On the eve of the 20th anniversary of its maiden voyage,
America’s first space shuttle orbiter, Columbia, returns to
service this week fresh from a year and a half of maintenance
and upgrades that have made it better than ever.

“Columbia is a safer shuttle today than the day it first
launched,” said Astronaut John Young, who commanded the
first-ever space shuttle mission aboard Columbia in April
1981. “Columbia has gotten better as it has gotten older.
It’s gone from test flights to doing things we once never
dreamed we could do. Although space flight will always carry
risks, we must keep pace with advances in technology and
improve the shuttle when we can, ensuring it is as safe as it
can be.”

This weekend, Columbia is scheduled to be carried piggyback
atop the NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft from the Boeing
shuttle facility in Palmdale, CA, to the Kennedy Space
Center, FL, to begin preparations for its 27th trip to space.

“As its 20th birthday approaches, Columbia is fit to fly for
many more years,” Space Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore
said. “It is safer and more capable than it has ever been, a
result of the thorough maintenance and continuous
improvements that have been incorporated regularly into the
shuttle fleet.”

More than 100 modifications and improvements have been made
to Columbia, highlighted by the installation of a new “glass
cockpit” that replaced mechanical instruments with 11 full-
color, flat-panel displays. The new cockpit is lighter, uses
less electricity and sets the stage for the next generation
of improvements, a “smart cockpit” under development that
will make the cockpit even more user-friendly. Columbia is
the second of NASA’s four space shuttles to be fitted with
the new “glass cockpit.”

Columbia spent a year and a half at the Palmdale facility.
Other improvements include weight reductions that have
increased the amount of cargo Columbia can carry to orbit by
hundreds of pounds. To save weight, almost 1,000 pounds of
unused wire — left over from equipment and sensors that were
used on Columbia for only the first few space shuttle test
flights — were removed.

Because of wiring damage found in the shuttle fleet in 1999,
comprehensive inspections of 95 percent of Columbia’s more
than 200 miles of wire were performed at Palmdale. To prevent
such damage from recurring, technicians smoothed rough edges
throughout the shuttle and encased wiring in high-traffic
work areas in protective tubing. Such inspections and
protective measures will be a regular feature of all future
shuttle major maintenance.

Preliminary preparations were made that could allow Columbia
to use a space station docking system, enabling it to join
the rest of the shuttle fleet as a future courier to the
International Space Station if needed. In addition,
Columbia’s crew cabin floor was strengthened, the heat
protection on its wings was enhanced and protection from
space debris was added to its cooling system, making it a
safer spacecraft.

While Columbia was in California, technicians scoured the
shuttle during months of intensive structural inspections,
using the latest technology to check for even minute signs of
fatigue, corrosion or broken rivets or welds.

Upon arrival at Kennedy, Columbia will begin preparations for
its next trip into space, scheduled for this fall.