April 12, 1981: the 20th anniversary of the first manned spaceflight in history. On that morning, a new generation of spaceship stood poised for launch from complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Representing a completely new and innovative approach to spaceflight, the Space Shuttle program embarked on its first mission that mid-April morning. Utilizing pioneer orbiter Columbia, the world’s first reusable spaceship would go on to fly 28 highly successful missions, bringing an unprecedented wealth of knowledge and unforgettable moments to the world community.
The Early Years of Space Shuttle Columbia: 1981-1994:
Named in honor of Captain Robert Gray’s Boston-based sloop Columbia – which was used in the 1790s exploration of the Pacific Northwest, including the exploration of the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon, and became the first American vessel to circumnavigate the globe – and the Apollo 11 Command Module, the contract to begin construction on OV-102 (Orbiter Vehicle 102) was awarded to Rockwell International on July 26, 1972 – the same day the contract to construct STA-099 (later orbiter Challenger) was awarded.
This date is somewhat of an odd occurrence, as it would be on this day 33-years later (July 26, 2005) that sister orbiter Discovery would launch on the first Space Shuttle mission following the loss of Columbia.
Assembly formally began on the crew module the following year on June 28, followed on September 13 by the start of assembly on the aft fuselage.
On December 13, 1976, engineers began assembling Columbia’s forward fuselage. After a quick break for the end of the year holidays, crews returned and immediately began assembly of the vertical stabilizer on January 3, 1977.
By August 26, Columbia’s distinctive delta wings were on-dock at Palmdale, CA from Grumman. On October 28, the lower fuselage was also on-dock at Palmdale.
Final assembly of Columbia began on November 7, 1977. Her Body Flap arrived at Palmdale three months later on February 24, 1978, as did her Payload Bay door segments on April 28.
On February 3, 1979, technicians completed combined systems testing on Columbia and proceeded on to completion of airlock door installation by February 16 as well as vehicle post-checkout completion by March 5.
From there, crews conducted closeout inspection and procedures for final acceptance at Palmdale by March 8.
On this same day, Columbia rolled out of her Palmdale construction facility and was transported overland to Dryden for her official unveiling ceremony and mating to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) for the start of the ferry flight to Kennedy on March 9.
However, an initial oversight forced a delay to the start date of the ferry flight to March 10 when the hoisting sling on the Mate-Demate (MDM) device was found to still be in configuration for orbiter Enterprise and out of alignment for Columbia.
With Columbia finally mated, Dryden ordered a short test flight of Columbia on the SCA to validate the aerodynamic properties of the mated duo. This was done in large part due to the fact that 7,800 of Columbia’s 31,000 TPS (Thermal Protection System) tiles were still uninstalled.
The gaps in the TPS were filled with temporary materials to steady the vehicle’s aerodynamic form.
On the afternoon of March 10, Columbia, perched atop the SCA, glided down the runway for the test flight. Even before the Shuttle/SCA duo lifted off the ground, thousands of TPS tiles (both temporary and permanent) began streaming off the vehicle.
With the test flight aborted, Columbia was taken to the MDM, taken off the SCA, and rolled into a hanger at Edwards.
Over 100 men and woman spent the next nine days removing and reapplying the dummy TPS tiles with a new adhesive agent and bonding method, which required drilling holes into the corners of the tiles.
The new adhesion method was successfully tested on a T-38 on March 18, and Columbia was cleared for transport to Kennedy on March 19/20.
However, the timeline was not to be as a powerful Pacific northwest storm forced a delay to the take-off until March 20.
That placed the storm, which swept across the continental US, in front of Columbia. Since the teams transporting Columbia could not traverse the storm because of strict safety rules (still in place today), they were forced to wait out the storm at various air force bases in the US.
On March 20, Columbia was transported from Edwards Air Force Base, CA to Biggs Air Force Base in El Paso, TX when bad weather prevented a scheduled landing and refueling in San Antonio.
The following day, in less-than-ideal weather, Columbia reached San Antonio where she remained for the night.
