Space Shuttles First Flight Occurred
Nearly Twenty Years Ago
Roger D. Launius
Space Shuttles first flight in space took place nearly twenty
years ago. Its hard to believe that a whole generation has
come of age since the Shuttle first flew. There was tremendous excitement
when Columbia, the first orbiter that could be flown in space,
took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 12 April 1981, six years
after the last American astronaut returned from space following
the cooperative U.S./USSR Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. This first
Shuttle flight was piloted by veteran astronauts John W. Young and
Robert L. Crippen.
launch, the orbiters three liquid-fueled enginesdrawing
propellants from the external tankand the two Solid Rocket
Boosters generated approximately seven million pounds of thrust.
After about two minutes, at an altitude of thirty-one miles, the
two boosters were spent and separated from the external tank. Waiting
ships recovered them for eventual refurbishment and reuse on later
missions. The spacecrafts main engines continued to fire for
about eight minutes more before shutting down just as the Shuttle
entered orbit. As they did so, the external tank separated from
the orbiter and followed a ballistic trajectory back to the ocean
but was not recovered.
orbiter reached a velocity on orbit of approximately 17,322 statute
miles per hour, making a circle of the globe in less than two hours.
Once in orbit, Young and Crippen tested the spacecrafts onboard
systems, fired the Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) used for changing
orbits and the Reaction Control System (RCS) engines used for attitude
control, and opened and closed the payload bay doors (the bay was
empty for this first test mission).
thirty-six orbits during two days in space, excitement permeated
the nation as Columbia landed in a manner similar to that
of an aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The first
flight had been an enormous success, and with it, the United States
embarked on a new era of human spaceflight.
of the success of this first flight, in 1981 the NASA and industry
team that developed the Space Shuttle received the Robert J. Collier
Trophy, one of the oldest and most prestigious honors in aerospace
technology, given annually for great achievement in aeronautics
and astronautics in America.
Specifically, the award recognized that the Shuttle had proven
the concept of reusable spacecraft and gave special recognition
to astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen, and to Joe H. Engle
and Richard H. Truly (the astronauts who led the Shuttle approach
and landing tests).
that first flight of Columbia, there have been nearly one
hundred Shuttle missions into Earth orbit, where a variety of scientific
and practical activities have been accomplished.
April 5, 2001
Steven J. Dick, NASA Chief Historian
Steve Garber, NASA History Web Curator
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