Later this year, NASA will retire its fleet of shuttles. The first of the space planes to enter orbit, the Columbia, did so 29 years ago Monday.
Columbia in flight
Editors' note: This slideshow initially ran on April 11, 2010. We are rerunning it today, a year later, to mark the 30th anniversary of Columbia's debut flight.
After the first few, anniversaries typically get the most attention in increments of 5 or 10--the 10th, the 20th, the 25th, and so on. But this month, it's a 29th anniversary that stands out, and for bittersweet reasons. It was in April 1981 that NASA carried out the first-ever orbital flight of the space shuttle. And as things stand now, NASA's small fleet of shuttles will be retired after a final mission in September of this year.
This image shows that first orbiter, the Columbia, on its return flight to Earth with its two-man crew on April 14, 1981, headed toward the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The shuttle's dimensions: 122 feet long and 57 feet high, with a wingspan of 78 feet.
In their official portrait, astronauts John Young, the shuttle commander (left), and Robert Crippen, the pilot, are all smiles. And with good reason: Their mission, STS-1, was a historic moment in the U.S. space program. Their spacecraft was unlike anything NASA had sent into orbit in the earlier era of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. The space shuttle was the world's first reusable spacecraft, and it wasn't just shaped like an airplane--it could land like one, too.
The togs that Young and Crippen are wearing here are their ejection escape suits.
The astronauts wear escape suits, of course, because things can go wrong, very quickly and very badly, with the launch of a rocket--or in the case of the space shuttle, three main engines and two solid rocket boosters; each of those boosters was loaded with more than 1 million pounds of propellant. In this photo, taken less than three weeks before Columbia's lift-off, Young (left) and Crippen (third from right) look over the basket of an emergency egress system that, if needed, would carry them down a slide wire from the top of a launch tower. At far right are backup astronauts Richard Truly and Joe Engle.
About a month before it would head into space, the Columbia stands to on Launch Pad A, Complex 39, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The shuttle is mounted on its enormous external fuel tank, with a solid rocket booster to either side. To the left in this striking timed exposure are the fixed and the rotating service structures.
The Columbia lifts off at 7 a.m. local time on April 12, 1981. The ignition of the solid rocket boosters--which together generate on the order of 5.3 million pounds of thrust--created an overpressure wave that caused the loss of 16 heat shield tiles and damage to 148 others, according to NASA's postflight inspection.
The solid rocket boosters fire for the first two minutes of flight, along with the shuttle's main engines, in order for the spacecraft to break free of Earth's gravity. Then, no longer needed, the boosters drop away, as Columbia passes an altitude of about 28 miles.
As it heads into orbit, about eight minutes after liftoff, the shuttle also sheds its external fuel tank, which had supplied fuel to the three main engines. The external tank drops off at an altitude of 70 miles as the orbiter approaches orbital velocity.
The shuttle introduced a new capability to the space program--the payload bay, opening wide to the vacuum of space. The bay measures 60 feet long (about half the overall length of the shuttle) and has a diameter of 15 feet.
The Columbia's main payload on this inaugural flight was a Development Flight Instrumentation package, located in the boxlike structures at bottom left. The contents included sensors and other devices used to record the details of the spacecraft's performance. NASA says that the glare at top left, by the tail, is a window reflection; that window would be one of the rear-facing ones on the flight deck.
The pilot and commander of the shuttle get the prime seats in the forward section of the flight deck. Here, astronaut Young, commander of the STS-1 mission, looks up from a loose-leaf notebook used to record flight activity.
The shuttle can be piloted from either seat, where there's an array of manual flight controls. Throughout the entire flight deck, NASA says, the shuttle has more than 2,000 displays and controls. The flight deck can seat four people.
Overall, the crew module at the forward part of the shuttle offers 2,325 cubic feet of living and working space. In addition to the flight deck and an airlock, there's the middeck, which offers four crew sleep stations and stowage for gear and provisions. Here, Young finishes up shaving, amid what looks like some foodstuffs floating in the weightless environment.
Pilot Robert Crippen sits down for a meal. According to the press kit (PDF) for the STS-1 mission, the first meal to be consumed in the Columbia on launch day would have been frankfurters (thermostabilized), turkey tetrazzini (rehydratable), bread (irradiated, "natural form"), bananas (freeze-dried), almond crunch bar (natural form), and apple drink (rehydratable).
"Columbia and other orbiters joining the fleet will be fitted with airliner-type galleys for meal preparation," the press kit says. "[O]n this first flight, however, a carry-on electrical food warmer will heat meals stowed in middeck lockers. [O]rbiters will not have freezers or refrigerators."
The Columbia, now at rest on Earth, awaits the arrival of service vehicles under a late-morning California sun. The duration of its flight: 2 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes, 53 seconds. In that time, it traveled 1.07 million miles, reaching an orbital altitude of 166 nautical miles.
It's not everyday you see a spacecraft riding piggyback on a jumbo jet, but that's been standard practice for the shuttles as they moved from one location on Earth to another. Here, the Columbia returns to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a Boeing 747 known as NASA 905.