In honor of the 40th anniversary of STS-1, the first launch of the Columbia Space Shuttle, authors from our Outward Odyssey: A People’s History of Spaceflight Series are coming together on April 10, 2021 for an online event, Columbia and the Legacy of the Space Shuttle Program. The event is being held from 12:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. PDT. The following are the authors’ responses when reflecting on the legendary launch.
I probably share a collective memory of STS-1 with other space enthusiasts of a certain age: delight that the long drought was over, coupled with concern that this looked like the riskiest mission for a long time… maybe the riskiest ever. Outwardly I was thinking “It’ll be OK. NASA will get it right!” Inwardly I had nagging concerns. “Will it really be OK?”
Space-watchers had been spoiled by the punctuality of Apollo launches: no mission had ever suffered a scrub on launch-day. That probably contributed to a degree of complacency when I arranged a visit to London with my girlfriend. The timings were perfect: I would watch the launch on April 10, follow Columbia’s return on April 12, then we would take the car-ferry to Scotland on April 14. What could possibly go wrong?
Scrub! I hadn’t seen that coming! The launch was pushed back two days and my plans started to disintegrate. Yes, I got to watch the launch live on April 12 and was enthralled by the spectacle. But two days later, instead of being glued to live TV of the re-entry and landing, I was listening to my crackly car radio on the road to the ferry-port. I told my passenger that no other power on the planet could have made me miss the landing on TV. We still broke up five months later.
THE MAIDEN ORBITAL FLIGHT—As our calendars flipped open up to reveal April 1981, my thus-far unshakeable belief in NASA’s competence and can-do spirit was being sorely tested. I had always been impressed by the space agency’s ability to overcome problems and return astronauts back home from a potentially lethal environment. Despite the ongoing saga of Apollo 13, I had the utmost faith—perhaps a little naively—in NASA, its engineers and astronauts to turn a potential tragedy into a story of incredible survival. It therefore came as no surprise to me when the exhausted crew splashed down and were safely recovered after their drama-filled return.
And then, on April 12, 1981—exactly twenty years after Yuri Gagarin became the world’s first spacefarer—an orbiter named Columbia sat on the launch pad, ready to take its maiden flight into the heavens, and I have to admit I was scared. As events unfolded that day I marveled at the sheer bravery of John Young and Bob Crippen in taking on such a calculated risk. As the main engines roared into life I would have held my breath and the SRBs then kicked in and Columbia began her painfully slow ascent into the skies over Florida. When the orbiter safely reached orbit my earlier faith in NASA had been truly validated, and I could now look forward to the fulfillment of all that the remarkable shuttle program could provide.
Forty years… where has all the time gone. It was an interesting weekend at KSC in early April as Space Shuttle Columbia, the first fully outfitted orbiter sat on launch pad 39A, awaiting its first launch into space. The crew consisted on John Young and Bob Crippen. John was a veteran of four space flights at the time, including two trips to the moon on Apollo 10 and 16. Crippen was a relative rookie with no spaceflight experience, but he was originally selected as an astronaut for the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program before it was canceled and became a sterling support astronaut during the Skylab program. Both men were also U.S. Navy veterans.
I was exactly ten years old at the time. I wasn’t born until after Apollo 13’s trip and have no conscious memory of seeing any active space mission coverage until shuttle Enterprise did the first glide a few years earlier. When the shuttle program started up, I devoured every book, magazine and image on the vehicle I could find. When the James Bond movie “Moonraker” made it to cable television, I almost drove my parents nuts from watching it so many times and painted my Cub Scouts Space Derby rocket in Moonraker’s orange and white color scheme. Columbia didn’t have orange stripes, but those black wing chines were pretty distinctive and it was quite a chore to paint them straight on my models back then.
Truth be told, I was asleep for STS-1’s launch. I remember the scrub from Friday and I was on a Cub Scout campout that Sunday. Funny enough my dad (serving as an assistant scout master), who had a portable B&W television watched the launch. But he didn’t wake me. When we got home that afternoon I was glued to news coverage and held my breath with the rest of the world when payload bay images revealed some tiles were missing from Columbia’s OMS pods. But, she made it home safely two days later.
