Space Shuttle Columbia

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Space Shuttle Columbia
Columbia launches on its final mission, STS-107
Orbiter Vehicle Designation: OV-102
Country: United States
Contract award: 26 July 1972
Named after: Robert Gray’s Columbia Rediviva
First flight: STS-1
12 April 1981 - 14 April 1981
Last flight: STS-107
16 January 2003 – 1 February 2003
Number of missions: 28
Crews: 160
Time spent in space: 300.74 days
Number of orbits: 4,808
Distance Travelled: 201,497,772 km
Satellites deployed: 8
Dockings with Mir: 0
Dockings with ISS: 0
Status: destroyed 1 February 2003

Space Shuttle Columbia ( NASA Orbiter Vehicle Designation: OV-102) was the first space shuttle in NASA's orbital fleet. Its first mission, STS-1, lasted from April 12 to April 14, 1981. On February 1, 2003, Columbia disintegrated during re-entry over Texas, on its 28th mission; all seven crew members aboard perished.


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 Centre 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. Columbia has always been referred to as the flagship of the shuttle fleet.

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, a rookie who had never been in space before, but who served as a support crew member for the Skylab missions and Apollo-Soyuz. It launched April 12, 1981, and returned April 14, 1981, after orbiting the earth 36 times.

In 1983, Columbia undertook its second operational mission ( STS-9) with 6 astronauts, including the first non-American astronaut on a space shuttle, Ulf Merbold. On January 12, 1986, Columbia took off with the first Hispanic American astronaut, Dr. Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, as well as the first sitting member of the House of Representatives in space, Bill Nelson. Another first was announced on March 5, 1998 when NASA named U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Eileen Collins as commander of a future Columbia mission — making Collins the first female commander of a space shuttle mission.

Prototype orbiter

Columbia, unlike her operational sister ships, was built with the technologies that were available at the time of her construction in Palmdale in the mid-1970s. One major difference between Columbia and later orbiters was the use of heavier-weight spars in the wings and fuselage. Thus, despite thermal protection and mechanical improvements over the course of her lifetime, Columbia would never weigh as little unloaded as the orbiters in the current fleet (Challenger, despite improvements during her conversion from the Structural Test Article (STA-099) into an operational orbiter (OV-099), was also heavy, although it was 2,200 lb. lighter than Columbia during her brief operational lifetime).

Externally, Columbia was the only orbiter in the fleet that originally had an all-tile thermal protection system (TPS). The all-tile TPS would later be modified to incorporate nomex felt insulation blankets on the fuselage and upper wing surfaces — work that was performed during Columbia's first retrofitting and the post-Challenger stand-down. Also unique to Columbia were the black "chines" on the shuttle's upper wing surfaces. These black areas were part of Columbia's wing design to distinguish it from Enterprise, and also 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. 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 and "Columbia" designation on the right; only the wing "chines" remained. Many NASA employees and nostalgic space buffs were upset that the historical markings were removed, but the procedure was insisted upon by NASA Administrator Dan Goldin.

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 future plans to use it for future experiments. The tailfin was later modified to incorporate the drag chute first used on Endeavour in 1992.

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 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. It was planned to service the HST two more times, one in 2004, and again in 2005, but no more missions were planned for it again until 2009, when on STS-144, it would recover the Hubble Space Telescope from orbit and bring it back down to Earth safely. It should be noted, however, that the shuttle manifest changes all the time (along with orbiters being rotated for retrofit and maintenance "down periods"), it would have almost 100% likely Columbia still would have flown during that 2005-2009 timeframe.


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.

Columbia launching during STS-1. The original white-painted external tank, as well as Columbia's distinctive black chines, are clearly visible
Columbia launching during STS-1. The original white-painted external tank, as well as Columbia's distinctive black chines, are clearly visible
Date Designation Notes
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 4 person crew, first deployment of commercial satellite
1983 November 28 STS-9 First 6 person crew. 1st 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 June 5 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 July 8 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 April 4 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), Kalpana Chawla becomes first Indian-born astronaut to fly on the space shuttle
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. Hundreds of the nematode worms onboard for research survived.

Final mission

On its final mission, the craft was carrying the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, and the first female astronaut of Indian birth, Kalpana Chawla. Other crew members on the final flight included Rick Husband (commander), Willie McCool (pilot), Michael P. Anderson, Laurel B. Clark, and David M. Brown.

Columbia at 8:57 AM At Central New Mexico, debris is comming out from the left wing.(shown at dark gray)
Columbia at 8:57 AM At Central New Mexico, debris is comming out from the left wing.(shown at dark gray)

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 Centre 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 Centre; 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.


Columbia lands at the end of STS-1.
Columbia lands at the end of STS-1.
  • The members of the 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.
  • 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 Afghani people 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 1983 album Grace Under Pressure was named for the area in which the band witnessed the launch of Columbia on April 12th, 1981.
  • In the video games Pokémon Red, Blue and Yellow for the Game Boy, Columbia can be found in the space museum in Pewter City, though following the disaster, the updated versions of the game have removed the Columbia and simply refer to it as "Space Shuttle".
  • 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 anachronistic, given that the show takes place in the far future, but the episode was made before the Columbia's disintegration.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • A video called "Power of Algebra", which taught exponents and was a space-related video, 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.

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