Today Marks 35 Years Since Columbia’s First Flight

Columbia Launch STS-1 Space Shuttle The Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off from LC-39A on April 12, 1981, on its first flight. (NASA Photo)

At three seconds after 8 a.m. Eastern time on April 12th 1981, the brand-new Space Shuttle Columbia launched off Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on STS-1, the first flight of America’s newest space vehicle, with John Young and Bob Crippen aboard.

Today marks 35 years since that historic flight. Crippen and Young executed a perfect test flight, and returned to Earth at Edwards Air Force base two days, six hours, 20 minutes and 53 seconds later.

The playlist below is a 16-video full recap of the flight, assembled by Simon Plumpton‘s phenomenal YouTube account lunarmodule5 (You should see all of the other stuff there). Yes, it’s lengthy, but if you’re a super space nerd, it’s like good background music. It’s very much worth the watch for the launch and landing alone:

The video is a compilation of official film and computer animation, painstakingly synchronized with audio recordings edited for times when the shuttle was out of contact (this was before TDRS satellites were around).

My first exposure to Columbia’s first flight was much shorter, in the official documentary, “Space Shuttle: A Remarkable Flying Machine.” You can see that here if 16 videos is too much for you:

Interesting Facts About Columbia’s STS-1 Flight

  • Previous American manned spacecraft were flown unmanned before we put astronauts into them. Columbia’s first-ever flight was manned.
  • Initially, Columbia’s first flight was to be a launch-and-return simulation of an Abort-RTLS (Return To Landing Site), where the shuttle would ride its solid rocket boosters, then flip around and fly back to the Cape. But many engineers back then – as well as throughout the Shuttle’s history – thought that an RTLS Abort would be a suicide mission. John Young himself said they shouldn’t try it, saying, “RTLS requires continuous miracles interspersed with acts of God to be successful.” He overruled the RTLS mission profile, saying, “Let’s not practice Russian roulette, because you may have a loaded gun there.”
  • Those tiles that proved to be Columbia’s demise were troublesome on its first flight. Several tiles flaked off during launch, particularly on the engine pods.
  • The SRBs proved troubling, too, producing more vibration than was anticipated, and an overpressure wave from them caused damage to Columbia’s body flap – a movable control surface located below the main engines. According to the official STS-1 Anomaly Report, the flap was forced to an angle greater than its hydraulic lines were supposed to tolerate – although it somehow did. Had those lines been damaged, Columbia would have been virtually uncontrollable during descent.
  • The band Rush was inspired to write their song “Countdown” by the flight. Here it is:

As of this writing, John Young, who is the only man to fly on Gemini, Apollo (walking on the Moon) and the Shuttle, is 85 years old and living near the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston. He was the Chief of the Astronaut Office from 1974-87 (Deke Slayton’s old job) and retired from NASA in 2004. Young flew one more shuttle mission (STS-9) and was supposed to fly on the mission to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope 1986, but the flight was delayed after the Challenger accident, and Young never flew into space again.

Bob Crippen, who is now 78, flew three more shuttle missions before moving his way up through NASA’s executive ladder to be the director of Kennedy Space Center from 1992-1995. He then went into the private sector before retiring in 2001.

The sad part is we probably remember Columbia’s ill-fated last flight more than her first, but on this anniversary, we should pay deference to the Greatest Test Flight – and those who made it happen.