After that, I saw Columbia in person when the ferry 747 stopped at Kelly Air Force Base for fuel. My first model rocket was an Estes Space Shuttle Columbia, which my folks got me for my eleventh birthday. I built it and flew it many times. I even formed a school rocketry club to get my classmates hooked. It seemed like a time when space was the destination and Columbia was in front leading the way until shuttle Challenger came along. But that is a story for another time.
The legacy of the space shuttle has been questioned by many, primarily because it only flew to low Earth orbit. But like many people who gained fame following their deaths, I believe the shuttle will one day be elevated to a much higher status. The program lasted 30 years after the first launch in 1981, and accomplished truly amazing feats; from scientific and medical research to satellite capture, repair, and redeployment to construction of the International Space Station—and over 170 spacewalks! I believe history will be kind to the space shuttle program and the astronauts that flew on those marvelous machines—and it all began with the launch of John Young and Bob Crippen on STS-1!
I was raised on the space program, watching John Glenn launch into orbit, Ed White walk in space, and Neil Armstrong plant his bootprints on the Moon. Twelve years after that seminal event, I was very excited to see the beginning of a new era of supposedly routine access to space with the first launch of the Space Shuttle program. Columbia and the flight of STS-1 in April 1981 was to be the start of bringing costs to orbit down, while dramatically increasing the flight rate. However, those promises never materialized because, right from the start, the program was severely underfunded. NASA said they needed about $10 billion in order to deliver a fully reusable system, so Congress allocated half that amount, while still expecting NASA to deliver everything it promised. Instead, we got a partially reusable system, that was also not only extremely complicated, but also had way too much fragility built into the design.
Just a few months after completing my military service in the U.S. Air Force, and after years of delays, the first launch of the Shuttle was finally drawing near. All of those unrealistic promises were irrelevant to the idea that for the first time in nearly six years, American astronauts would again be launching into space. Like with so many earlier missions, I got no sleep the night before launch. I remember how bizarre it was that a spacecraft didn’t have stages stacked on top of each other, but attached side-to-side.
At 7:00 a.m. on 12 April, twenty years to the day from when a human being first launched off the Earth and onto orbit, Columbia roared off the pad. Everything went perfectly, with the exception of losing some tiles off the Orbital Maneuvering System pods near the tail. Some were worried about how this might effect reentry, but two days later all went well as Columbia streaked across the Pacific, crossed the California coast, and circled high above Edwards AFB. As she descended through Mach 1 we heard what would become the distinctive double sonic boom for the first time. I was there on the lakebed, watching it all unfold, the same place where the X-15 rocket plane had landed nearly 200 times, not much more than a decade before. Columbia sailed majestically in front of us, dropped her landing gear, touched down, and left a long rooster tail of dust as she rolled to a halt. A couple of hours later, her crew, comprised of rookie Bob Crippen, and five-time spaceflight veteran John Young, came out to speak to us. Young put our feelings best that day as he said “We’re not too far, the human race isn’t, from going to the stars.”
Over the next thirty years as the Space Shuttle traveled into and out of low Earth orbit, we experienced the tragedy of losing two orbiters and 14 crew members, including Columbia herself. However, we also experienced the exhilaration of watching dozens of spacewalks, satellites being released to orbit, while others were captured or even returned to Earth, probes being launched to the planets, opening the universe to the eye of the Hubble Space Telescope, and the building of a permanently-crewed International Space Station in preparation for longer flights away from our planet to places like the Moon and Mars. John Young’s comments that day forty years ago may have seemed premature, but in the long run, I think he will be proven right.
Americans had walked on the moon a decade before, and I’d read about that. But the space shuttle was my era. Aged ten, I sat by the family television, recording the audio with my cassette recorder, waiting for this strangely-shaped assembly of white rocket parts to launch for the first time. I was happy, and constantly calling for my mother to come in and watch with me. If I’d had any idea how dangerous that first shuttle mission was, I’d have been a lot more scared.
Almost two decades later, I saw that same space shuttle—Columbia—with my own eyes as it sat on the launchpad ready for another mission.
For me, the flight of STS-1 was an encouraging event, mainly because of the strong public interest and support for space exploration shown around that flight. John Young and Bob Crippen’s launch in 1981 opened the third decade of human space exploration. The first decade featured the race to the Moon exemplified by a series of more ambitious flights in Earth orbit and then Apollo’s reach to the lunar surface with great public interest.
