STS-1 Columbia – The Shuttle Program’s First Flight

It happened exactly 20 years after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. It was the first American manned spaceflight in six years, following the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. It was the beginning of an era that ushered in a new generation of spaceflight technology.

STS-1 Mission Patch

STS-1 Mission Patch – Credit: NASA

It was STS-1, the first of more than 130 flights of the Space Shuttle program.

Shuttle Columbia was selected for the maiden voyage of the program. Not only was this the first crewed flight for the shuttle, it was the first flight period. Shuttle Enterprise had been utilized for flight (and landing) tests within the atmosphere, but wasn’t designed to be space-ready (including not having a heat shield for re-entry).

So Columbia was not only a mission, but a flight test in its own right. Her crew consisted of Commander John W. Young and pilot Robert L. Crippen. Young was already a veteran of the space program, having flown as pilot of the Gemini Program’s first manned flight (Gemini 3 – known around these parts as that time John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich into space), served as commander of Gemini 10, was the command module pilot of Apollo 10 (the “dress rehearsal” for Apollo 11), and also walked on the Moon as commander of Apollo 16. This, however, would be Crippen’s first spaceflight. Both of these men were qualified test pilots, and STS-1 was one heck of a test flight.

At 7:00am on April 12, 1981, after a two-day delay, STS-1 lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center–the same launch pad that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon, and is currently leased to SpaceX where it will serve to create a new type of spaceflight history. The launch was just as flawless as Launch Controller Chuck Hannon wished, when one minute and forty-five seconds prior to lift-off, he told the crew: “Smooth sailing, baby.”

STS-1 Columbia at launch on April 12, 1981

STS-1 Columbia at launch on April 12, 1981 – Credit: NASA

SHUTTLE LAUNCH CONTROL: T minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, we’ve gone for main engine start, we have main engine start. And we have lift off of America’s first space shuttle, and the shuttle has cleared the tower.

Minutes later, Columbia and her crew were beginning the first of 37 total orbits to take place over the course of just more than two days. A new era was born, as we became a world with reusable space planes.




The primary mission of STS-1 was to conduct a general check-out of the Space Shuttle system, reach orbit successfully, and land safely back on Earth. Despite a few anomalies, which were recorded and solved for future flights, STS-1 was a smashing success. Orbiter Columbia performed amazingly and would be used for the next four shuttle missions until STS-6, when Challenger became the second orbiter in the fleet.

STS-1 was the solid first step in the three decades-long adventure that was the Space Shuttle program.

How NASA’s Shuttle Numbering System Worked

Space Shuttle program patch

Space Shuttle program patch

It has been nearly six years since NASA’s final shuttle launch ended an era, but I’m still just not ready to let it go. As I’ve written previously, I’ve dubbed my generation ‘the space shuttle generation’. Today, I want to tell you how the shuttles were numbered and explore whether or not the number scheme changed due to one NASA administrator’s triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13).

Space Transportation System

The official name for the space shuttle program was Space Transportation System (abbreviated STS). The program was envisioned to be America’s routine link to orbit, designed to reuse many major components with the idea of a quick return to service and reduced costs. After a few unmanned test flights of the Enterprise prototype, shuttle Columbia became the first shuttle to complete an orbital mission with astronauts aboard (mission commander John W. Young and pilot Robert L. Crippen). This milestone flight carried the simple designation: STS-1. Subsequent missions were given the numbers STS-2 – STS-9. The mission that would have been numbered STS-10 was cancelled due to payload delays. So, you’d expect the next flight to be designated STS-11, right? Wrong. Try STS-41-B.

Shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour

Shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour – Public Domain

A New System

Beginning in 1984, NASA switched to a new flight numbering system. The change is credited to a growing complexity of the program’s launch manifest, as well as an anticipated increase in the number of flights and launch locations. The new system, while more complicated than the original system, isn’t that difficult to understand once you know the formula. The STS prefix was continued, followed by a two-digit number, followed by a letter.

Let’s break down STS-41-B:

The first number, 4, indicated which fiscal year the mission was to launch in (dropping the first three digits of the year). In this case, the year was 1984. The second digit, always a 1 or a 2, indicated the launch location: 1 for Kennedy Space Center and 2 for Vandenberg Air Force Base. Since STS-41-B launched from Kennedy Space Center, it carried that second digit of 1. (Note: Vandenberg was never used to launch shuttle missions, and therefore the ‘2’ digit was never utilized). The final part of the scheme, the letter, indicated which planned launch it was for that fiscal year. In our case, B, indicated it was the second intended launch for that year. Keep in mind, the letter designation was assigned for the planned sequence.

STS-41-B = Space Transport System – Fiscal Year 1984, launching from Kennedy Space Center – the second mission of the fiscal year.

Now let’s decode one to see if we got it:

STS-61-A. Using what we learned above, we know that this was the first mission planned for fiscal year 1986 and launching from Kennedy Space Center. Easy!

