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Pre-Shuttle Development
The concept of a reusable, winged space vehicle can be traced back as far as the 1920s. Rocket pioneers Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovskiy, Robert Goddard, and Hermann Oberth all wrote about reusable space vehicles during that decade, and in a series of famous articles for Colliers Weekly, American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun envisioned winged spacecraft that would travel to Mars and beyond.
Early concepts and designs led into actual rocket-powered aircraft that edged closer and closer to space. These included the Bell X-1, which became the first aircraft to fly faster than the speed of sound, and the North American X-15, which actually reached space several times and was the fastest and highest flying piloted vehicle until the Space Shuttle went into service.
In the 1960s, NASA's efforts to plan for the future yielded a number of studies on reusable spacecraft that could be launched from a rocket and then return to Earth via a pilot-controlled landing. After President Richard Nixon founded a Space Task Group in 1969, numerous designs for reusable, winged space vehicles were considered during a phased process. On January 2, 1972, Nixon officially approved the Space Shuttle program, which was publicly announced three days later.
Preparing for the First Mission
By the spring of 1977, the Shuttle program was well under way. Rockwell International, the company awarded the contract to design and develop the Space Shuttle, had already built a full-scale aerodynamically capable orbiter that was not rated to fly in space. After being piggybacked on a modified Boeing 747, Enterprise was released in flight and glided down to a series of flawless landings.
Based on the successful tests of Enterprise, program managers set to launch the first orbital mission in by the end of 1979. However, difficulties in keeping the heat-shield tiles firmly affixed to Columbia—the first spaceworthy orbiter that was not yet fully built—would push the launch date back. These tiles, which were designed to protect Columbia from the intense heat of reentry on multiple trips into space, were prone to cracking and fell off the Shuttle easily, and engineers raced to fix the problem.
Following a problematic test firing of the three Space Shuttle Main Engines, NASA pushed the launch back to 1980. Progress was being made, however, with more successful equipment tests and Columbia's heat shield nearing completion by the fall of 1980. On November 24, 1980, NASA moved the Shuttle out of the Orbiter Processing Facility and into the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building, where it was mated with an external tank and two solid rocket boosters.
In December, Commander John Young and Pilot Robert Crippen, the two astronauts slated to take Columbia on her maiden voyage, took the orbiter's controls for a series of flight computer tests on the ground. Young was a veteran astronaut whose first of six spaceflights was during the Gemini program. On Apollo 16, Young was the commander and spent nearly three days on the Moon. Crippen was a rookie astronaut whose flight aboard STS-1 would be his first of four Shuttle missions.
After more than a year of delays, Columbia, stacked next to its external tank and solid rocket boosters, was rolled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building on December 29, 1980, and sent to Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center. Though the fully assembled Space Shuttle sat on the pad, ready for launch, it would not happen for another four months. After the external tank was filled with hydrogen fuel and oxidizer, NASA discovered that 32 panels of insulation on the tank had peeled off. The insulation was designed to keep ice from forming on the outside of the massive fuel storage unit, because the frozen moisture could break off and damage heat-shield tiles during launch. Though Columbia's engines were successfully test fired on February 16, 1981, NASA delayed the mission until the week of April 5. That target date would also be scrubbed.
Liftoff of Columbia
After final tweaks of the orbiter during the first week of April, Columbia was ready for her maiden voyage. On April 10, 1981, Young and Crippen prepared to take the Space Transportation System (STS) into the sky for a first time, in front of a crowd of thousands of spectators who came to witness the historic launch. As the countdown clock ticked away, launch and mission controllers monitored a computer glitch involving the synchronization between Columbia's main and backup computers. Engineers discovered the problem was due to a pair of out-of-sync gears that would require at least a day to retime. The launch was pushed back to April 12, 1981.
Just as they had done two days earlier, Young and Crippen awoke before dawn to a steak-and-eggs breakfast, reported to pad 39A, and climbed into their seats on Columbia's flight deck. This time, the countdown went without a hitch, and at 3 seconds past 7 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, America's first Space Shuttle rose swiftly away from the Florida coast. Despite flying slightly higher than its planned trajectory, the vehicle performed up to expectations, with a flawless separation of the Shuttle's solid rocket boosters and external tank. After about 10 minutes of ascent, Columbia became the heaviest spacecraft and first winged craft to reach orbit.