On March 23, Columbia entered her home state of Florida and was brought to Eglin Air Force Base. Then, on the morning of March 24, Columbia departed Eglin en route to Kennedy.
By the time Columbia arrived at the Kennedy Space Center, it was abundantly clear – despite highly optimistic schedules from NASA managers – that Columbia would not be able to meet a target November 1979 launch date.
On March 25, one day after her arrival at Kennedy, Columbia was rolled into OPF-1 (Orbiter Processing Facility bay 1). She was destined to spend 610 days in the OPF undergoing processing for STS-1. This 610-day stay in the OPF is the longest any Shuttle orbiter has ever spent in the OPF for flight-specific processing.
Work immediately began to reapply certain portions of the Columbia’s TPS with new bonding agents, as well as complete bonding of the now-missing ~9,000 TPS tiles. As work continued in 1979, Columbia’s Auxiliary Power Units (APUs) were installed and hot fire tested inside OPF-1 on November 3. Integrated Orbiter testing of all of Columbia’s systems began on December 16, 1979 and finished on January 12, 1980.
TPS and final flight preparations continued through 1980 as did SRB (Solid Rocket Booster) and ET (External Tank) stacking and mating.
Then, after 19 months in the OPF, Columbia was ready to roll to the VAB for mating with ET-2. Rollover occurred in the morning hours of November 24, 1980.
Receiving a passing grade on integrated ops, Columbia and the STS-1 stack were rolled out to Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) on December 29, 1980 ahead of a spring launch.
As mid-February 1981 arrived, teams at Pad-A began prepping the vehicle for the wet countdown dress rehearsal and Flight Readiness Firing (FRF) of her three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs).
The wet countdown dress rehearsal gave Launch Teams an opportunity to practice and refine the procedures they would use during Columbia’s actual launch countdown as well as test the effectiveness of the newly installed and added Gaseous Oxygen Vent Arm/System – which was added to the launch pad structure to prevent ice buildup on the top of the ET following pad testing by orbiter Enterprise a few years earlier.
The test provided valuable insight for the launch team and culminated on February 20, 1981 when Columbia’s engines ignited and burned for 20 seconds.
The FRF resulted in slight changes to certain pre-launch procedures, most notably the time prior to SSME start that the ROFIs (Radial Outward Firing Initiators – or hydrogen burn-off system) are ignited. During the FRF for STS-1, the ROFIs were started at the same moment as SSME ignition. For STS-1 and all subsequent missions, the ROFIs were started 4.4-seconds prior to SSME ignition.
With a successful FRF, Columbia’s maiden flight was then set for March. However, a series of issues, including the asphyxiation deaths of two Rockwell technicians on March 19 following a countdown rehearsal, pushed the launch to April 5, then April 7, and then April 10 to verify TPS foam fixes to Columbia’s External Tank.
With the final postponement, launch was set for 0650 EST 10 April 1981.
On April 10, the countdown went well and all was on schedule for an on time liftoff. Columbia’s crew, Commander John Young (who was standing on the surface of the moon when the Space Shuttle Program was authorized by Congress) and Pilot Bob Crippen, boarded the vehicle, and the countdown reached the T-9min and holding mark. During this hold, teams in Houston and Kennedy continued to work a timing skew between Columbia’s redundant computers (4 total) and the backup computer (the 5th computer).
The issue, which appeared at T-20mins, occurred when the computers transitioned to launch mode from pre-launch mode. Communication between the redundant computers and the backup computer failed to occur at this time.
The countdown was recycled to T-20mins, but the backup computer failed to signal the redundant computers. Computer techs in Houston discovered a 40-millisecond slew between the timing of the backup computer and the redundant computers.
Reprogramming the computers would correct the issue, but the reprogramming would take one day to complete. Thus, the launch was scrubbed and rescheduled for 0700 EST 12 April 1981.
