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Setting the Pace
STS-1 launches into space NASA ushered in a new era of spaceflight with the space shuttle's inaugural launch in 1981, setting the pace for a decade that would bring monumental leaps in aeronautic achievements.

Image left: Space Shuttle Columbia launches on mission STS-1, now called 'the boldest test flight in history.' Photo credit NASA/KSC

After a two-year checkout of the orbiter, the program kicked off on April 12, 1981, with the successful launch of Space Shuttle Columbia on mission STS-1. The first operational test flight from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A carried Commander John Young and Pilot Bob Crippen into orbit.

Young said Kennedy employees did a lot of work to prepare the vehicle for launch after it arrived in 1978. "We were delighted when we got into orbit," Young said. "We learned that we can build a complicated vehicle and make it work very well."

The early flights helped NASA build on its knowledge of the vehicle and its capabilities.

STS-1 astronauts Robert Crippen and John Young "We learned that humans in space are very adaptable and capable. And we also learned that the vehicle required a lot of care and was not forgiving of mistakes," Crippen said.

Image right: Robert Crippen and John Young are honored on the 25th anniversary of Columbia's maiden launch. Photo credit NASA/George Shelton

Dr. Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut to fly on a space shuttle, was a mission specialist on STS-8, launching aboard Challenger on Aug. 30, 1983.

"I wanted to set the standards of excellence for African-American astronauts and to help demonstrate the benefits of diversity in manned space operations," Bluford said.

NASA astronaut Dr. Guion Bluford The agency accomplished many firsts, such as retrieving solid rocket boosters, landing the shuttle at White Sands, New Mexico, deploying two commercial communications satellites, and performing tethered and untethered spacewalks.

Image left: Bluford was the first African-American to become a NASA astronaut. With the completion of his fourth flight on mission STS-53, he logged over 688 hours in space. Photo credit NASA/JSC

The decade also included the first flight by an American woman astronaut (Sally Ride), a Hispanic astronaut (Franklin Chiang-Diaz) and an African-American commander (Frederick Gregory), as well as the first Spacelab mission and shuttle landing at KSC. The first deep-space probe, Magellan, was carried aboard Atlantis on mission STS-30 on May 4, 1989.

After 18 operational flights that safely carried 116 astronauts and more than 30 major payloads into orbit aboard shuttles Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis, challenging times arrived.

The NASA family lost the seven-member crew of Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, when a solid rocket booster engine failure caused the shuttle to break apart just 73 seconds after launch on mission 51-L. Gene Thomas was launch director on that fateful day.

"We learned the reality of space travel can be extremely hazardous and that it will never be completely safe and routine," Thomas said. After the agency investigation, he led the effort to reorganize the center's safety, quality and reliability operations.

Space shuttle flights resumed with the launch of Discovery on mission STS-26 on Sept. 29, 1988.

During the '80s, expendable launch vehicle operations at Kennedy were evolving into what would later become NASA's Launch Services Program.

Launching Delta and Atlas rockets Image right: The Expendable Launch Vehicle program relied upon the Delta (at left launching the Solar Maximum Mission in February 1980) and Atlas (launching Intelsat V in December 1981) launch vehicles in the 1980s. Photo credit NASA/KSC

Working with Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the Lewis Research Center (now Glenn Research Center) in Cleveland, Kennedy planned and conducted 47 launches from Launch Complexes 17, 36 and 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Atlas-Centaurs launched Intelsat international communications satellites into orbit, while Delta vehicles launched SATCOM domestic communications satellites.

The launch of an Atlas-Centaur carrying a U.S. Fleet Satellite Communications spacecraft on March 26, 1987, during a thunderstorm resulted in the loss of the spacecraft and a complete redefinition of the weather constraints for all launch vehicles.

During the 1988-89 timeframe, the agency took initial steps to transition from owning and directing the flight hardware to the role of buying a launch service.

The Delta and Atlas launch teams were merged into one launch operations division and the launch pads were transferred to the U.S. Air Force. This progression led to the overall Expendable Launch Vehicle Program's location at Kennedy Space Center.

Linda Herridge
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center