In Orbit
Columbia's 36-orbit flight would test the vehicle's performance as a reusable spacecraft thanks to the help of two equipment packages within the Shuttle's payload bay. The Developmental Flight Instrumentation and the Aerodynamic Coefficient Identifications Package pallet recorded temperatures, pressures, acceleration levels, and other forces on the craft throughout the flight. Another key test involved the successful operation of the massive payload bay doors, which are essential to the Shuttle's cargo capability. The astronauts successfully opened and closed both doors before Columbia achieved its final orbital altitude, and they reopened the payload bay for the rest of the flight.
Though the payload bay doors were opened without incident, their successful operation provided a clear view of the craft's Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods, which showed signs of heat-shield tile damage. Mission Control counted 15 tiles missing from the OMS pods, which contained the vehicles in-orbit thrusters. Houston determined that the missing tiles would not present any problem, but mission controllers did not know if there was extensive tile damage on the orbiter's underside, an area more sensitive to reentry heating.
As the rest of the flight passed, Columbia's thrusters operated without problem and helped put the vehicle in a stable, nose-down orbit. While traveling at 5 miles per second, the astronauts enjoyed spectacular views of Earth, the weightless experience of microgravity, and a phone call from Vice President George H.W. Bush.
Reentry and Landing
Prior to Columbia's planned reentry, Young and Crippen awoke to an alarm sounding that one of the auxiliary power units (APUs) was getting colder. These APUs provide power to flight control systems during liftoff and landing but are turned off during the flight and kept warm so they can be restarted. Columbia had two backup power units, and mission controllers deemed that the unit was not yet cold enough to pose a significant problem.
On its 34th orbit, the first Space Shuttle mission prepared for its deorbit burn and reentry into Earth's atmosphere. John Young successfully activated the APUs, and Columbia's thrusters fired over the Indian Ocean, slowing the craft down and causing it to lose altitude. Houston was cut off from the orbiter as the intense heat of reentry ionized gas around the vehicle and blocked radio signals for about 15 minutes. Finally, Columbia was picked up on radar, and Young reported that all systems were functioning perfectly. Just after 10:20 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, Young brought America's first Shuttle down to a picture-perfect landing on the dry lake bed runway at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert.
The First Reuse of the Space Transportation System
The story of the first Shuttle mission would not be complete without a mention of another "first" that followed the flight: the first reuse of a piloted space vehicle. In reality, the end of STS-1 was just the beginning of more than 100 successful Space Shuttle missions to come. Following its successful landing, Columbia was placed on the back of its Boeing 747 piggyback carrier and returned to the Kennedy Space Center. Columbia arrived for refurbishment on April 28, 1981, and entered the Orbiter Processing Facility, where technicians painstakingly repaired the heat shield, updated the Shuttle's computers, and prepared her for a second orbital mission.
While the Shuttle performed well overall, NASA needed to resolve certain issues before the second flight. It was revealed that ice falling from the external tank chipped and scored more than 300 heat-shield tiles, prompting a more careful application of new tiles. Overshadowing minor problems with the APU and the loss of data from a flight recorder was a pressure wave caused by solid rocket booster exhaust that displaced the orbiter's wing and bent a strut near the booster. Engineers resolved the problem by installing a high-power water spray at the Shuttle's launch pad to dampen the shock wave.
After engineers refurbished the Shuttle and took into account the lessons learned from STS-1, they loaded a new payload into the orbiter along with the remote manipulator system, the 50-foot-long arm designed to grab and move items being handled by Shuttle crews. By mid-October, Columbia had been reprocessed, and the first reusable Space Transportation System was under way. On November 12, 1981, Commander Joe Engle and Pilot Richard Truly took Columbia for a second flight to continue the groundwork done by STS-1.
By Gabriel Okolski
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