The idea of a reusable Space Transportation System (STS) was floated as early as the 1960s, as a way to cut down on the cost of space travel. The final design was a reusable, winged “spaceplane”, a disposable external tank and reusable solid fuel rocket boosters. The ‘Space Truck’ program was approved in 1972, the prime contract awarded to North American Aviation (later Rockwell International), with the first orbiter completed in 1976.
Early Approach and Landing Tests were conducted with the first prototype, dubbed “Enterprise”, in 1977. A total of 16 tests, all atmospheric, were conducted from February to October of that year, the lessons learned applied to the first spaceworthy vehicle in NASA’s orbital fleet.
STS-1, the first mission of the “Space Shuttle” program launched aboard “Columbia” from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. It was April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of the first human spaceflight, aboard the Russian Vostok 1. It was the first, and to-date only, manned maiden test flight of a new spacecraft system in the US space program.
This first flight of Columbia would be commanded by Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young, and piloted by Robert Crippen. It was the first of 135 missions in the Space Shuttle program, the first of only two to take off with its external hydrogen fuel tank painted white. From STS-3 on, the external tank would be left unpainted to save weight.
There were initially four fully functional orbiters in the STS program: Columbia was joined after the first five missions by “Challenger”, then “Discovery”, and finally “Atlantis”. A fifth orbiter, “Endeavor”, was built in 1991 to replace Challenger, which broke apart 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986, killing all seven of its crew.
All told, Columbia flew 28 missions with 160 crew members, traveling 125,204,911 miles in 4,808 orbits around the planet.
STS-107 launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on January 16, 2003. A piece of insulating foam broke away from the external fuel tank eighty seconds after launch, striking Columbia’s left wing and leaving a small hole in the carbon composite tiles along the leading edge. Three previous Space Shuttle missions had experienced similar damage and, while some engineers thought this one could be more serious, they were unable to pinpoint the precise location or extent of the damage. NASA managers believed that, even if there had been major damage, little could be done about it.
These carbon tiles are all that stands between the orbiter and the searing heat of re-entry. Columbia’s 300 days, 17 hours, forty minutes and 22 seconds in space came to an end on the morning of February 1, 2003, as it broke up in the outer atmosphere. 231,000 feet over the California coast and traveling 23 times the speed of sound, external temperatures rose to 3,000°F, when hot gases penetrated the interior of the wing. The first debris began falling to the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am. The last communication from the crew came one minute later. Columbia disintegrated in the skies over East Texas at 9:00am eastern standard time.
Debris and crew remains were found in over 2,000 locations across Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. The only survivors of the disaster was a canister full of worms, taken into space for study.
Payload Specialist Colonel Ilan Ramon, born Ilan Wolferman, was an Israeli fighter pilot and the first Israeli astronaut to join the NASA space program. Colonel Ramon’s mother is an Auschwitz survivor, his grandfather and several family members killed in the Nazi death camps. In their memory, Ramon carried a copy of “Moon Landscape”, a drawing by 14 year old holocaust victim Petr Ginz, depicting what the boy thought earth might look like from the moon. Today, there are close to 84,000 pieces of Columbia and assorted debris, stored in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. To the best of my knowledge, that drawing by a 14 year old boy who never made it out of Auschwitz, is not among them.