The second decade was quite different. Apollo’s increasingly ambitious expeditions to the lunar surface in 1971 and 1972 were met by public indifference, and then both the United States and the Soviet Union turned to space stations. After Apollo-Soyuz, the United States ceded the field of human spaceflight to the Soviet Union for nearly six years. The Soviets, for their part, flew space stations that challenged cosmonauts and controllers, but few people outside the Soviet Union paid attention.
With STS-1, we learned that absence had made the public fonder of spaceflight. The launch day crowds returned to the beaches around the Kennedy Space Center, and public and media interest in the flight of STS-1 rivalled the space program’s salad days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
While as a space enthusiast I looked very forward to this flight, I wondered if I would have much company. It turned out that many people were thrilled by the brand new shuttle, and this interest was maintained in the early years of the program as women and astronauts with non-traditional backgrounds joined shuttle crews.
Inevitably interest fell off over the three decades of the shuttle program, and questions were raised when two shuttles were lost and the shuttle fell short in many ways from the hopes that were held out for it. Despite these problems, shuttle flights advanced the technology of human space travel and scientific discovery with research aboard Spacelab and Spacelab modules and with spacecraft that shuttles deployed and occasionally recovered. Shuttles and their crews built the International Space Station and enabled the scientific exploits of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Four decades after STS-1 and nearly 10 years after STS-135 concluded the shuttle program in 2011, the space shuttle remains in many ways a popular and well known symbol of the U.S. space program.
The year is 1975. A Russian spacecraft and an American spacecraft dock in orbit. The next month, I am born, missing the first era of American spaceflight by two weeks.
The year is 1981. A new era of American spaceflight begins. This time, I’m old enough to appreciate it. My father puts me in front of the TV, and we watch STS-1 together. To be honest, my recollection of the event is mostly memory of memory—I remember that it happened more than I remember it happening. But I remember what came next—writing “fanfic” about John Young exploring space. Building models of the shuttle. Desperately trying to win a Space Camp scholarship. I was excited. I was inspired.
The year is 2002. I get a job as a contractor supporting NASA education, writing stories for students and teachers. Many of them are about the space shuttle. I love that I now get to pay forward that inspiration to a new generation of children.
The year is 2005. I am writing Homesteading Space. Owen Garriott and I interview Bo Bobko and Bob Crippen. In a long career as a writer, I have met national politicians and legendary musicians and men who walked on the moon, but I have never been as starstruck as I was talking to the pilot of STS-1. My exterior remains professional. My interior is an ebullient five year old.
The year is 2013. Bob Crippen writes the foreword for Bold They Rise. It remains incredible to me to this day that my name and the name of one of those men I watched fly the first shuttle so many years before are on the same book cover.
The year is 2021. I’m celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first shuttle launch. I’m eagerly awaiting another first launch; as NASA’s Space Launch System begins stacking for Artemis I; the images of its boosters rising in the VAB echoing very similar images from four decades before. A new era of American spaceflight is beginning. I will watch the launch with my son. His recollection of the event, years from now, will be only memory of memory—remembering that it happened more than remembering it happening. But he will remember what comes next.
Low-Cost Access to Space is Hard. I grew up inspired by the Shuttle launches and the wonderful NASA images of Earth from the Shuttle’s open payload bay doors. Later on, I was lucky enough to watch Shuttle launches (both day and night launches) as I brought Space Adventures’ travel tourists to the Cape. These images implanted in me the strong desire to personally experience the view myself one day or create that opportunity for others.
The Space Shuttle’s first flight on April 12, 1981 came only two decades after Gagarin’s first historic spaceflight. It was a flight of firsts. First to fly humans on solid rocket boosters, and the first new vehicle to flown crewed—without an unmanned test flight. The Space Shuttle was intended to be the first of a three-part “Space Transportation System”—a launch vehicle, a space station, and an orbit transfer vehicle for deep space. Unfortunately, budget constraints had only enough funding to realize one part of the STS.
The Shuttle was intended to signal the beginning of a new era of low-cost access to space. Originally promised at $4 million dollars a flight, it was intended to fly weekly, with reusable engines designed for 50 flights before refurbishment. But easy reusability was not meant to be. Shuttle’s development and operations were plagued with delays and cost overruns. It was an experimental vehicle that was declared operational after its fourth flight. Over its lifetime, each flight cost 400 times the original target price. The era of the Space Shuttle brought many advancements in science, flight operations, and enabled the International Space Station, but low-cost access was far from realized.
