The Space Shuttle missions were all numbered, starting with STS-1 in 1981. STS stands for "Space Transportation System", a blanket term that covers the shuttle, its rockets, and the infrastructure that supports it. STS-1 was the very first shuttle mission to reach orbit. The launch vehicle was Columbia, which was known as OV-102, the OV standing for "Orbiter Vehicle", which was the name of the shuttle itself. The only other shuttle at the time was OV-101, Enterprise, but that could not fly in space. It had been built for glide testing in the atmosphere, and had not been fitted with engines. Instead, it was carried into the air on the back of a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

Lift-off for STS-01 was just past 07:00 EST on the 12th of April, 1981. Touchdown took place only two days later, at 10:27 EST. The mission was designed purely to show that the shuttle could reach orbit, remain there for a short time, and return to earth. Unlike Apollo, and all previous NASA manned projects, there had been no unmanned shuttle flights to orbit beforehand. Although Enterprise had shown that the shuttle could glide to a landing, there was no precedent for a rocket-powered launch, ascent, orbit or re-entry.

For STS-01 NASA chose their most experienced astronaut, John W. Young, as commander, with Robert L. Crippen as pilot. There were no other crewmembers. John Young was a moonwalker, who had commanded Apollo 16. Before the moon, he had flown into space on Gemini III, Gemini X and Apollo 10. He would go on to fly Shuttle mission STS-9 in 1983.

In contrast, STS-01 was Robert Crippen's first flight into space. He was part of the Skylab/Apollo-Soyuz generation that had missed the moon. He went on to fly four more shuttle missions, STS-7, STS-41C and STS-41G. At lift-off Crippen's heart rate touched 130bpm whilst Young's never exceeded 90bpm. Young was 44 years old, Crippen was 51.

As a shakedown mission, STS-1 was short and to the point. The orbiter completed 37 orbits, and the only extra equipment carried on board was used to measure the temperature and pressure at various points in Columbia's fuselage. There were no spacewalks, no Spacelab in the cargo bay, no manipulation of satellites with the robot arm. The only points of major concern were the ceramic tiles on the shuttle's underside. Concussion from the solid rocket boosters had dislodged sixteen and weakened 148, from a total of over 28,000. Modifications were made to the boosters thereafter.

Columbia landed at Edwards Air Force Base in the morning of 14 Apri. It was ferried back to Kennedy Space Center on the back of a 747 on April 28th. The next shuttle launch was STS-2, which took off on 12 November 1981. The shuttle was Columbia, again. With that launch Columbia showed the world that the space shuttle system worked. It could fly in space, and it could do so more than once. There were other shuttles still to come.

For STS-1 and STS-2, Columbia's giant external fuel tank was painted a bright white, so as to reflect the sun's heat, and keep the tank cool. The white paint had the side-effect of making the shuttle look unusually attractive on the launchpad. Subsequently the paint was found to be unncessary, and all shuttle missions from STS-3 onwards flew with an unpainted pain which looked orange. In 1981, Columbia vyed with Concorde as the most beautiful thing in the sky.

People of my generation will remember news footage of Columbia gliding gracefully back to earth, watched over by NASA's beautiful T-38 chase planes. The T-38s were there so that NASA could keep a close eye on Columbia's undercarriage and fuselage, in case something went wrong. The T-38s looked like an honour guard. They landed with Columbia. For almost a decade NASA's manned space programme had been in the doldrums, and the sight of the new shuttle was inspiring. Columbia went on to perform STS-2, 3, 4 and 5 before Challenger came online for STS-6. It flew the longest continuous run of shuttle missions. After STS-5, Columbia was gradually drawn down from service. It was heavier and had less sophisticated electrics than the machines that came after. Its last mission was STS-107, in 2003, at the end of which Columbia was lost with all hands, in the sky over Texas.


Elsewhere, apart from memory and an old issue of National Geographic: