The thunder of manned space flight returned to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 12, 1981 as Space Shuttle Columbia launched from Pad 39A on STS-1, the first shuttle orbital test flight. The early-morning launch of Columbia, the first reusable spacecraft, carried astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen on a 54-hour mission that ended with unpowered landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. (NASA photo) › View Larger Image
On April 12, 1981, the liftoff of Space Shuttle Columbia on the STS-1 mission ushered in NASA's space shuttle era. Astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen made 37 orbits on the two-day mission that successfully tested all major systems of the new Space Transportation System orbiter before returning to Earth with a landing on the bed of Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, home of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.
The anniversary came just a few days before the now-retired shuttle Discovery was to be ferried from the Kennedy Space Center to its new home at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center adjacent to Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C., where it will be enshrined in a permanent exhibit in tribute to the more than three-decade shuttle program.
A large crowd estimated at 300,000 persons gathered on Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards AFB to witness the first landing of Space Shuttle Columbia as it completed the first orbital shuttle mission on April 14, 1981. (NASA Photo) › View Larger Image The space shuttle was humankind's first re-usable spacecraft. The shuttle orbiter launched vertically under rocket power and landed horizontally like an airplane. The two solid rocket boosters that helped propel it into space were also re-used, after being recovered in the ocean. Only the massive external fuel tank would burn up as it fell back to Earth. This first flight of the space shuttle came 20 years to the day after Yuri Gagarin in 1961 became the first human to travel into space.
NASA's space shuttle fleet continued to set high marks of achievement and endurance through 30 years of missions. Starting with Columbia and continuing with Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, the space shuttles carried people into orbit repeatedly, launched, recovered and repaired satellites, conducted cutting-edge research and built the largest structure in space, the International Space Station. The final space shuttle mission, STS-135, ended July 21, 2011 when Atlantis rolled to a stop at its home port, NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which served as the launch site for all of the shuttle missions and the landing site for 78. Another 54 missions landed at Edwards, and one at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
As humanity's first reusable spacecraft, the space shuttle pushed the bounds of scientific discovery and space exploration ever further, requiring not only advanced technologies but also the tremendous effort of a vast workforce over almost four decades.
Learn more about the Space Shuttle Era.
View more photos of STS-1 mission. Reference photos 211 – 231 in the slide show.
View video of STS-1 mission.
Space Shuttle Columbia touches down on lakebed runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to conclude the first orbital shuttle mission on April 14, 1981. (NASA Photo) › View Larger Image