On April 12, the countdown proceeded on schedule. At T-9mins and hold, the Gaseous Oxygen (GOX) Vent Arm was retracted from the top of the ET. (For all flights subsequent to STS-1, the GOX vent arm was retracted in a sequence beginning at T-2mins 55secs (the time of LOX – Liquid Oxygen – tank pressurization for flight) and ending at T-1min 30secs).
At T-25secs, the Ground Launch Sequencer handed off control of the countdown and vehicle systems to Columbia’s computers.
Then, at T-3.8secs, the commands to start Columbia’s 3 SSMEs were issued and all three engines steadily built to 90 percent of rated thrust by T+0.24secs.
At T+2.88 seconds, the command to ignite Columbia’s SRBs was issued, as were the commands to blow the eight SRB hold down bolts and disconnect the three T0 umbilicals (two attached to Columbia’s aft – through which the Liquid Oxygen and Liquid Hydrogen were loaded in Columbia’s External Tank – and one on the ET through which gaseous hydrogen was safely vented from the ET) attached to the vehicle.
At this moment, the countdown reverted back to T0.
At 07:00:03 EST, the Space Shuttle Columbia – the most complex machine ever built – left LC-39A, on only its second launch attempt after 105 days on the launch pad, to inaugurate the Space Shuttle Program. Liftoff of STS-1 occurred exactly 20 years to the day of the first manned space flight by Yuri Gagarin.
STS-1/Columbia also became the first American manned spacecraft to launch without an unmanned test flight. STS-1 was the first time that the entire Shuttle vehicle (Orbiter, SRBs, ET, SSMEs) were flown together, and the first time that any of these elements underwent an actual launch.
Clearing the launch tower, Columbia executed a perfect roll/pitch/yaw maneuver to place herself on the proper alignment for a 40.3 degree 166nm orbit.
Due largely to the unflown nature of the entire Shuttle stack, Columbia’s ascent profile was slightly higher in altitude than expected, prompting mission controllers in Houston to inform the crew that they’d be “a little high at staging.”
After 2mins 12secs, the SRBs separated from the ET and successfully parachuted into the Atlantic ocean off the coast of Daytona Beach.
At 8mins 32secs after liftoff, Columbia’s SSMEs were commanded to MECO (Main Engine Cutoff) and the vehicle entered its preliminary orbit – thus accomplishing one of the three primary mission objectives: to achieve a safe ascent to orbit.
Upon opening of Columbia’s payload bay doors, it was observed that several TPS tiles were missing from Columbia’s OMS (Orbital Maneuvering System) pods. This was directly tied to a larger-than-expected overpressure wave from the SRBs at ignition which caused the loss of 16 TPS tiles, with damage of 148 others.
The observed loss of TPS tiles on the OMS pods raised the concern that TPS tiles on the underside of Columbia – a much more critical heat management area during atmospheric reentry – could prove dangerous and complicating.
Despite this concern, the mission pressed ahead and Young and Crippen tested Columbia’s flight systems successfully on FD-1 (Flight Day 1) and FD-2 – including the pre-entry checklist to prepare and test Columbia’s systems for reentry on FD-3. This accomplished the second of three primary mission objectives.
To this end, the only payload carried by Columbia on STS-1 was the Development Flight Instrumentation (DFI) package, which recorded orbiter stresses and performance during launch, orbit, and entry/descent/landing.
At 10:18 PST, Columbia announced her arrival back to Earth with a thunderous double sonic boom. Two minutes later, at 10:20:57 PST, Columbia gracefully plopped down on runway 23 at Edwards to cap off STS-1.
Columbia was returned to the Kennedy Space Center on April 28 where she was moved into OPF-1 to undergo pre-mission processing, including the reapplication of TPS tiles lost/damaged in the STS-1 launch.
On August 10, 1981, Columbia was rolled out of the OPF and over to the VAB for mating with ET-3. After 21-days in the VAB, Columbia and the STS-2 stack was rolled out to LC-39A on August 31 ahead of an October 9 targeted launch.
Pre-launch preparations continued on track for November 4 and the countdown began on time and proceeded without major issue until the GLS (Ground Launch Sequencer) issued a hold due to a low reading on Fuel Cell oxygen tank pressures.
