Remembering Columbia: How The Space Shuttle Shaped The Future Of Space Travel


NASA's first space shuttle, Columbia, was launched into space 37 years ago. Although it had met a disastrous end, the Columbia helped shape the future of space travel.

On April 12, 1981, a bright white spacecraft lifted off the ground from the Kennedy Space Center. STS-1 Columbia was the first space shuttle to go into orbit, opening a new era in manned space exploration. Its launch marked the start of NASA's Space Shuttle program.

The maiden mission of the spacecraft had carried NASA astronaut John Young and pilot Bob Crippen and during their two-day mission, the astronauts successfully orbited the Earth for 36 times.

Columbia was the first in the line of NASA's reusable space shuttle program including Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor shuttles.

History And Legacy Of Columbia

Space shuttle Columbia was named after the command module for Apollo 11 lunar landing, and the first U.S. ship to circle the globe. Its construction took five years to finish. It was designed after the Space Shuttle program prototype spacecraft, the Enterprise.

The Columbia was originally set for a launch date in late 1979 but issues with the spacecraft's main engines and thermal protection system pushed back the launch for two and a half years. It recorded many of NASA's firsts in terms of space flight despite its limitations.

In November 1983, a space-based science laboratory was built on the orbiter's cargo bay and became operational until 1998. Important scientific research and experiments on how humans, animals, and cells react to microgravity, and how they acclimatize to Earth's gravity upon return to the ground.

From November to December 1996, the STS-80 Columbia recorded the longest shuttle mission that logged 423 hours and 53 minutes.

In 1999, the mission led by Eileen Collins, Columbia's first female shuttle commander, positioned the Chandra X-Ray Observatory in orbit.

In March 2002, the mission STS-109 marked Columbia's third decade of service, making it the oldest spacecraft in NASA's fleet.

Different Columbia missions also carried into space the first astronauts from the European Space Agency and the Japanese Space Agency.

Demise Of Columbia

Throughout Columbia's 30-year service, it carried out 28 missions, logging more than 300 days in space and a total of 4,808 orbits around Earth. It flew a total of 125,204,911 miles.

The STS-107, Columbia's 28th mission, lifted off on Jan. 16, 2003 for a 17-day science mission in microgravity. Upon reentry on Feb. 1, 2003, the orbiter had suffered a catastrophic failure and exploded in the air at 17,500 miles per hour.

A subsequent investigation into the demise of Columbia revealed that falling foam, which had shed during launch struck the panels on the underside of the spacecraft's left wing. The shuttle's sensors were severely damaged, allowing atmospheric gas to seep into the cabin. Columbia lost control and disintegrated as it reentered Earth's atmosphere.

All seven crewmembers of the mission who died were Rick Husband, commander; Michael Anderson, payload commander; David Brown, mission specialist; Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Laurel Clark, mission specialist; William McCool, pilot; and Col. Ilan Ramon, a payload specialist from the Israeli Space Agency.

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