Return

The new numbering scheme didn’t last for long. On January 28, 1986, STS-51-L, ended in tragedy, as the Challenger shuttle disintegrated 73 seconds after take-off. There wouldn’t be another shuttle launch for 2 years and 8 months, while NASA rigorously reviewed every aspect of the shuttle program to determine the cause of the catastrophe and to greatly increase safety standards before a return to flight. In the interest of safety, fewer launches would be planned each year. As a result, plans to add Vandenberg as a launch site for the shuttle were abandoned. There was no longer a need for the more complex numbering system. When the shuttle returned to flight on September 29, 1988, that mission was designated STS-26. For the remainder of the program, the simplified numbering system was utilized.

Firing Room 1 configured for space shuttle launches - Source:

Firing Room 1 configured for space shuttle launches – Source: NASA

Rumors of Triskaidekaphobia

At the beginning, I mentioned that the fear of the number 13 might have played a part in the numbering system change. That fear has a name, and it’s a doozy: triskaidekaphobia (pronounce it like this: trice-kai-dek-aphobia). Some, including astronauts (like Paul Weitz) and other NASA employees, believe the numbering system changed, at least in some part, due to then-NASA Administrator James Beggs’s fear of the number 13. Not far from anyone within NASA’s mind was the perilous flight of Apollo 13. Apollo 13 launched at 13:13:00 Houston time, and suffered an oxygen tank explosion on April 13. While it’s possible this played into the numbering system change, NASA officials deny it.

This didn’t stop the crew of STS-41-C from having some fun. Had the numbering scheme not changed, their mission would have been designated STS-13. Coincidentally, it was originally scheduled to launch of Friday the 13th of April, 1984 (the launch date was ultimately changed to April 4, but it returned on that Friday the 13th).

“[The crew] created their own “Black Cat” mission patch. Former crewmember James “Ox” Van Hoften recalls, “We flew around with our STS-13 patch on, and that was a lot of fun. We ended up landing on Friday the 13th, so that was pretty cool.”

The 'alternative' patch designed to make light of the triskaidekaphobia surrounding this mission.

The ‘alternative’ patch designed to make light of the triskaidekaphobia surrounding this mission. Source: Wikipedia / CC

And there you have it. Just like so many things associated with the space program, even the most overlooked items often have fascinating stories behind them.

NASA's Penguin Patch

How An Imaginary Constellation Ended Up On An Official NASA Mission Patch

There are some great stories behind the patches that NASA issues for each of its missions, and the latest one I have learned about is no exception. I picked the story up from former astronaut, Rhea Seddon, via her newsletter and blog. (Seddon was featured in this previous post about NASA’s first female astronauts.)

 

STS-41-D - The Penguin Patch

STS-41-D Mission Patch – Source: NASA

STS-41-D was Space Shuttle Discovery’s first mission. Flying that mission were: Commander Henry W. Hartsfield Jr., Michael L. Coats, Richard M. Mullane, Steven A. Hawley, Judy Resnik, and Charles D. Walker. The launch was originally scheduled for June 26, 1984, but had to be aborted six seconds prior to launch. The mission finally launched two months later on August 30.

The patch bears the icon of the ship Discovery, one of the three ships in the fleet that founded Jamestown, Virginia. Around the outer edge are the last names of the crew members. Shuttle Discovery is shown with a large solar array rising from the payload bay. This array was part of the OAST-1 payload, a project to demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale solar arrays in space. In the background is a field containing twelve stars: symbolic of STS-41-D being NASA’s twelfth Shuttle flight.

But there’s a bit more to the story of those twelve stars. According to Seddon, Shuttle program patches had to be approved by the Director of Flight Crew Operations, a post held at that time by George Abbey. As the story goes, her husband, Robert “Hoot” Gibson (also an astronaut), had something to do with the design of the patch for STS-41-D. He presented it to Abbey, only to have it denied. Why? Because, Mr. Abbey said:

“There isn’t a penguin on it.”  

Hoot replied, “Why a penguin?”  

“Because there has never been one.”  

So, Hoot hurried back to the office in dismay to see what the crew could create.  He returned a few days later with a modified patch.  

“Where is the penguin?”  

“Here it is.  Those stars at the top are from the constellation Penguinus Australis.”  

Whether Abbey was convinced or not, the design was approved. The constellation, Penguinius Australis, of course, was a complete fabrication. 

STS-41-D Crew

The STS-41D mission crew: (seated left to right) Richard M. (Mike) Mullane, mission specialist; Steven A. Hawley, mission specialist; Henry W. Hartsfield, commander; and Michael L. (Mike) Coats, pilot. Standing in the rear are Charles D. Walker, payload specialist; and Judith A. (Judy) Resnik, mission specialist. – Source: NASA

The Penguin Patch joins a long list of interesting stories about some of NASA’s most overlooked gems. 

Remembering Columbia

It was 9 years ago today, that the shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry, minutes away from its scheduled landing.

Crew of STS-107

Crew of STS-107, last flight of shuttle Columbia - Source: NASA

Lost that day, (as pictured above, L to R) were: David M. Brown, Rick D. Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William C. McCool, and Ilan Ramon.

