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History of Columbia
Question and Answer Board

James Kelley from Cananduagia, ny
On the first launch, what was the anticipation like leading up to launch day? There where a couple of scrubs on this first mission - APU problem was one, I think, wasn't it?
Well, John Young and I had the opportunity to train much longer than what we had perhaps wanted to on the first flight. We initially thought we were going to fly around 1980 but there were problems primarily with the thermal protection system better know as the tiles. And our main engines, which tended to blow up when they were on the test stands, neither of those were a good thing. So, NASA invested the time to correct them. John and I worried about the whole system and that was coming together. In that kind of position you depend on the people, you have too. It's too complicated of vehicle to do otherwise. But the anticipation of having the opportunity to fly was tremendous. It was my first flight. Truthfully, as complicated as the vehicle was I fully anticipated that we would do a countdown a number of times with scrubs because a lot of things have to come together for a proper shuttle lift-off. Actually, the only scrub we had was on the first attempt on April the 10th of 1981 and it turned out to be a computer problem. The way the back up computer was communicating with the primary computers we ran into a glitch that we hadn't see before and we scrubbed because of that. John and I lay on our backs for about 6 hours, which was kind of tiresome, especially in those suits that we were wearing. People corrected the problem and we came back on the 12th and went off right on time. The only APU issue we had was on orbit. There was an APU unit that malfunctioned and we had to switch to an alternate heater.
James from Goose Creek
I am curious about what it was like to fly an untested space vehicle that was not flight tested like other systems. I understand that Columbia used to have ejection seats; what phases of flight could those be used in, and will there be a new Columbia anytime soon? We have had an Apollo Command Console named Columbia, we even have a nuclear powered submarine named Columbia. It would be a pity to see the name Columbia be retired from the NASA registry.
First flight of the Columbia was unique in that regard because all previous space flights with people on board the vehicle had originally been launched unmanned. However, with the space shuttle that wasn't the case. It did have a lot of firsts going with it, first winged vehicle, first solid rockets. And both John Young and I felt that the opportunity for success was enhanced by having us on board. So we lobbied very hard that you shouldn't go through the expense and the complication of flying an unmanned and that was a management decision. It was the right thing to do from my standpoint. I believe we did enhance its capability. Although, truthfully we didn't run into that many problems on the first flight. We did have injection seats that is why there was only two people on board the first four flights because those were designated the orbital flight test. The injection seats gave us some capability early in flight on lift-off and potentially on re-entry late. However, the window of coverage that they offered us for protection was fairly small and I personally didn't think they enhanced our potential for survival but I felt it was something that was prudent to do on the first test flights.
Rap from Friendswood
Of all the specific risks and possibilities on STS-1, which one gave you the most anxiety or required your most intense attention or training and why?
Anxiety is probably not the right word. As I said a little bit earlier, we did pay attention to the entire vehicle. It was a complicated one, but you have to depend on the people that are doing their jobs to do it right. It so happens that the space shuttle during its early development my focus had been on the computers which are used extensively for the vehicle, not only for monitoring the systems health but actually for the flight control itself because I had been so involved in the development phase, perhaps I worried a bit more about the computers because truthfully, even though they were redundant in several phases it didn't take much in a computational error to cause fairly significant problems. However, those didn't occur but I found it significant that the only scrub that we had was caused by the computers.
John McKenna from League City
Bob, We read about some surprises during the first Columbia mission. We understand that several diced tiles were missing on the OMS pod and that there were some elevon actuators that bent a bit from the slapback of SRB Ignition. Talk about that and how we corrected that for the second mission in Nov. 1981.
I mentioned earlier about the tiles causing us some problems, because they didn't adhere to the vehicle initially like they were suppose to and a lot of work was done to ensure that the critical tiles, the ones that were absolutely necessary for re-entry would stick properly to the vehicle. We went through and actually did pull test on all those tiles, which were primarily on the bottom of the orbiter to make sure they would stay on. There were other tiles like those on the OMS pods that were there primarily there for re-usability so that you didn't damage something that you had to repair prior to the next flight. And when John and I were opening up the payload doors on orbit for the first time that gave us a view of those OMS pods, the Orbital Maneuver System pods back at the rear-end of the vehicle and there were some tiles missing and we reported that to the ground, of course. Both John and I knew that those tiles weren't critical for re-entry that we had not done the same type of testing on them that we had done on those on the base. However, I do know that the ground worried a lot if there was some problem that we couldn't see on the bottom of the orbiter. There wasn't much we could do about it though, so there wasn't any sense from my perspective of worrying about that too much and I felt fairly confident on the testing that we had done that they would work okay. With regard to the elevons on lift-off the shock wave caused by the solid rockets when they ignited did cause the elevons to deflect further than we had anticipated. They didn't actually bend physically, didn't cause any damage to them. But they did deflect further than they were suppose to, there was actually some damage up in the nose section of the orbiter internal with some struts, pieces of metal that holds the tanks for our reaction control jet propellant that did actually bend somewhat just because of the shock on the vehicle. Both John and I really had no sense of that, although I do know that when the solids ignited it was a significant event but we didn't know that the damage had been done. It wasn't enough to cause any problems for the actual flight. It did have to be corrected for the second flight and the Kennedy Space Center folks in their ingenuity put in what we call water logs, big plastic troughs filled with water beneath the orbiter to absorb some of that shock coming off the solid rockets boosters. And those are in fact still used today and those do the job very well.
