When Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off on its historic first flight the
morning of April 12, 1981, John Newton remembers “the toughest thing I
ever had to do was stay seated in my chair at launch control” at Kennedy
Space Center, Fla.

“Just before launch, the launch director reminded us we were
professionals — and we needed to remain calm and stay seated,” recalls
Newton, then the project representative for the External Tank program
at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

“You could feel the electricity — the excitement in the air,” remembers
Newton, today the team lead for the Solid Rocket Booster Program at
Marshall. “As the Shuttle lifted off, you could tell everyone wanted to
jump up for a better look. I don’t know how we stayed seated, but we did.”

To mark the anniversary of that first launch, STS-1 Commander John Young
and Pilot Robert Crippen will be special guests at the Marshall Center
April 24. At the celebration — from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for all Marshall
employees, retirees and contractors — the astronauts will share their
STS-1 reminiscences, participate in a ceremony to cast their footprints
as part of Marshall’s “Footprints to the Future” collection, and
autograph a plaque to be displayed with a retired Shuttle Main Engine.

Vivid recollections of that early April morning in 1981 abound. Marshall
Center engineer Jack Hengel was on the people-packed Cape Canaveral
causeway six miles away. “I remember seeing the plume generated by the
solids — the Solid Rocket Boosters — and then the Shuttle just shot
off the pad. I didn’t expect such a rapid liftoff. I was used to
watching the slow, lumbering liftoff’s of the Saturn rockets,” says
Hengel, now manager of the Solid Rocket Booster Recovery System.

Marshall’s Space Shuttle Projects Office is responsible for the first
eight-and-a-half minutes of each Shuttle launch. During those crucial
510 seconds, the Reusable Solid Rocket Motors generate enough energy to
power 87,000 homes for a full day, the Solid Rocket Boosters accelerates
the Shuttle to 3,000 mph (4,828 kilometers per hour), the External Tank
feeds 535,000 gallons (202.5 deciliters) of liquid propellants to the
Main Engine, and inside the combustion chambers of Shuttle’s three main
engines temperatures are hot enough to melt steel.

For the Marshall Center, the launch of Columbia was the zenith of more
than 10 years’ work and the beginning of a new era in space travel:
one that foresees the Space Shuttle transporting crew, equipment and
experiments to the International Space Station into the year 2012 —
and perhaps beyond.

However, during the 1970s, the Space Shuttle and its major propulsion
elements — the Main Engine, Solid Rocket Boosters, External Tank and
Reusable Solid Rocket Motors — were little more than an idea. The
Marshall Center was chosen for the preliminary studies and development
of the Shuttle’s major propulsion elements.

“The Shuttle remains the most unique spacecraft built. There is
no other with reusable boosters and engines and none with better
performance,” says Alex McCool, manager of Marshall’s Shuttle Project
office and a member of the original Shuttle team.

The Shuttle posed a number of technical challenges for Marshall
engineers, says McCool. First, the Orbiter required a highly efficient
propulsion system. Secondly, the Shuttle had to be reusable.

“I remember one problem — on the main oxidizer value — that took
almost a year to solve,” says George Hopson, manager for Marshall’s
Space Shuttle Main Engine Project. “Every time we tested the engine
we took a chance at burning it up. It was the biggest obstacle we
faced, and we knew we had to resolve it quickly to meet the first
launch schedule.”

The External Tank was another design challenge. It had to be strong,
lightweight, hold 1.6 million pounds (725,000 kilograms) of propellant,
and ó because it would not be reusable — costs had to be kept down.
Marshall drew on its experience with the Saturn V rocket.

The result: The External Tank stands 154 feet tall (49.6 meters) and
27.6 feet (8 meters) wide, withstands the thrust loads of 7 million
pounds (3.2 million kilograms and its skin is only slightly
thicker — 0.25 inches (0.65 centimeters) — than an aluminum soft
drink can.

Design of the Solid Rocket Boosters was driven by the need for high
thrust and reusability. “Initial specifications called for motor case
segments that could be used 20 times, but we wanted more,” says Parker
Counts, manager of Marshall’s Solid Rocket Booster project. Marshall
engineers opted for a weld-free case formed by a continuous
flow-forming process.

One of the biggest challenges for the Solid Rocket Booster team was
that it had no way to test its recovery system. Because of the size
and weight of the boosters, there was no aircraft that could carry that
much weight aloft.

The first launch proved the system that Marshall engineers developed
worked. The boosters float to Earth beneath the world’s largest

The Marshall Center also coordinated Shuttle test activities. Test
stands and equipment that had stood idle since the Saturn era were
revived and remodeled to support Shuttle test efforts.

“Marshall met the challenge of developing durable space hardware that
could be recycled for many missions,” says McCool. “It is a remarkable
tribute to the dedication of our team in the most trying of political
times — in the post-Apollo era when the nation turned away from the
space race.

Today, the Marshall Center continues to manage those first
eight-and-a-half minutes of a Space Shuttle’s launch. “Attention to
launch safety requires attention every minute of every day,” says
McCool. “The Shuttle will continue to keep pace with advances in
technology. Upgrades to its propulsion system have made it safer,
more streamline and more cost-effective.”

More enhancements are planned within the next five years, including
adding an advanced health management system that will monitor the
“health” of the Shuttle’s main engine.

Each new technology makes space travel safer and delivers new
products — from healthcare to computers — into the everyday lives
of people here on Earth.

After the first Shuttle launch, STS-1 pilot Robert Crippen, succinctly
summed up the development of the Shuttle and his launch experience: “We
just became a whole lot smarter.”

[NOTE: An image supporting this release is available at

A Fact Sheet on the Space Shuttle is available at