Today, we remember the crew of STS-107 and thank them for their service.


"An Entirely New Type Of Space Transportation"

On January 5, 1972; 40 years ago today:

“I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970’s into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980’s and ’90’s. – President Nixon on the announcement of the Space Shuttle program.

President Richard M. Nixon and Dr. James C. Fletcher, NASA Administrator, discussing the proposed Space Shuttle.

President Richard M. Nixon and Dr. James C. Fletcher, NASA Administrator, discussing the proposed Space Shuttle. Jan 5, 1972

[Image Credit: NASA]

40 years ago today, President Nixon announced the development of the Space Shuttle Program, which was retired in 2011.

I personally consider myself a member of the “Space Shuttle Generation”. The program’s maiden manned-voyage came just a year prior to my birth and I’ve spent my life fascinated by the program. It was a great disappointment to me to see the program retired last year — especially with no system ready to replace it.

Thank You Discovery

Lift-off of STS-133, final mission for Discovery.

Lift-off of STS-133, final mission for Discovery. / Source: NASA


That’s it.

On March 9, 2011, space shuttle (technically, orbiter) Discovery landed at Kennedy Space Center after its final mission in space. This marked the conclusion of Discovery’s 38th mission (STS-133), from which it will retire as NASA’s hardest-working orbiter in the shuttle fleet. Discovery was NASA’s workhouse and many related it as the shuttle fleet’s eldest sibling. Here is a small list of Discovery’s amazing accomplishments over its 27-year history of spaceflight:

  • Discovery got its names from historical sea-faring ships, primarily HMS Discovery which was commanded by Captain James Cook during his third and final voyage (1776-1779). Henry Hudson also searched for the Northwest Passage in a ship named discovery in 1610-1611. 1
  • Discovery performed 39 missions and took 246 astronauts to space.
  • In April 1990, Discovery released the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit
  • Discovery carried Russian cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev, to space. The first Russian to ever fly in a NASA spacecraft.
  • Discovery spent a total of 365 days in space, orbited Earth 5,830 times and traveled 148,221,675 miles
  • Discovery was the first shuttle to fly after both the Challenger and Columbia disasters.
  • Discovery's Final Landing

    Discovery's Final Landing / Source: NASA and 46blyz.com

    As someone who considers himself a member of the “Space Shuttle Generation”, it’s sad to see Discovery retired; however, I have positive feelings about being able to live in a time to watch her in action.


    1. That mission didn’t turn out so well for Henry Hudson, not only did he fail to find a water-route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, his crew mutinied and sent him adrift in a small boat. He was never seen again.

Cosmic Paparazzi: Human Number 200

Enjoy this image of astronaut Alvin Drew beginning his first spacewalk, in which he also becomes the 200th human to walk in space.
Alvin Drew beginning spacewalk.
(Click image for large version)

A Good Day for a Spacewalk
Emerging from the Quest airlock on the International Space Station, astronaut Alvin Drew began his shared spacewalking duties with fellow astronaut Steve Bowen. Drew and Bowen completed the STS-133 mission’s first spacewalk on Monday, Feb. 28. Drew is the 200th human to perform a spacewalk, his first. This is Steve Bowen’s sixth spacewalk. This is the 154th spacewalk supporting assembly and maintenance of the space station and the 234th excursion conducted by U.S. astronauts.

Image Credit: NASA

Right Place Right Time: Good Luck Discovery

Talk about being at the right place at the right time. A few lucky passengers on a commercial jet flight leaving Orlando got a unique view of the shuttle Discovery’s final launch. Lucky for us, one of those passengers recorded a video.

What a fantastic perspective to view Discovery’s final voyage from.

Remembering Challenger

25 years ago today, seven explorers gave their lives in the pursuit of scientific understanding. 73 seconds after lift-off, Challenger broke apart and disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean.

Crew of Challenger STS-51-L

Crew of Challenger STS-51-L

We remember Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair; (back row) Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik.

We thank them for assisting in this planet’s quest to reach for the stars.

It's Official… Probably

While funding from Congress isn’t complete, NASA added the 135th and final mission for the Shuttle Program. The agency has scheduled the shuttle Atlantis for a launch-date target of June 28.

Space Shuttle Atlantis

Space Shuttle Atlantis following liftoff of STS-129. - Source: NASA

In October of last year, President Obama signed the 2010 NASA Authorization Act which allowed an additional shuttle flight before the fleet retires. Congress, however, has yet to appropriate the full funding required for the mission. Funds to get the mission started are available in existing budgets, but complete funding will have to come from Congress; expected in March.

The mission will take a four-member crew, the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module, and supplies to the International Space Station. One spacewalk is scheduled, and they’ll be returning a faulty ammonia pump module that has been troubling engineers.

I personally hope NASA can keep squeaking through additional shuttle missions. It’s not so much that I don’t want to let the program go, it’s that I don’t want to let it go without a replacement ready to fly.