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Space Shuttle Columbia

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Space Shuttle Columbia
Columbia launches on its final mission, STS-107
OV designation OV-102
Country United States
Contract award July 26 1972
Named after Robert Gray’s Columbia Rediviva
Status Destroyed February 1 2003
First flight STS-1
April 12 1981 - April 14 1981
Last flight STS-107
January 16 2003 February 1 2003
Number of missions 28
Crew members 160
Time spent in space 300.74 days
Number of orbits 4,808
Distance travelled 125,204,911 miles (201,497,772 km)
Satellites deployed 8
Mir dockings 0
ISS dockings 0

Space Shuttle Columbia (NASA Orbiter Vehicle Designation: OV-102) was the first spaceworthy space shuttle in NASA's orbital fleet. Its first mission, STS-1, lasted from April 12 to April 14, 1981. On February 1, 2003, Columbia disintegrated during re-entry over Texas, on its 28th mission, killing all seven crew members.


Construction began on Columbia in 1975 primarily in Palmdale, California. Columbia was named after the Boston-based sloop Columbia captained by American Robert Gray, who explored the Pacific Northwest and became the first American vessel to circumnavigate the world; the name also honored Columbia, the Command Module of Apollo 11. After construction, the orbiter arrived at John F. Kennedy Space Centre on March 25, 1979, to prepare for its first launch. On March 19, 1981, during preparations for a ground test, five workers were asphyxiated during a nitrogen purge, resulting in five deaths.

The first flight of Columbia ( STS-1) was commanded by John Young (a space veteran from the Gemini and Apollo eras) and piloted by Robert Crippen, who had never been in space before, but who served as a support crew member for the Skylab missions and Apollo-Soyuz. It launched on April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of human spaceflight, and returned on April 14, 1981, after orbiting the Earth 36 times. Columbia then undertook three further research missions to test its technical characteristics and performance. Its first operational mission, with a four-man crew, was STS-5, which launched on November 11, 1982. At this point Columbia was joined by Challenger, which performed the next three shuttle missions.

Columbia astronauts Thomas K. Mattingly and Pilot Henry W. Hartsfield salute President Ronald Reagan, standing beside his wife, Nancy, upon landing in 1982.

In 1983, Columbia undertook its second operational mission ( STS-9), this time with six astronauts, including the first non-American astronaut on a space shuttle, Ulf Merbold. Columbia was not used for the next three years, during which time the shuttle fleet was expanded to include Discovery and Atlantis.

Columbia returned to space on January 12, 1986, with the launch of STS-61-C. The mission's crew included Dr. Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, as well as the first sitting member of the House of Representatives to venture into space, Bill Nelson.

The next shuttle mission was undertaken by Challenger. It was launched on January 28, 1986, ten days after STS-61-C had landed. The mission ended in disaster shortly after launch. In the aftermath NASA's shuttle timetable was disrupted, and Columbia was not flown again until 1988 (on STS-28), after which it resumed normal service as part of the shuttle fleet.

STS-93, launched on July 23, 1999, was commanded by Lt. Col. Eileen Collins.

Prototype orbiter

Columbia was roughly 8,000 lb (3,600 kg) heavier than subsequent orbiters such as Endeavour, which were of a slightly different design, and had benefitted from advances in materials technology. In part this was due to heavier wing and fuselage spars, the weight of early test instrumentation that remained fitted to the avionics suite, and an internal airlock that was not fitted to the other shuttles. Despite refinements to the launcher's thermal protection system and other enhancements, Columbia would never weigh as little unloaded as the other orbiters in the fleet. The next-oldest shuttle, Challenger, was also relatively heavy, although 2,200 lb (1,000 kg). lighter than Columbia.

Externally, Columbia was the only orbiter in the fleet that had an all-tile thermal protection system (TPS), although this was later modified to incorporate nomex felt insulation blankets on the fuselage and upper wing surfaces. The work was performed during Columbia's first retrofitting and the post-Challenger stand-down. Also unique to Columbia were the black "chines" on the upper surfaces of the shuttle's forward wing. These black areas were added because the first shuttle's designers did not know how reentry heating would affect the craft's upper wing surfaces.