John from Bloomfield, MI
On Columbia's first flight how did its launch and landing characteristics compare with your ground simulations/training? Do you think that first flight was possibly the ultimate aerospace flight test (unlike anything before or since)?
Well, it certainly was from my standpoint since it was my first space flight. And truthfully it did have a lot of firsts as I mentioned earlier, with being the first winged vehicle, and the solid rockets. From a landing standpoint...Actually I would like to clarify one thing, John Young was the Commander, I was the pilot and those terminologies are used because none of us Red-hot test pilots wanted to be called a co-pilot. In truth, the Commander flies the vehicle. The pilot can fly the vehicle if the Commander lets him. In this particular case, John was doing the landing and did a super job of it. Both John and I trained extensively because of the delay from the technical problems on all aspects of the mission, especially on flying and doing the landing. We had a simulator in Houston, a motion based simulator that did an excellent job of giving us cues on what the landing was like. The real thing that allowed us to land the vehicle then and continues to do so, we modified a Gulf Stream Two airplane, actually now we have several modified, to fly through a computer if you will, to model the way the shuttle is supposed to fly and the shuttle training airplane as it was known, did a fantastic job of training us for that first flight, and continues to do so today, that's why all the landings that you have had an opportunity to watch on television have been as smooth as they’ve been. It is a little bit different in the actual orbiter because you actually have different wing loadings between the two airplanes but it's not turbulent at all, you really can't notice the difference. John and I had probably somewhere around the order of 1,200 to 1,500 approaches and landings in those shuttle airplanes a piece, prior to that first flight so we were well trained and John demonstrated that. It turns out that the actual lift generated by the wings was more than some of the wind tunnel test had said and on that first landing we did float longer than what the pre-flight analysis had said that we were going to do, but that did not affect anything in the way John was landing the vehicle because we had that nice long lake bed out at Edwards. Actually, that lift on the wing also did affect the first stage when we had the solid rockets on going up because our trajectory lofted, that is it went higher than what are pre-flight analysis said we were going to, but it was still well under control so it wasn't a big worry and all we had to do was correct that in subsequent flights, not change the vehicle but change the analysis on how it would fly.
Jonathan from Louisville, KY
Due to Columbia's increased weight compared to the other orbiters, was she harder or easier to land on final approach? If so, why?
Well the Columbia did weigh more than the subsequent vehicles mainly because it was the first one and they were doing structural tests on later vehicles to ensure how much structure they needed, primarily in the back of the vehicle, the thrust structure. And as a result, Columbia weighed approximately 8,000 pounds more than the subsequent vehicles that were built. You couldn't tell that on landing because all of the flying of the vehicle is done through a computer. The pilot moves a control stick and tells the computer what you want the vehicle to do and the computer sends the signals out to the elevons and moves them appropriately and that fly-by-wire system kind of erases any of the perturbations you might see between various vehicles because of weight or anything else. We did adjust landing speed a little bit more because of that, but really nothing more than that and from a pilot standpoint I couldn't tell the difference between flying Columbia and Challenger a little bit later.
Tim from Gallagher
What is your favorite memory of the Columbia? By the way, it was an honor to meet you at the STS-65 landing of Columbia.
Well I've got lots of favorite memories and it's hard to encompass them all. I think I like my friend John Young's answer best on that is the part between take-off and landing is probably my favorite. It's a marvelous flying machine and having the opportunity to fly in space and be weightless is something you can't duplicate here on earth. It's one of those kinds of things that's ingrained in my brain and will never go away thank goodness. It was a remarkable opportunity to fly that first flight.

Host: And the view of Earth that you get from the vehicle?

On orbit being able to float and being able to look out the windows is the most remarkable thing you can find. It's hard to get the astronauts to do any work because they would like to spend all their time doing that.
Tom from Levittown, NY
I always thought that due to Columbia's increased weight, the payload it was capable of launching was not as great. If that's true, were any modifications done on Columbia for the STS-93 mission which launched the heaviest shuttle payload to date?
There was a restriction on how much payload Columbia could take into orbit because of the additional 8,000 pounds. I told you it carried back in the rear-end and as a result it could not carry some of the heavier payloads. We did a lot of modifications to all of the vehicles and continue to do so with the best of my knowledge to reduce the weight, but I'm not exactly familiar on that particular flight weight-wise but I don't think that it was the heaviest payload. Host: And there were a number of modifications made to reduce the weight of the Columbia? Right, they were continuing to change the wiring systems and a number of other things to take weight out of the vehicle to increase the payload capability.