During this extended hold, high oil pressures were discovered in two of three APUs that operate Columbia’s hydraulic systems. The launch was scrubbed and the APU gear boxes flushed and their filters replaced.
Launch was rescheduled for Nov. 12 at 07:30 EST. On that day, the launch was delayed 2hrs 40mins to replace a multiplexer-demultiplexer and review the system’s status.
At 10:10 EST, exactly 7-months to the day after STS-1, Space Shuttle Columbia, under a revised launch countdown which placed SSME start at T-6.6seconds and SRB ignition at T0, lifted off from Pad-A to begin the second Space Shuttle mission.
Liftoff of STS-2 marked the first time that a manned spacecraft was re-flown into space (thus proving the reusability concept of the Shuttle) and the first and ONLY time that an all rookie crew (Commander Joe Engle and Pilot Richard Truly) flew aboard the Space Shuttle.
After STS-2, NASA instituted a rule that the Commander of any given Space Shuttle mission had to have prior spaceflight experience.
The launch also represented the first use of the modified (beefed up) Sound Suppression water system following the overpressure wave event on STS-1. This time, no TPS tiles were lost and only 12 were damaged.
The mission was also the first to fly the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS) and marked the second and LAST time that the Shuttle’s External Tank was painted white. All subsequent missions would use unpainted tanks – thus creating the iconic and distinctive look of the Shuttle stack.
Once on orbit, Engle and Truly began configuring Columbia’s cockpit for a planned five (5) day mission, with mission objectives to validate the safe ascent, orbital ops, and entry profile of the orbiter as well as initial testing of the SRMS.
Columbia flew with a multitude of payloads, including a re-flight of the DFI and the Orbital Flight Test Pallet (with the Measurement of Air Pollution from Satellite experiment, the Shuttle Multispectral Infrared Radiometer experiment, the Shuttle Imaging Radar experiment, the Features Identification and Location Experiment, and the Ocean Color Experiment).
Shortly after Columbia obtained a stable orbit, a problem with one of the ship’s electricity and water producing Fuel Cells forced the shutdown of one Fuel Cell. Under flight safety rules, a Minimum Duration Flight (MDF) was ordered and the mission was shortened from 5days to 2days – with all SRMS activities cancelled.
However, after the start of a scheduled sleep period, and when the Shuttle was out of contact with Mission Control, Engle and Truly remained awake and performed initial SMRS checkout and validation operations.
In all, 95 percent of STS-2’s mission objectives were accomplished and deemed successful despite the shortened mission.
During entry on November 14, Commander Engle input and manually flew 29 Programmed Test Inputs (PTIs) to test the limits of the orbiter’s stability margins during hypersonic flight. The PTIs were later used for engineering modifications and baseline construction points for sister orbiters Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour.
STS-2 landed on runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base on November 14, 1981 at 13:23:11 PST. The vehicle was returned to KSC on November 25 where Columbia underwent 70-days of OPF processing for STS-3.
She was mated to her ET on February 3, 1982 and moved to Pad-A on February 16 ahead of a planned March 22 launch date.
Pad processing and launch countdown ops proceeded with few issues. On March 22, the launch countdown was held for one hour while crews replaced a failed nitrogen gas line heater for the ground support equipment.
At 11:00 EST, Columbia lifted off on STS-3. This marked the first time that the Space Shuttle launched on its originally intended launch date and the first time that the Shuttle itself was not responsible for any launch-day delays.
Columbia accomplished all of her mission objectives during STS-3, which included demonstration of the safe re-flight of the orbiter and Shuttle systems, thermal tests on orbit by pointing Columbia’s nose, tail, and upper surfaces at the sun for varying periods of time, and continuing testing of the SRMS.
Columbia once again carried the DFI package and the Office of Space Science 1 pallet.
For the first time in Shuttle Program history, several experiments were carried within Columbia’s middeck lockers and were available to her flight crew.
