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Space Shuttle Columbia was the first space shuttle designed and built by NASA.


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Space Shuttle Columbia was the first spaceworthy Space Shuttle in NASA's orbital fleet. Space Shuttle Columbia's first mission, STS-1, lasted from April 12 to April 14, 1981. On February 1, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry over Texas, on its 28th mission. All seven crew members aboard Space Shuttle Columbia perished.

History of Space Shuttle Columbia.

Space Shuttle Columbia.
Space Shuttle Columbia.
Space Shuttle Columbia launches on its final mission, STS-107.
OV Designation OV-102
Country United States
Contract award 26 July, 1972
Named after Robert Gray’s Columbia Rediviva
First flight STS-1
April 12, 1981 - April 14, 1981
Last flight STS-107
January 16, 2003 - February 1, 2003
Number of missions 28
Crews 160
Time spent in space  300.74 days
Number of orbits 4,808
Distance travelled 125,204,911 miles (201,497,772 km)
Satellites deployed 8
Mir dockings 0
ISS dockings 0
Status Lost February 1, 2003

Construction began on Columbia in 1975 primarily in Palmdale, California. Columbia was named after the Boston-based sloop Columbia captained by American Robert Gray, who explored the Pacific Northwest and became the first American vessel to circumnavigate the world; the name also honored Columbia, the command module of Apollo 11. After construction, the orbiter arrived at John F. Kennedy Space Center on March 25, 1979, to prepare for its first launch. On March 19, 1981, during preparations for a ground test, five workers were asphyxiated during a Nitrogen purge, resulting in two deaths.

The first flight of Columbia (STS-1) was commanded by John Young (a space veteran from the Gemini and Apollo eras) and piloted by Robert Crippen, who had never been in space before, but who served as a support crew member for the Skylab missions and Apollo-Soyuz. It launched on April 12, 1981, and returned on April 14, 1981, after orbiting the earth 36 times. Columbia then undertook three further research missions to test its technical characteristics and performance. Its first operational mission, with a four-man crew, was STS-5, which launched on November 11, 1982. At this point Columbia was joined by Challenger, which performed the next three shuttle missions.

In 1983, Columbia undertook its second operational mission (STS-9), this time with six astronauts, including the first non-American astronaut on a space shuttle, Ulf Merbold. Columbia was not used for the next three years, during which time the shuttle fleet was expanded to include Discovery and Atlantis.

Columbia returned to space on January 12, 1986, with the launch of STS-61-C. The mission's crew included Dr. Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, as well as the first sitting member of the House of Representatives to venture into space, Bill Nelson.

The next shuttle mission was undertaken by Challenger. It was launched on January 28, 1986, ten days after STS-61-C had landed. The mission ended in disaster shortly after launch. In the aftermath NASA's shuttle timetable was disrupted, and Columbia was not used again until 1988 (on STS-28), after which it resumed normal service as part of the shuttle fleet.

STS-93, launched on July 23, 1999, was commanded by Lt. Col. Eileen Collins.

Space Shuttle Columbia: Prototype orbiter.

Columbia was roughly 8,000 lb. heavier than subsequent orbiters such as Endeavour, which were of a slightly different design, and had benefitted from advancements in materials technology. In part this was due to heavier wing and fuselage spars, the weight of early test instrumentation that remained fitted to the avionics suite, and an internal airlock that was not fitted to the other shuttles. Despite refinements to the launcher's thermal protection system and other enhancements, Columbia would never weigh as little unloaded as the orbiters in the fleet. The next-oldest shuttle, Challenger, was also relatively heavy, although 2,200 lb. lighter than Columbia.

Externally, Columbia was the only orbiter in the fleet that had an all-tile thermal protection system (TPS), although this was later modified to incorporate nomex felt insulation blankets on the fuselage and upper wing surfaces. The work was performed during Columbia's first retrofitting and the post-Challenger stand-down. Also unique to Columbia were the black "chines" on the upper surfaces of the shuttle's forward wing. These black areas were added because the first shuttle's designers did not know how reentry heating would affect the craft's upper wing surfaces.

Until its last refit, Columbia was the only operational orbiter with wing markings consisting of an American flag on the left wing and the letters "USA" on the right. Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour all until 1998 bore markings consisting of the letters "USA" afore an American flag on the left wing, and the pre-1998 NASA "worm" logo afore the respective orbiter's name on the right wing. From its last refit to its destruction, Columbia bore markings identical to those of its sister orbiters - the NASA "meatball" logo on the left wing and the American flag afore the "Columbia" designation on the right; Columbia's distinctive wing "chines" remained.

Another unique external feature, termed the "SILTS" pod, was located on the top of Columbia's tailfin, and was installed after STS-9 to acquire infrared and other thermal data. Though the pod's equipment was removed after initial tests, NASA decided to leave it in place, mainly to save costs, along with the agency's plans to use it for future experiments. The tailfin was later modified to incorporate the drag chute first used on Endeavour in 1992.

