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Space Shuttle Launches New Era in Exploration | The Greatest Moments in Flight

This head-on photograph of NASA's space shuttle Columbia was taken during post-landing servicing on Rogers dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California. The STS-1 mission ended earlier today, two and one third days later and thousands of
This head-on photograph of NASA's space shuttle Columbia was taken during post-landing servicing on Rogers dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California. The STS-1 mission ended earlier today, two and one third days later and thousands of miles removed from Sunday's Florida launch setting. Astronauts John W. Young, commander, and Robert L. Crippen, pilot, were Columbia's first crew.
Credit: NASA

This is part of a SPACE.com series of articles on the Greatest Moments in Flight, the breakthrough events that paved the way for human spaceflight and its next steps: asteroid mining and bases on the moon and Mars.

The first launch of the space shuttle Columbia touched off an era of flight that allowed mankind to travel into space for a fraction of the cost, reusing the same ship to repeatedly leave Earth's orbit. Between the first historic flight in 1981 to the final touchdown in 2011, the Columbia and its four sister ships carried more than 850 total astronauts on 135 trips into space, an average of four trips a year.

Flying high

On April 12, 1981, at 7 a.m. Eastern time, Columbia lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, twenty years to the day after Yuri Gargarin became the first man in space. The ship carried two crew members, seasoned commander John Young, who had already flown four missions on three types of spacecraft, and rookie Pilot Robert Crippen.

Columbia accelerated into space propelled by two boosters that fell into the Atlantic Ocean, where they were later recovered and reused for other flights. The external tank fell from the Columbia after about nine minutes and burned up over the Pacific Ocean. Columbia was the first manned American craft to fly without a prior unmanned test flight, and the first manned mission to use solid fuel rockets.

Young and Crippen spent two days orbiting Earth. The goal of the mission, Space Transportation System (STS)-1, was to put the new ship through its paces, verifying its performance in space and monitoring any potential problems. Other shuttle missions carried satellites, laboratories, and helped to build the International Space Station, but for Columbia's first mission, it carried only the necessary instrumentation to monitor its own performance. Post-flight inspection revealed that some of the heat shield tiles were lost or damaged during the launch, but the shuttle suffered no permanent damage, and modifications solved the problem.

Unlike previous spaceflights, whose fall was slowed by parachute over water, the space shuttle was designed to glide back to Earth on its wings. On the morning of April 14, 1981, Columbia coasted onto a dry lake at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California while more than 200,000 people watched.

The space shuttle program

Columbia made three more test flights to verify its space-worthiness. It flew into space for more than 20 years, orbiting Earth almost 5,000 times and spending more than 300 days outside of Earth's gravity. It carried 160 total fliers, and holds the record for the shortest and longest missions (2 days, 6 hours, 13 minutes and 12 seconds; and 17 days, 15 hours, 53 minutes, and 18 seconds). On Feb. 1, 2003, while on its 28th mission, Columbia broke apart during re-entry, resulting in the death of its crew of seven astronauts.

Officially known as Orbiter Vehicle-102, Columbia was named after a Massachusetts-based sloop that explored the dangerous inland waters around what is now Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. Construction began in 1975 and was completed in 1979. At 122 feet (37 meters), Columbia, like its sisters, stretched a bit farther than three school buses. It reached 78 feet (24 m) from wingtip to wingtip, and stood 57 feet (17 m) high. A robotic arm allowed its crew to manipulate objects outside of the ship.

Although Columbia was the first space shuttle to blast off, it was not the first shuttle. Enterprise was built in 1976, but lacked engines or functional heat shields. Named for the iconic television show "Star Trek," the Enterprise was dropped from a modified 747 over the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force base to prove that it could safely glide back to Earth. It never traveled into space.

Challenger made its first flight on April 4, 1983. That June, it carried Sally Ride, the first American woman to go into orbit. Astronauts aboard the Challenger took the first jetpack-based spacewalks and were the first to pull a satellite out of orbit, fix it, and return it to space. On its tenth flight, a seal on one of the shuttle's boosters failed during launch, and the shuttle exploded, killing its crew of seven.

The third shuttle in existence was Discovery, which first launched in August 1984. Discovery holds the records for the most flights — 39 — and carried 325 fliers. It deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, and carried the youngest person (Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, age 28) and the oldest person (John Glenn, 77) into space. It was the first shuttle to be retired.

The space shuttle Atlantis made its first flight on Oct. 3, 1985. Over the course of its 33 missions, it sent probes to Jupiter and Venus, carried a laboratory to the International Space Station, and made the final shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. It carried 207 fliers into space and orbited Earth 4,848 times.

Endeavour was the last space shuttle built. It rolled off the line in 1991 to replace Challenger, and made its first flight in May 1992, when spacewalking astronauts made history by using their gloved hands to pull a satellite into its bay. It managed the first repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. After 25 flights carrying 173 total fliers, the Endeavor was retired in June 2011. [Infographic: Where to See America's Greatest Spaceships]

—Nola Taylor Redd

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