When NASA’s Columbia orbiter lifted off 25 years ago on the first-ever space shuttle mission, it was carrying not only two astronauts but also the hopes of the thousands of engineers, designers, flight controllers and others who made it all possible.

“There were literally tens of thousands of people that were involved,” said Robert Crippen, the pilot on STS-1, which lifted off the morning of April 12, 1981, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “John and I just got to do the best part,” he said, referring to STS-1 commander John Young.

Young and Crippen, who was making his first spaceflight, spent 54.5 hours orbiting Earth to test the world’s first reusable, winged rocket ship, now NASA’s longest-operating manned space vehicle. Although the space shuttle system never managed to reach its goals of quick turnaround and lower-cost launches, it represented a major departure from NASA’s capsule-based manned spacecraft.

“It was a totally different machine from what we were flying before,” said Young, who flew aboard NASA’s Gemini and Apollo vehicles before STS-1. “We had about 23 guys in the Astronaut Office and they would have all killed to be on that first flight.”

Since STS-1 , NASA has launched 113 space shuttle missions with its Columbia, Challenger, Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour orbiters. Those missions were not all successful. In January 1986, Challenger and its seven-astronaut crew were lost just after launch due to a faulty solid rocket booster that led to the shuttle’s destruction. And in February 2003 , Columbia and its crew were lost when the vehicle broke apart during re-entry.

“It’s still a risky business,” Young said. “The shuttle has a proven one in 57 failure rate.”

Building Columbia

During the 1970s, NASA tapped Rockwell International’s aerospace division — now part of Boeing — as primary contractor for the orbiter system, and engineers worked feverishly to ready the spacecraft for flight.

“It was an extremely busy time,” said Dwight Woolhouse, Boeing’s associate program director for orbiter development, who served as aerosurfaces subsystem manager for Columbia’s first flight. “Even up to a couple of months before that first flight we were still immersed in hardware tests. And yet, everybody really had this attitude that we were going to find a way to make this work.”

Columbia was slightly heavier than its younger sister ships because designers had yet to learn where other weight savings could be made, its builders said. The push to use the vehicle to launch astronauts and large satellites or other cargo in its school bus-sized payload bay, as well as the thousands of ceramic tiles that protected the orbiter from the intense heat of re-entry, increased its complexity and lengthened the time needed between missions.

“There’s something like 43 independent major subsystems that must work perfectly for a flight,” said Bo Bejmuk, Boeing’s current orbiter program director, who watched Columbia launch on STS-1 as a freshly appointed system integration manager. “I was a much younger guy then. And you sit there and you see the countdown and you see John Young’s face during the traditional [pre-launch] breakfast and you say ‘My God, I hope we were exactly right.’”

For Bejmuk, watching Columbia rocket into orbit in 1981 provided more than just a sense of accomplishment. “I felt like NASA gave me an incredible birthday present,” he said, noting that the flight coincided with his 41st birthday . “I had plenty of anxiety in my stomach.”

Wayne Hale, NASA’s space shuttle program manager, remembers being sent home from his propulsion support post at Johnson Space Center in Houston just three hours before STS-1’s launch.

“We went off console to go home and try to get some sleep, which of course was impossible,” said Hale, who served as a consumables analyst for the flight . “We ended up watching it on television, which just astounded me. The launch of a shuttle is so different from other vehicles. It has a lot of get up and go.

“There are a lot of us, I think, who would pay to sweep out the floors around here, because [spaceflight] is what we want to do,” Hale said.

Nine minutes to space

Young and Crippen said their initial two-day shuttle flight was packed with tests after their nine-minute journey to orbit .

“During the flight, it was pretty busy, but it was still a fantastic thing,” Crippen said, adding that as a first-time astronaut , the chance to ride with veteran Young — who walked on the Moon during NASA’s Apollo 16 mission — was a bonus. “When you’re doing it for the first time, it’s nice to do it with an old pro.”

The STS-1 crew returned to Earth April 14, rolling to a stop on a desert runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California after having paved the way for 292 other astronauts to join the ranks of shuttle flyers.

Planetary scientist Tom Jones, a veteran of four shuttle flights, flew aboard Columbia in 1996, using its robotic arm to deploy a pair of science satellites during the STS-80 mission.

“I got goose bumps crawling into the shuttle knowing that it was the same spaceship that flew John Young and Bob Crippen on [the] first flight,” said Jones, who also flew aboard Endeavour, NASA’s youngest orbiter, and Atlantis. “If you looked carefully, out of the corner of your eye, in the cockpit, you’d be able to tell you were aboard Columbia because it had some extra panels and switches that later orbiters didn’t have.

“And you’d notice the little scuffs on the walls, and the sort of touch-up paint from its long service,” Jones said of Columbia, adding that the memory of the 2003 accident that destroyed the orbiter and killed seven of his fellow astronauts is still strong. “It still bothers me that my spaceship was lost and my friends were lost. It’s always going to leave a hole in my heart when the shuttles are retired and I go to the museum and it’s not there.”

Throughout its 22 years of service, Columbia launched into orbit on 28 missions, returning home safely on all but one.

“I have a deep sense of gratitude,” Jones said, adding that it is people — not hardware — that made Columbia’s first flight and all shuttle missions possible. “You never get a chance to see them and thank them for all their work.”

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