Initially, STS-3’s landing was planned for Edwards, but this was changed after launch to White Sands Missile Range (later Space Harbor), NM when wet conditions on the lake-bed runways at Edwards prevented a safe landing.
The planned seven day mission was extended for one day when winds at White Sands proved unfavorable for landing.
In what was one of the more dynamic landings in the Program’s history, Columbia’s autopilot malfunctioned and ordered the orbiter’s speed brake closed by final approach, thereby increasing the vehicle’s speed during final approach after rolling out of the HAC (Heading Alignment Circle).
The autopilot was disengaged just prior to the pre-flare maneuver (when the orbiter’s nose begins to pull up out of the final approach dive).
With one of the more dramatic landings in the Shuttle program, Columbia’s landing gear was deployed at only 150-ft elevation and was locked into place only 5-seconds prior to touchdown – much later than the usual 17- 12-seconds prior to landing.
Columbia hit the runway at 09:04:46 MST and began rolling out. As customary, Columbia’s main landing gear contacted the runway first, and the Commander began lowering the nose gear. To the surprise of all, just before the nose gear touched, Columbia suddenly pulled a wheelie as her nose gear rose sharply and abruptly.
As a result of the fast touchdown speed and irregular landing gear touchdowns, Columbia’s rollout distance was the longest of any mission (through STS-132 – May 2010) in history at 13,737 feet over 84 seconds.
With this landing, Columbia became the only Shuttle in history to land at White Sands, though STS-116/Discovery in December 2006 came very close to diverting to White Sands until a last-minute hole in the weather opened at Kennedy.
STS-3 also ended a long-standing tradition within NASA to name backup crews to each spaceflight.
Upon post-flight inspections, signification brake damage and dust contamination of Columbia was found as a result from her landing on the desert runway.
Columbia was returned to the Kennedy Space Center on April 6 and spent April 7 – May 19 (44 days) in OPF-1 for pre-flight processing for STS-4. This would be the shortest OPF processing flow for Columbia in her operational history.
The STS-4 stack was rolled to Pad-A on May 26 and launch occurred on time on the first attempt on June 27, 1982. This marked the first time that the Space Shuttle launched precisely at its scheduled launch time.
STS-4 also marked the first of only two Space Shuttle missions (the other being STS-51L/Challenger) in which the SRBs were not recovered from the Atlantic Ocean. The STS-4 SRBs suffered from a parachute malfunction and were destroyed when they impacted the ocean at terminal velocity.
STS-4 was also the first Space Shuttle mission to carry a classified payload (this time for the US Air Force) and represented the final Research and Development Test Flight.
During the flight, Columbia’s two person crew used the Induced Environment Containment Monitor payload to test the SRMS under loaded conditions, participated in medical experiments on themselves, and photographed lightening activity in Earth’s atmosphere.
Columbia spent just over 7 days in space on STS-4 before reentering Earth’s atmosphere and landing on Independence Day 1982 in front of then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, a gathered crowd of thousands at Edwards Air Force Base, and newly completed sister ship Challenger who was awaiting the start of her delivery ferry flight to KSC until after Columbia’s landing.
STS-4 marked the final time that the Shuttle flew with only two crewmembers. All future missions would carry at least four people.
Columbia returned to KSC on July 15 and spent 56-days in the OPF. The STS-5 stack reached Pad-A on September 21, 1982 ahead of a planned November 11 launch.
No delays were experienced and Columbia lifted off on her 5th mission at 07:19 EST November 11 on the first “operational” flight of the Space Shuttle. Launch of Columbia on STS-5 marked the only time that one Shuttle orbiter would be used for five consecutive missions.
During the course of the five-day mission, Columbia’s four-person crew deployed two commercial communication satellites (ANIK C-3 for Canada and SitS-C for Satellite Business Systems) and were scheduled to perform the program’s first spacewalk (EVA).
However, a malfunction is the spacesuit (EMU) forced the cancellation of this objective. Sister Challenger’s STS-6 mission would take on the responsibility of performing this EVA.