Until its last refit, Columbia was the only operational orbiter with wing markings consisting of an American flag on the left wing and the letters "USA" on the right. Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour all until 1998 bore markings consisting of the letters "USA" afore an American flag on the left wing, and the pre-1998 NASA "worm" logo afore the respective orbiter's name on the right wing. From its last refit to its destruction, Columbia bore markings identical to those of its sister orbiters — the NASA "meatball" logo on the left wing and the American flag afore the "Columbia" designation on the right; Columbia's distinctive wing "chines" remained.

Another unique external feature, termed the "SILTS" pod, was located on the top of Columbia's tailfin, and was installed after STS-9 to acquire infrared and other thermal data. Though the pod's equipment was removed after initial tests, NASA decided to leave it in place, mainly to save costs, along with the agency's plans to use it for future experiments. The tailfin was later modified to incorporate the drag chute first used on Endeavour in 1992.

Columbia on the launch pad before its first mission.

Internally, Columbia was originally fitted with Lockheed-Martin-built ejection seats identical to those found on the SR-71 Blackbird. These seats were active on the initial series of orbital test flights, but were deactivated after STS-4 and were removed entirely after STS-9. Columbia was also the only orbiter not delivered with heads-up displays for the Commander and Pilot, although these were incorporated after STS-9. Like its sister ships, Columbia was eventually retrofitted (at its last refit) with the new MEDS "glass cockpit" display and lightweight seats. Unlike the other orbiters, Columbia retained an internal airlock, but was modified so that it could be fitted to accept the external airlock and docking adapter needed for flights to the International Space Station. This retention of an internal airlock allowed NASA to use Columbia for the STS-109 Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, along with the Spacehab double module used on STS-107. If Columbia had not been destroyed, it would have been fitted with the external airlock/docking adapter for mission STS-118, an International Space Station assembly mission, in November 2003.

After the STS-118 mission, Columbia’s career would have started to wind down. The shuttle was planned to service the Hubble Space Telescope two more times, once in 2004, and again in 2005, but no more missions were planned for it again until 2009 when, on STS-144, it would retrieve the Hubble Space Telescope from orbit and bring it back to Earth.


Space Shuttle Columbia flew 28 flights, spent 300.74-days in space, completed 4,808 orbits, and flew 125,204,911 miles (201,497,772 km) in total, including its final mission.

Columbia is the only shuttle to have been spaceworthy during the Shuttle-Mir and International Space Station programs and yet to have never visited either Mir or ISS. In contrast, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour have all visited both stations at least once. Challenger was destroyed before the Shuttle-Mir Program began, and Enterprise never flew in space.

