First Space Shuttle Flight
By Roger D. Launius, NASA Chief Historian
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 April 12, 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
Launch of the first Space
Shuttle, April 12, 1981.
Image courtesy of NASA.
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
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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