How NASA’s Space Shuttle program launched in 1981

Space Shuttle - NASA 1981

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.


Now retired after a thirty-year career, NASA’s space shuttle fleet has gone from making history to becoming a part of it. For three decades, the giant winged orbiters symbolized the United States’ supremacy over space.

On April 12, 1981 — 20 years to the day after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space — the space shuttle Columbia made her maiden flight with astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen aboard.

Lifting off at 7am EST, and returning a little over two days later, STS-1 was a history-making flight in many ways.

The flight of Columbia marked the first time a vehicle would be flown into space, returned — and refurbished and used again. All previous manned flights were single-use craft.

Additionally, every single prior first flight of a manned US space vehicle had been undertaken unmanned — with no one on board, just in case something unexpected cropped up in the real world.

Columbia‘s crew had no such luxury — while the shuttle had performed unpowered landing tests, STS-1 was a full-on test flight, complete with a crew.

As a result, NASA declared the mission “the boldest test flight in history,” and little do many realize just how close to being an unsuccessful test flight it was.

Upon launch, there was an unexpected overpressure wave from the solid rocket booster ignition that pushed the body flap under the shuttle’s main engines well past the point where damage to the hydraulic system would be expected, rendering a safe re-entry impossible.

Luckily, no damage occurred — and when the issue was discovered later, John Young stated had they known about it, he would have flown Columbia to a safe altitude and ejected — thus losing the shuttle on her maiden flight.

Of course, Columbia survived this mishap, and went on to make 26 more successful flights in the next 21 years, before her tragic loss during re-entry on February 1, 2003.

Along with her sisters Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, history would be made as they flew 133 successful missions (out of 135 attempts) over a 30-year-span, changing the face of human spaceflight forever. – AJW

Vintage NASA Space Shuttle poster

MORE: Meet Ham, the first chimp to rocket into space (1961)

Space Shuttle Columbia just before launching into space

Columbia 1981

NASA astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen

sts space shuttle mission 1981 2

Tang drink mix Space Shuttle promo tie-in

MORE: Tang, the retro orange drink mix that astronauts & Florence Henderson liked

Vintage Tang space shuttle ad from 1983

Columbia returns to earth

sts space shuttle mission 1981 1

TS-1 Space Shuttle Columbia Glides Down Over Rogers Dry Lake

STS-1 Space Shuttle Columbia Glides Down Over Rogers Dry Lake 1981

STS-1 Space Shuttle Columbia on Rogers Dry Lakebed – 1981

STS-1 Space Shuttle Columbia on Rogers Dry Lakebed 1981

NASA’s 747 with Columbia Atop Ferries the Shuttle Back to KSC

NASA's 747 with Columbia Atop Ferries the Shuttle Back to KSC april 1981

All photos from NASA

MORE: Space Shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after liftoff (1986)

PS: If you liked this article, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest. Thanks for visiting and for supporting a small business! 🤩 


You might also like...

The fun never ends:

Comments on this story

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.