30 years ago Space Shuttle Columbia took off in its first flight

Space Shuttle Columbia launching for the first time (photo NASA)
Space Shuttle Columbia launching for the first time (photo NASA)

On April 12, 1981, Columbia took off for the first space mission of a Space Shuttle.

Columbia was the second Space Shuttle built after the prototype Enterprise, which however never flew. Because of some of its design features Columbia was never used for missions that included docking at the space station Mir or the International Space Station, unlike the other Space Shuttles.

The launch was originally scheduled for two days earlier but the procedure was interrupted because of some problems in the Columbia computers. It was the first true test of a Space Shuttle flight and inevitably there were problems. Thus the first mission of Columbia started on the twentieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight.

At the time I was a child and thank to the fact that Italy’s time zone is six hours ahead of USA East Coast I could come home from school and get in front of TV to watch Space Shuttle Columbia’s take off live so I remember the many hours spent waiting and the abortive attempts in its early missions.

Columbia took off for its second mission on November 12, 1981 becoming the first spacecraft reused for another trip. Today it’s normal but that was the time when rockets could be used only once and the Space Shuttle was a huge step forward in the space race because it could land in one piece and also the external tanks used in the take-off were recovered.

For over 20 years Space Shuttle Columbia was used in a total of 28 missions that carried out various scientific experiments, deployed satellites and the Chandra Space Telescope and performed a service mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Unfortunately on January 16, 2003 during the takeoff a wing was damaged by a piece of insulating foam that broke away from the external tank. At the moment no one noticed it but during the re-entry high-temperature gas entered the wing structure causing the destruction of Columbia.

The Enterprise was so named thanks to Star Trek fans requests. In “Star Trek: Enterprise” episode “E^2” it was revealed that the second spaceship capable of traveling at Warp 5 was named in honor of Space Shuttle Columbia. The Columbia Hills on Mars, observed by the Mars Rover Spirit, were named after Columbia as well and each of the seven hills was named after the members of the crew dead in the accident.

Columbia was a wonderful machine but in the end only a machine so I think it’s right to close remembering the names of the crew members who lost their lives in that last mission:

  • Commander: Rick Husband
  • Pilot: William McCool
  • Mission Specialist 1: David Brown
  • Mission Specialist 2: Kalpana Chawla
  • Payload Commander: Michael Anderson
  • Mission Specialist 4: Laurel Clark
  • Payload Specialist 1: Ilan Ramon

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