Now 40 years after STS-1, and 10 years after the Shuttle fleet had been fully retired, new transport systems are being developed commercially. These capabilities and price targets are reminiscent of the original goals for the Shuttle. Is this now the era when low-cost access will be realized—by the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin? Or will true spaceplane development from start-ups halfway around the world disrupt the current air and space travel industry? Will better and cheaper technology create the environment for a true and cheap space transportation system that can flourish? I can’t wait to see what the next ten years will bring.
When I think of STS-1, I picture two distinct things. The people and the technology of the time.
The people involved were larger than life. The year 1981 was still the days of big sideburns, bell bottom pants and hanglider sized collars. Columbia’s pilot Bob Crippen (who my mother had a huge crush on back then) sported the long sideburns. He was all smiles, all the time. A superb pilot and software expert, he knew the five rudimentary onboard computers front to back.
John Young was the NASA veteran, who when not shying away from cameras or reporters, could absolutely floor a roomful if grizzled space reporters with a single line of simplistic humor about the dangerous journey ahead. When asked about the near certainty of death if he and Crippen would have to eject from a crippled ship during ascent, Young replied wryly, “You just pull the little handle.” The morning of the launch, his Old West cowboy-like gait exuded the confidence he had in the engineering and the machinery of the mission ahead.
Coming years before the internet or even many of the space-dedicated magazines, the public didn’t have the almost daily real-time ability to follow space news like today. I first saw Columbia ready to fly on the cover of Time magazine (I still have it!). Enterprise looked sort of plain-vanilla for a spaceship. It had the look of the prototype that it was. But Columbia, bathed by xenon lights in a night shot of her vertically on the launch pad, sported those same long, thick sideburns of the astronauts—additional high temperature black tiles that had been added on the wing chines to protect them during the inferno of re-entry into the atmosphere. Together with extra black trim around the windows, Columbia was a menacing, yet elegant-looking space plane.
The first launch attempt was a school day for me, but the scrub placed the next attempt on April 12th, a Sunday, so I was able to watch it live. At first, I thought something had gone terribly wrong. The network’s camera angle hid Columbia behind the billowing white steam of the main engines until the white external tank had cleared the tower and pierced skyward. The blinding glare of the solids followed. I literally couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It actually flew!
The return of Columbia to Edwards Air Force Base was another new experience. It was the first time large numbers of the public could be there to witness a spacecraft return from space. And did they ever show up—by the thousands—cheering an airplane landing as if they were witnessing Lindbergh arrive at Paris. It was a really big deal.
Columbia flew flawlessly, at least as far as the press and public could see. John Young bounding down the stairs and pumping his fists in the air in victory was an image I’ll never forget. It was an amazing period of time, and along with the new age of winged spaceflight, there was a great sense of a can-do spirit and pride in the country. What seems today to be audaciously antiquated technology was cutting edge futuristic in 1981, and thanks to thousands of dedicated NASA and contractor employees, it all worked.
I was ten. Had completely missed Apollo. Had spent the last two years reading Shuttle books which all told me it was supposed to be flying already. Up early that Sunday, fiddling with rabbit ears on the basement TV. Finally! With the first launch imminent, my generation’s space program could begin at last. I parked in front of the screen with my space Legos and waited.
In no way could I have predicted how my emotions would undulate over the next four decades. They ranged from raw excitement over the initial launches, to sadness after Challenger, to anger over the reasons why, to optimism as Shuttles began going again. Stunned disbelief over Columbia’s loss. More anger at the bad calls by NASA management. Positivity after returning to flight a second time. All of which gave way to head-banging frustration after realizing the Shuttle program’s bloodsucking effect on American planetary exploration.
The final mission in 2011 had me on a mental see-saw:
“Should’ve been shut down a long time ago.”
“But maybe they worked out the kinks already?”
“What a money pit.”
“Did it have to end?”
“What are we going to do now?”
I went to my shelf and picked out one of those Shuttle books I’d bought as an eager ten year-old. Did extra chores to earn money for it. America’s Space Shuttle? My very first love. And for a brief instant it was 1981 again – a passionately hopeful time as the unflown machine awaited its new reign in space.