40th Anniversary of First Space Shuttle Mission – “Something Just Short of a Miracle”

These two astronauts are the prime crewmen for the first flight in the Space Transportation System (STS-1) program. Astronauts John W. Young, left, commander, and Robert L. Crippen, pilot, manned the space shuttle orbiter 102 Columbia for the first orbital flight test on April 12, 1981. Credit: NASA

The Space Shuttle Columbia began a new era of human spaceflight when STS-1 lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 12, 1981, for the inaugural flight of the nation’s Space Shuttle Program. To mark the occasion, NASA is providing historical b-roll footage of the launch and landing as well as recently recorded soundbites from retired astronaut Bob Crippen.

See: Spectacular Space Shuttle Launch Gallery

Aboard the spacecraft were commander John W. Young and pilot Crippen. The flight was a test mission and the first time a shuttle was flown to space. Columbia lifted off at 7 a.m. from Launch Pad 39A and was NASA’s first crewed mission since the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. The launch occurred 20 years to the day after the first human launch when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth in the Vostok 1 capsule on April 12, 1961. Columbia concluded STS-1 on April 14, 1981, with a touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base, California, after a 54-hour mission.


On April 12, 1981, space shuttle Columbia launched for the first time with NASA astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen aboard. With 10 years of design and development, the shuttle was the first of its kind — a reusable vehicle for travel to low-Earth orbit.

The STS-1 Mission would demonstrate safe launch into orbit and safe return of the orbiter and crew and verify the combined performance of the entire shuttle vehicle – orbiter, solid rocket boosters, and external tank. Commander John Young called the flight “something just short of a miracle.”

The success of the STS-1 Mission was the beginning of an era and over the course of three decades, the space shuttle program redefined what we know about living in a microgravity environment.

Credit: NASA

The mission objective was to demonstrate the safe launch into orbit and safe return of the orbiter and crew. The mission also verified the combined performance of the entire shuttle vehicle, orbiter, solid rocket boosters, and external tank. Payloads included the Developmental Flight Instrumentation (DFI) and the Aerodynamic Coefficient Identifications Package (ACIP) pallet containing equipment for recording temperatures, pressures, and acceleration levels at various points on the spacecraft.

Space Shuttle STS-1 at Launch Pad A

A timed exposure of the first Space Shuttle, STS-1, at Launch Pad A, Complex 39, turns the space vehicle and support facilities into a night-time fantasy of light. To the left of the Shuttle are the fixed and the rotating service structures. Credit: NASA

Between the first launch in 1981 and the final landing on July 21, 2011, NASA’s space shuttle fleet – Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour – flew 135 missions, helped construct the International Space Station, and inspired generations.

As humanity’s first reusable spacecraft, the space shuttle pushed the bounds of discovery ever farther, requiring not only advanced technologies but the tremendous effort of a vast workforce.

Space Shuttle Columbia Launch

The Space Shuttle Columbia begins a new era of space transportation when it lifts off from NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC). The reusable Orbiter, its two (2) fuel tanks and two (2) Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) has just cleared the launch tower. Aboard the spacecraft are Astronauts John W. Young, Commander, and Robert L. Crippen, Pilot. Credit: NASA

Crippen spoke via computer for a recent episode of NASA’s Rocket Ranch podcast (embedded below). During the interview, Crippen discusses his experience as STS-1 pilot, the spacecraft’s historic launch and landing, the discovery of missing heat tiles during the mission, and the shuttle program legacy.


When the spotlights came on in the predawn hours of April 12, 1981, they illuminated a spacecraft like no other: the space shuttle. Just before liftoff, the crew of two climbed inside space shuttle Columbia for its first test flight into space – that launch going nearly perfect. On this episode of the Rocket Ranch, hear from Columbia pilot Bob Crippen as he recounts that very first shuttle mission. Credit: NASA’s Kennedy Space Center


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