Today Marks 35 Years Since Columbia's First Flight


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 (embedded below) 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.

VIDEO: Aboard the Space Shuttle During Launch


If you've ever wondered what it was like to be inside a Space Shuttle at launch, here's your chance to see it, thanks to a hand-held video camera aboard STS-65 when Columbia launched into space at 12:43 p.m. ET on July 8, 1994:

This video is incredible. My palms get sweaty just watching it.

It was taken from one of the backseats on the flight deck during launch, so it's a really good representation of what it's actually like on board during a liftoff. The crew up front was Robert D. Cabana in the Commander's seat (a Marine on his third of four Shuttle flights) and James D. Halsell, Jr. (an Air Force guy on his first of five flights) in the Pilot's seat.

A few notable moments:

  • Things really start happening at 3:45 with ignition. You can hear Cabana saying something inaudible, followed by "Here we go!" I would be freaking out.
  • Launching a space shuttle is a violent act. Bear in mind that TV makes things look less shaky and violent then they actually are.
  • Aside from the comm loop, that's ambient noise during the launch. It sounds like that inside.
  • At 4:25, you can hear things speeding up and getting noisy as the shuttle goes supersonic leading up to Max-Q.
  • At 5:15, you hear the call for throttle-up, and as the atmosphere outside gets thinner, the atmosphere inside suddenly starts getting a lot less noisy and violent.
  • At 5:55, things get a lot smoother as the SRBs jettison with a flash and a "CLUNK."
  • 6:30 - "Columbia, performance nominal." "Awesome."
  • Not long after, the commander tells the crew they may open their visors if they want. I don't know about you, but I'd be keeping that thing shut and locked until we were all the way up.
  • At 7:15, they reach 50 miles altitude, meaning they're essentially in space. Two of the crew in front of the camera perform an awkward spacesuit high-five.
  • The rest of this is smooth and boring, ironically, until 12:20, when the shuttle throttles back to idle, and the astronauts are tossed lightly forward in their seats at main engine cut-off. "Welcome to space, guys!"
  • 13:45 - "I can't believe I'm here! This is unbelievable!"

Thirty-five years ago this week, John Young and Bob Crippen took Columbia to space for the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle program. Since then, the Shuttle was as routine as space travel has ever gotten (if the word "routine" could ever be used to describe space flight), and that is certainly reflected here by the calm and professionalism with which the crew handled these moments. Like I said above, I'd be losing my marbles in the back if I were there, but for these guys, it's a job - a set of pre-planned events that they monitor and make sure happen on time.

For another fun view of a different flight, check out Discovery DashCam:

America's Next Manned Space Flight

For all those naysayers bemoaning the end of the Shuttle program, it should be noted that on April 12, 2016, the 35th anniversary of Columbia's first flight, it will have been 1,721 days since the last American manned space flight.

To put that into context, it was 2,089 days between the landing of Apollo-Soyuz on July 24, 1975 and Columbia's maiden liftoff on April 12, 1981.

For the moment, NASA's next manned space flight is scheduled for 2021, to an asteroid aboard the new Orion capsule. An unmanned circumlunar flight is projected for 2018 aboard the SLS launch vehicle.

But SpaceX is planning a manned launch of its Crew Dragon spacecraft for March of 2017. SpaceX has already received its order from NASA for six crewed ISS resupply flights.

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner is expected to make an unmanned flight to the space station in April of 2017, with a crewed flight scheduled for three months later.

Of course, we all know the tragic fate of Columbia some nine years after the video above, but for that moment, she gave us all a glimpse inside at what it was like to go for a ride in the World's Most Remarkable Flying Machine.