Dave from Fair Play, SC
How would you characterize Columbia's legacy?
Well, Columbia was certainly a pioneer space shuttle being the first one to fly and it did a lot of things that other people will remember. That fall more in the aspect of science because it couldn’t carry some of the heavier payloads it did become our scientific laboratory on orbit, carrying up Space Lab and the capability to perform experiments was used extensively on it. It was also used in the Chandra launch and the Hubble Space Telescope last repair mission. So I say it is going to be known for being a pioneer and being one of the science facilities for the program. Of course the loss of the Columbia will be something that will always be remembered, especially those of us that have actually touched and helped prepare her, the folks here at the Kennedy Space Center I know felt a great deal of loss just as I did. So that loss will also be there and it will help us remember what the crew did and what the Columbia did in sacrifice in helping us advance science.
Thomas from Odessa, Texas
The past accident with the Space Shuttle Columbia was very tragic. Now that it has spaceflight (and all its hazards) back in the spotlight, people are wondering how to make it safer. As a result of the Columbia tragedy, will NASA plan in the future to attempt the RTLS (Return To Launch Site) maneuver with the space shuttle?
The space shuttle has a number of abort modes if something should go wrong during ascent and the first one we have is a Return To Landing Site abort mode, RTLS is what we call it. It's available during about the first three - four minutes of flight. It is a maneuver that some people think is a little bit scary because you have to flip around and fly the vehicle backwards for some period of time to get it slowed down so that you can initiate the velocity vector back toward the launch site. It could be a challenging maneuver to perform, but it's necessary if you lose a main engine shortly after lift-off. People have looked at ways to minimize that and I didn't have to do an RTLS, but to the best of knowledge we don't have a way around that if you lose an engine early in flight. So I think RTLS is going to be with us for a while and if we ever have to perform one, I personally believe the vehicle will do it very well.
Eileen Smith from Webster, Texas
First I'd like to say it was thrilling to meet you and John Young at a landing party after STS-1. Can you give us some of your personal memories of that first flight of Columbia?
I could probably talk about that for several hours, but as I said earlier the best part is between take-off and landing, but from laying on the pad out here at the Kennedy Space Center setting still for all practical purposes. After lift-off to going 17,500 miles an hour takes eight and a half minutes and there's not another ride like it. It's the most exciting thing I can imagine. Mostly on that first flight my eyeballs were pretty wide trying to soak it all in. The first part of the flight is a little bit shaky from a standpoint there is a vibration mode generated by the solid rocket boosters and you go through Mock 1 or go faster than the speed of sound, which causes some shock waves to move across the orbiter. All of those things have things bouncing around a little bit, but it's still not detrimental to the crews' capability to monitor what's going on. Shortly after the solid rocket boosters go away, it's about as smooth as you and I sitting in this chair except there is no real sense of motion, there is a big dramatic change in acceleration on the vehicle from when the solids go away to when you are sitting, Lisa, there with only your three main engines burning, but you gradually accelerate back up again to 3 G's and then you get the dramatic shift of the engines cutting off and all of a sudden things around you are floating, the crew is strapped down so you don't see it so much until you come out of your seats, but that's the other part as I talked about earlier, being able to float in space is a really unique thing and in the cabin on board the space shuttle is large enough that you can really enjoy that, and as we talked about earlier we have nice windows in the shuttles' orbiters and have a chance to look out of them at the Earth is a dramatic thing, one that I will never forget, you're going around the Earth once every hour and a half. Truthfully on that first flight with only John and I on-board, I found myself pretty busy most of time and didn't have the opportunity to gawk out as much as I wanted to. It was nicer being the commander on subsequent flights where we had more people and I could delegate and I could go look out the window. Entry was a beautiful thing; it's kind of like outside the windows when you're on the dark side of the Earth it kind of glows a nice, beautiful pink color kind of like I talk about it like you're flying through a neon tube and then being able to come back and land on the runway, much more graceful way to return to Earth than previously when folks had to come in capsules on parachutes, so it is all a dramatic thing that I will always remember and think about with great fondness in my heart.
John from Ft. Wayne, Ind.
With the flight rate as low as it is, had any thought been given to retiring Columbia? It seems to me that OV-102 had earned its place alongside the Wright Flyer, and that perhaps it should not have remained operational longer than absolutely necessary.
Well, we designed each of the vehicles from a structural standpoint to fly 100 times. I forget the exact number, but it was around 25 that Columbia had flown so it was only a quarter of the way into its lifetime. I think we could have flown Columbia out to 20 or 30 or so if it had survived. There was no thought in my mind that we would retire it. It did have some restrictions on missions it could do, but it was still providing a very valuable service to us, so to the best of my knowledge NASA never talked about retiring it and I think that would have been the wrong thing to do. We did retire the Enterprise, which we used for approach and landing tests and is going to be in the new building out at Dulles Airport that the Smithsonian's putting together, but when the vehicle is operational like that it is a waste from my standpoint to not utilize it.
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center