Columbia launching during STS-1. The original white-painted external tank, as well as Columbia's distinctive black chines, are clearly visible
# Date Designation Launch pad Landing location Notes
1 1981 April 12 STS-1 39-A Edwards Air Force Base First Shuttle mission
2 1981 November 12 STS-2 39-A Edwards Air Force Base First re-use of manned space vehicle
3 1982 March 22 STS-3 39-A White Sands Space Harbour First mission with an unpainted External tank.
Only time that a space shuttle has landed at the White Sands Space Harbour. This launch was dedicated by Ronald Reagan to "the people of Afghanistan".
4 1982 June 27 STS-4 39-A Edwards Air Force Base Last shuttle R&D flight
5 1982 November 11 STS-5 39-A Edwards Air Force Base First four-person crew, first deployment of commercial satellite.
6 1983 November 28 STS-9 39-A Edwards Air Force Base First six-person crew, first Spacelab.
7 1986 January 12 STS-61-C 39-A Edwards Air Force Base Representative Bill Nelson ( D-FL) on board/ final successful shuttle flight before Challenger disaster
8 1989 August 8 STS-28 39-B Edwards Air Force Base Launched KH-11 reconnaissance satellite
9 1990 January 9 STS-32 39-A Edwards Air Force Base Retrieved Long Duration Exposure Facility
10 1990 December 2 STS-35 39-B Edwards Air Force Base Carried multiple X-ray & UV telescopes
11 1991 June 5 STS-40 39-B Edwards Air Force Base 5th Spacelab - Life Sciences-1
12 1992 June 25 STS-50 39-A Kennedy Space Centre U.S. Microgravity Laboratory 1 (USML-1)
13 1992 October 22 STS-52 39-B Kennedy Space Centre Deployed Laser Geodynamic Satellite II
14 1993 April 26 STS-55 39-A Edwards Air Force Base German Spacelab D-2 Microgravity Research
15 1993 October 18 STS-58 39-B Edwards Air Force Base Spacelab Life Sciences
16 1994 March 4 STS-62 39-B Kennedy Space Centre United States Microgravity Payload-2 (USMP-2)
17 1994 July 8 STS-65 39-A Kennedy Space Centre International Microgravity Laboratory (IML-2)
18 1995 October 20 STS-73 39-B Kennedy Space Centre United States Microgravity Laboratory (USML-2)
19 1996 February 22 STS-75 39-B Kennedy Space Centre Tethered Satellite System Reflight (TSS-1R)
20 1996 June 20 STS-78 39-B Kennedy Space Centre Life and Microgravity Spacelab (LMS)
21 1996 November 19 STS-80 39-B Kennedy Space Centre 3rd flight of Wake Shield Facility (WSF)/ longest Shuttle flight as of 2006
22 1997 April 4 STS-83 39-A Kennedy Space Centre Microgravity Science Laboratory (MSL)- cut short
23 1997 July 1 STS-94 39-A Kennedy Space Centre Microgravity Science Laboratory (MSL)- reflight
24 1997 November 19 STS-87 39-B Kennedy Space Centre United States Microgravity Payload (USMP-4)
25 1998 April 13 STS-90 39-B Kennedy Space Centre Neurolab - Spacelab
26 1999 July 23 STS-93 39-B Kennedy Space Centre Deployed Chandra X-ray Observatory
27 2002 March 1 STS-109 39-A Kennedy Space Centre Hubble Space Telescope service mission (HSM-3B)
28 2003 January 16 STS-107 39-A Did not land (Planned to land at KSC) A multi-disciplinary microgravity and Earth science research mission. Shuttle destroyed during re-entry on February 1, 2003 and all seven astronauts on board perished.

Final mission and destruction

On its final mission, Columbia carried a crew of seven astronauts: Rick Husband (commander), Willie McCool (pilot), Michael P. Anderson, Laurel B. Clark, David M. Brown, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, and Kalpana Chawla.

Columbia at 8:57 AM February 1, 2003 over central New Mexico. Debris is visible coming off the left wing.

On the morning of February 1, 2003, the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere after a 16-day scientific mission. NASA lost radio contact at about 0900 EST, only minutes before the expected 0916 landing at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. Video recordings show the craft breaking up in flames over Texas, at an altitude of approximately 39 miles (63 km) and a speed of 12,500 mph (5.6 km/s).

In the months following the tragedy, NASA scientists determined that a hole was punctured in the leading edge on one of Columbia's wings, made of a carbon-carbon composite. The hole had formed when a piece of insulating foam from the external fuel tank peeled off during the launch 16 days earlier, puncturing the edge of the wing. Hot gases, inaccurately described in initial reports as plasma, penetrated the interior of the wing, destroying the support structure and causing the rest of the shuttle to break apart during the intense heat of re-entry.

Forensic analysis of the debris was conducted jointly with the Materials Science department of Lehigh University. The collected debris of the vessel is currently stored on the 16th floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Centre; recovered items are occasionally loaned for research into the hypersonic flight regime. Former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe vowed that Columbia will not be sealed away as was the debris from the Challenger. The debris from Challenger is permanently entombed in two Minuteman missile silos at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.


The shuttle's final crew was honored in 2003 when the USGS's Board of Geographic Names approved the name Columbia Point for a 13,980' mountain in Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Not more than a half-mile away lies Challenger Point, a peak named for America's other lost shuttle. The Columbia Hills on Mars were also named in honour of the crew, and a host of other memorials were dedicated in various forms.

Fans of the original Star Trek television series were largely responsible for NASA naming the first Space Shuttle Enterprise. In the television series Star Trek: Enterprise both the first and second starships of the human-built NX-Class were named in honour of pre-existing NASA space shuttles. The second starship's name was first revealed in the season 3 episode "E²" to be Columbia, in honour of the space shuttle Columbia following its destruction on February 1, 2003. Uniforms worn by crewmembers serving on this starship bore a patch similar to that on the uniforms worn by the space shuttle Columbia crewmembers, with 7 individual stars visible. Stars are often used on NASA mission insignias to represent the number of crewmembers.

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