Columbia on launch pad.
Columbia on the launch pad before its first mission.
Columbia.
Columbia launching during STS-1. The original white-painted external tank, as well as Columbia's distinctive black chines, are clearly visible.

Internally, Columbia was originally fitted with Lockheed-Martin-built ejection seats identical to those found on the SR-71 Blackbird. These seats were active on the initial series of orbital test flights, but were deactivated after STS-4 and were removed entirely after STS-9. Columbia was also the only orbiter not delivered with heads-up displays for the pilot and copilot, although these were incorporated after STS-9. Like its sister ships, Columbia was eventually retrofitted (at its last refit) with the new MEDS "glass cockpit" display and lightweight seats. Unlike the other orbiters, Columbia retained an internal airlock, but was not fitted to accept the external airlock and docking adapter needed for flights to the International Space Station. This retention of an internal airlock allowed NASA to use Columbia for the STS-109 Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, along with the Spacehab double module used on STS-107. If Columbia had not been destroyed, it would have been fitted with the external airlock/docking adapter for mission STS-118, an International Space Station assembly mission, in November 2003.

After the STS-118 mission, Columbia’s career would have started to wind down. The shuttle was planned to service the Hubble Space Telescope two more times, once in 2004, and again in 2005, but no more missions were planned for it again until 2009 when, on STS-144, it would retrieve the Hubble Space Telescope from orbit and bring it back to Earth.

Space Shuttle Columbia Flights.

Space Shuttle Columbia flew 28 flights, spent 300.74-days in space, completed 4,808 orbits, and flew 125,204,911 miles in total, including its final mission. It is the only spaceworthy shuttle to have never visited either the Russian Space Station Mir or the International Space Station while those stations have been in operation.

DateDesignationNotes
1981 April 12 STS-1 First Shuttle mission
1981 November 12 STS-2 First re-use of manned space vehicle
1982 March 22 STS-3 Landed White Sands Missile Range First mission with an unpainted external tank.
1982 June 27 STS-4 Last shuttle R&D flight
1982 November 11 STS-5 First four-person crew, first deployment of commercial satellite.
1983 November 28 STS-9 First six-person crew, first Spacelab.
1986 January 12 STS-61-C Representative Bill Nelson (D-FL) on board/ final successful shuttle flight before Challenger disaster
1989 August 8 STS-28 Launched KH-11 Reconnaissance satellite
1990 January 9 STS-32 Retrieved Long Duration Exposure Facility
1990 December 2 STS-35 Carried multiple X-ray & UV telescopes
1991 5 June STS-40 5th Spacelab - Life Sciences-1
1992 June 25 STS-50 U.S. microgravity Laboratory 1 (USML-1)
1992 October 22 STS-52 Deployed Laser Geodynamic Satellite II
1993 April 26 STS-55 German Spacelab D-2 Microgravity Research
1993 October 18 STS-58 Spacelab Life Sciences
1994 March 4 STS-62 United States Microgravity Payload-2 (USMP-2)
1994 8 July STS-65 International Microgravity Laboratory (IML-2)
1995 October 20 STS-73 United States Microgravity Laboratory (USML-2)
1996 February 22 STS-75 Tethered Satellite System Reflight (TSS-1R)
1996 June 20 STS-78 Life and Microgravity Spacelab (LMS)
1996 November 19 STS-80 3rd flight of Wake Shield Facility (WSF)/ longest Shuttle flight as of 2006
1997 4 April STS-83 Microgravity Science Laboratory (MSL)- cut short
1997 July 1 STS-94 Microgravity Science Laboratory (MSL)- reflight
1997 November 19 STS-87 United States Microgravity Payload (USMP-4)
1998 April 13 STS-90 Neurolab - Spacelab
1999 July 23 STS-93 Deployed Chandra X-ray Observatory
2002 March 1 STS-109 Hubble Space Telescope service mission (HSM-3B)
2003 January 16 STS-107 A multi-disciplinary microgravity and Earth science research mission. Shuttle destroyed during re-entry on February 1, 2003 and all seven astronauts on board perished.

Final mission of Space Shuttle Columbia.

STS-107, Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, and Columbia Accident Investigation Board

On its final mission, Columbia carried a crew of seven astronauts. They were Rick Husband (commander), Willie McCool (pilot), Michael P. Anderson, Laurel B. Clark, and David M. Brown, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, and Kalpana Chawla.

Columbia Debris.
Columbia at 8:57 AM over central New Mexico. Debris is visible coming off the left wing.

On the morning of February 1, 2003, the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere after a 16-day scientific mission. NASA lost radio contact at about 0900 EST, only minutes before the expected 0916 landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Video recordings show the craft breaking up in flames over Texas, at an altitude of approximately 39 miles (63 km) and a speed of 12,500 mph (5.6 km/s).

