Space Shuttle Columbia

Space Shuttle Columbia OV-102
Columbia being transported to launch pad 39A prior to launching on STS-107
OV designationOV-102
CountryUnited States
Contract awardJuly 26, 1972
Named afterRobert Gray’s Columbia Rediviva
StatusDestroyed February 1, 2003
First flightSTS-1
April 12, 1981 - April 14, 1981
Last flightSTS-107
January 16, 2003 – February 1, 2003
Number of missions28
Crews160
Time spent in space300.74 days
Number of orbits4,808
Distance travelled125,204,911 miles (201,497,772 km)
Satellites deployed8

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.

History

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 Center on March 25, 1979, to prepare for its first launch. On March 19, 1981, during preparations for a ground test, two workers were asphyxiated during a nitrogen purge, resulting in their 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 1989 (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, the first female Commander of a U.S. spacecraft.

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.

Columbia launching during STS-1. The original white-painted external tank, as well as Columbia's distinctive black chines, are clearly visible

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 orbiter's name 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. Since the Columbia Accident, NASA flew the STS-125 mission, using the Atlantis, to perform the final service mission (incorporating the planned fourth and fifth servicing missions), and in the process, installed a "Soft Capture Docking Mechanism," based on the docking adapter to be used on the Orion spacecraft, for an eventual atomospheric reentry and breakup, as this would occur after the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2010.

Columbia was also scheduled to launch the X-38 V-201 Crew Return Vehicle prototype as the next mission after STS-118, until the cancellation of the project in 2002.