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The Space Shuttle’s First Flight Occurred
Nearly Twenty Years Ago

by Roger D. Launius
NASA History Office

The Space Shuttle’s first flight in space took place nearly twenty years ago. It’s 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.

At launch, the orbiter’s three liquid-fueled engines—drawing propellants from the external tank—and 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 spacecraft’s 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.

The 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 spacecraft’s 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).

After 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.

Because 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).

Since 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.

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Updated April 5, 2001
Steven J. Dick, NASA Chief Historian
Steve Garber, NASA History Web Curator
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