the following upon seeing California:

“What a way to come to California!”

Columbia remained supersonic until it passed over Edwards Airforce Base at 51,000 feet. The orbiter was lined up with Runway 23 at Edwards Airforce Base by Young after the orbiter performed a 210-degree turn. The landing gear was lowered at 400 feet during final approach with Columbia touching down on the runway at 211 miles per hour. The orbiter came to a stop on the runway after it rolled almost 9000 feet down the runway. After landing Young commented:

“This is the world’s greatest flying machine, I’ll tell you that. It worked super.”

Columbia's first mission lasted two days, six hours, twenty minutes, and fifty-three seconds having orbited Earth thirty-six times.

Columbia touching down on Runway 23 at Edwards Airforce Base ending the STS-1 mission. ©NASA
Columbia touching down on Runway 23 at Edwards Airforce Base ending the STS-1 mission. ©NASA

What was the Space Shuttle?

The Space Shuttle was NASA's most flown crewed spacecraft having launched into orbit one-hundred and thirty-four times over its thirty-year history. NASA's shuttle was comprised of three major pieces; the Orbiter, an external tank, and two solid rocket boosters.

The orbiters were built by Boeing and Rockwell International, the external tanks were built by Lockheed Martin, and the solid rocket booster were built by Thoikol.

A 1975 diagram of the Space Shuttle. ©NASA
A 1975 diagram of the Space Shuttle. ©NASA

On the launch pad, the Space Shuttle stood 56.1 meters tall and weighed 2,030,000 kilograms fully fuelled. All one-hundred and thirty-five shuttle missions launched from Cape Canaveral, in Florida.

Powering the Space Shuttle into orbit were three Space Shuttle Main Engines, sometimes referred to as RS-25s, and two large four-segment solid rocket boosters. The three engines and two boosters would generate 3186 tons of thrust at liftoff to carry the vehicle skyward.

NASA also designed the Space Shuttle to be partially reusable, of which it was the first spacecraft to be. The orbiter would be recovered by landing on a runway after re-entry and the two boosters would be recovered after landing at sea under parachute.