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50 Years of Engineering - 1981: Launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia



To celebrate Fircroft’s 50th anniversary, every week EngineeringPro is highlighting an engineering accomplishment made between the years 1970-2020. This week we’re looking back at 1981 and the launch of a new age in space exploration.

The Space Shuttle Columbia was launched for the first time in 1981
(Image via NASA)

Space Shuttle Columbia

By the 1980’s the space race was well and truly over. More than a decade after man first stood on the moon, the world had moved on from the Apollo missions and NASA was preparing for the next stage in space exploration with the development of a reusable spacecraft. 

Work on such a craft began in 1966, but designs would change over the years to accommodate budgetary constraints, military requirements and new technologies. Construction of a prototype wouldn’t begin until June 1974 - a shuttle named Enterprise that would perform test flights and landings, but never go to space. Construction would begin on the Columbia on 27th March 1975, which would finally be launched on the 12th April 1981 - the first shuttle to go into space.

Several designs were proposed for a reusable low orbit vehicle before the shuttle was selected
(Image via NASA)

The design

The shuttle was primarily designed to support deliveries of supplies and personnel to future space stations. Initial proposals were for a much smaller craft, but in order to secure funding NASA sought the approval of the US Air Force, who demanded a much larger craft in order to carry their military satellites into orbit. NASA were forced to redesign their plans, while keeping development costs low - leading to the addition of boosters and a “throw away” fuel tank.

While this significantly diminished the reusability of all parts of the shuttle, the program was able to secure the funding it needed to continue.

Several designs were submitted by private companies, with North American Rockwell’s proposal being selected by NASA - largely because it cost least and would be easier for ongoing maintenance. North American had also proven their competence in emergency electrical system failures during the Apollo 13 crisis in 1970.

The final design included the aeroplane-like streamlined winged orbitor that would be launched with two reusable, detachable solid rocket boosters and a disposable external fuel tank which held liquid propellant. It was built in Palmdale, California.

The prototype was named Enterprise, following a massive write-in campaign to the White House from fans of the TV series Star Trek. The first shuttle to be launched into space was named Columbia - a name steeped in American history. The Columbia Rediviva was an American explorer ship which made the county’s first circumnavigation of the globe in 1970. Columbia was also the name of Apollo 11’s command module during the first lunar landing. And it is a historic poetic name for the United States and a female symbol for the USA.

Columbia was the first space shuttle to be launched
(Image via NASA)

The launch

Columbia lifted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on the 12th April 1981 - twenty years to the day after Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. 

The two person crew included commander John Young and the pilot Bob Crippen. The mission was to test Columbia’s systems in space. For the first two years the craft would conduct several of these test flights into orbit, before beginning full operations. 

The shuttle separated from the rocket boosters and the fuel tank as it left the atmosphere. The boosters fell on a planned route into the ocean, where they were recovered for reuse in later missions. The external fuel tank burned up as planned while it fell to Earth.

On its first flight the shuttle orbited the Earth 36 times before returning to land on the dry lakebed runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The design of the shuttle allowed it to land in the same way as an aeroplane.

NASA's tribute to the missions and final crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia
(Image via NASA)


Columbia flew three further research missions before launching its first operational mission with a four-man crew on 11th November 1982, where it deployed communications satellites into orbit. 

Over the next 22 years Columbia flew 28 missions, totalling over 300 days in space. Three further fully operational shuttles were also built to serve alongside Columbia: Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis. The space shuttle program would continue operating until Atlantis’s final flight on 21st July 2011. 

Sadly on the 1st February 2003, a punctured hole on the edge of one of Columbia’s wings allowed hot gases to penetrate the craft during re-entry. The shuttle disintegrated over Texas, killing the seven astronauts on board.

The engineering world of 1981

Other milestones from 1981 include: 

  • The first DeLorean car rolls of the production line one the 21st January
  • The Boeing 767 airliner makes its first flight on the 26th September
  • France’s TGV high speed rail service opens on the 27th September, running between Paris and Lyon.

Read last week’s look back at 1980 and the introduction of British Leyland’s Austin Metro.

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Tags: Engineering
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50 Years of Engineering - 1981: Launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia - Time to read 5 min
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