In the months following the tragedy, NASA scientists determined that a hole was punctured in the leading edge on one of Columbia's wings, made of a carbon-carbon composite. The hole had formed when a piece of insulating foam from the external fuel tank peeled off during the launch 16 days earlier, puncturing the edge of the wing. Hot gases, inaccurately described in initial reports as plasma, penetrated the interior of the wing, destroying the support structure and causing the rest of the shuttle to break apart during the intense heat of re-entry.

Forensic analysis of the debris was conducted jointly with the Materials Science department of Lehigh University. The collected debris of the vessel is currently stored on the 16th floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center; recovered items are occasionally loaned for research into the hypersonic flight regime. Former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe vowed that Columbia will not be sealed away as the debris from the Challenger was. The debris from Challenger is permanently entombed in two Minuteman missile silos at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Trivia about Space Shuttle Columbia.

Columbia lands.
Columbia lands at the end of STS-1.
  • The shuttle's final crew were honored in 2003 when the USGS's Board of Geographic Names approved the name Columbia Point for a 13,980' mountain in Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Not more than a half-mile away lies Challenger Point, a peak named for America's other lost shuttle.
  • During STS-9, Owen Garriott made the first ham radio transmissions by an amateur radio operator in space from Columbia. This led to many further space flights incorporating amateur radio as an educational and back-up communications tool.
  • Columbia flight STS-75 was the first to take the Linux operating system into orbit.
  • The March 22, 1982 launch was dedicated by President Ronald Reagan to the mujahideen of Afghanistan in their struggle against the Soviet Union.
  • The song "Countdown" by Rush from the 1982 album Signals was written by drummer Neil Peart about the inaugural Space Shuttle flight of Columbia. The song was "dedicated with thanks to astronauts Young & Crippen and all the people of NASA for their inspiration and cooperation". The song "Red Sector A" from their 1984 album Grace Under Pressure was named for the area from which the band witnessed the launch of Columbia on April 12, 1981.
  • In an episode of Cowboy Bebop, the space shuttle Columbia was used to rescue a character from a disabled space vehicle in a decaying orbit around Earth. Its appearance is now anachronistic, given that the show takes place in the far future, but the episode was made before the Columbia's disintegration.
  • The Long Winters' song "The Commander Thinks Aloud" was written about the disaster.
  • Columbia is referenced in the 1983 TV movie Starflight: The Plane That Couldn't Land. Columbia was used to rescue passengers aboard the fictional Hypersonic Transport plane, that was stranded in orbit.
  • In the 1985 science fiction film Lifeforce, Columbia is sent on a rescue mission in space to investigate what happened to the crew of the fictional space shuttle Churchill. Finding no survivors, it brings back what was found; several humanoids preserved in sealed suspended-animation cases. These beings subsequently wreck havoc in a contemporary London.
  • In Stephen Baxter's 1997 novel Titan, the Space Shuttle Columbia is destroyed on re-entry, resulting in the early dismantling of the Space Shuttle program.
  • The crew of STS-73 appeared in an episode of Home Improvement, on the set of Tool Time.
  • In an episode of the animated Dilbert series, Dogbert is a passenger on the Columbia.
  • The season finale of the first season of The West Wing features a subplot in which the Columbia is disabled due to a problem with its cargo doors, endangering the life of the brother of one character, Toby Ziegler.
  • Shortly after the Columbia disaster, the television show Star Trek: Enterprise named the next NX class starship after the Columbia.
  • In the 2006 film The Omen, a picture of the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrating can be seen alongside itself taking off, the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the 2004 tsunami.
  • The Bill Nye the Science Guy episode "Space Exploration" shows Columbia as well as Atlantis taking off. Columbia, however, was shown to viewers on how astronauts get on the space shuttle. Columbia was also seen briefly in the episode "Momentum.".
  • The space-related video Power of Algebra, which teaches exponents, features Columbia taking off and landing.
  • A 2006 public service announcement for the United Negro College Fund, stating, "A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste", shows an image of Columbia lifting off.
  • A 40-meter full-size replica was built and located at Science and Adventure Park in Stanley Bridge, Prince Edward Island. The park is closed for the 2007 season. Its future is unknown.
  • In Pokémon Red and Blue, and Yellow, the shuttle can be seen in the Space Museum in Pewter City, however, after its demise, the shuttle was changed to sister ship Discovery.

Footnotes

  1. Britt, Robert Roy (30 June 2005). "PLASMA: What is it?". Columbia FAQ. Space.com. 2006-09-09. The use of the word "plasma" to describe the gases that entered the wing is not technically accurate, according to NASA and Boeing aero-thermal engineers who support the Space Shuttle program at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. They pointed out during the Columbia accident investigations that atmospheric entry heating and its intrusion into damaged left wing was from superheated air, not ionized gas and not plasma.



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