Columbia landed safely on November 16 at 06:33:26 PST on runway 22 at Edwards and was returned to KSC on November 22.
During this time, an airlock tunnel adapter was fitted to Columbia and sister orbiter Challenger joined the fleet.
Columbia was initially rolled to the VAB on September 24, 1983 and mated to her STS-9 ET/SRB stack. The entire vehicle was then moved to Pad-A on September 28 ahead of an October 28 launch date.
During pad processing, a suspect exhaust nozzle on the right SRB was shown to be of a similar material as a nozzle that came dangerously close to a burn-through during STS-8. The problem was deemed unacceptable for flight and Columbia was rolled back to the VAB where she was destacked and returned to her OPF on October 20.
By November 3, the suspect exhaust nozzle was replaced and Columbia was restacked. STS-9 was returned to the pad on November 8.
Liftoff of STS-9 occurred on time on the first attempt November 28 at 11:00 EST and marked the first time that six people flew into space at the same time on the same vehicle.
STS-9 marked the first flight during which the SSMEs’ nominal thrust percentage was 104.5 percent. All subsequent missions would use this as a baseline.
STS-9 was also the first Shuttle flight to be co-sponsored by two agencies: NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). The flight also marked the first flight of an ESA astronaut into space and the first flight of Spacelab.
During the course of the mission, the crew conducted investigations which demonstrated the capability for advanced research in space via 73 separate investigations carried out in astronomy and physics, atmospheric physics, Earth observations, life sciences, materials sciences, space plasma physics, and technology.
Columbia returned to Earth on December 8, landing at 15:47:24 PST on runway 17 at Edwards. She was returned to KSC on December 15 for post-flight deservicing and payload removal.
On January 26, 1984 Columbia departed KSC atop the SCA en route to Palmdale, where she arrived the following day after an overnight stop at Kelly Air Force Base.
Columbia then spent 1.5 years undergoing post-test flight hardware/equipment removal and general upgrades at her construction facility in Palmdale to bring her more in-line with her sister orbiters.
Among the numerous items removed were the ejection seats (active only for the first four test flights), the incorporation of head-up displays for the Commander and Pilot during landing ops (Columbia was the only orbiter delivered to NASA without head-up displays), and numerous flight test hardware elements.
During this refit, Columbia’s distinctive SILTS (Shuttle Lee-side Temperature Sensing) pod was attached to the top of her vertical stabilizer.
The SILTS pod was used on Columbia’s six subsequent flights to gather infrared and thermal data on the vehicle’s environment.
The SILTS pod would remain attached to Columbia – though the equipment itself removed – for the rest of her life.
Numerous TPS tiles on Columbia’s upper wing surfaces were replaced at this time to incorporate lessons-learned and implement weight reductions. The process of completing all possible TPS upgrades to Columbia would be finished following the loss of Challenger and the subsequent stand down to flight operations.
During this time at Palmdale, sister Discovery joined the operational fleet on August 30, 1984.
After 1.5 years of intensive modifications, Columbia was rolled back to Edwards on July 11, 1985 and departed for KSC on July 14 with an overnight stop at Offutt Air Force Base, NE.
During the return trip to Kennedy, the ferry flight accidentally flew through precipitation, which damaged some TPS tiles.
Columbia then spent July 18 – September 6 in an OPF before moving to the VAB for storage from Sept. 6 – 26. Following her return to the OPF, sister Atlantis joined the fleet on Oct. 3, 1985.
On November 22, she was moved to the VAB and mated to her STS-61C ET/SRB stack. The entire vehicle was moved to Pad-A on December 2 for a Dec. 19 launch.
Processing and countdown ops went smoothly until the T-14secs mark on Dec. 19, when Columbia’s computers tripped a pre-SSME start RSLS (Redundant Set Launch Sequencer) abort due to a red line RPM indication of the right SRB’s hydraulic power unit (HPU).
This was later determined to be a false reading. Launch was delayed 18-days to January 6 to allow teams to work the HPU sensor issue and re-service the HPUs. (Launch was also slipped to avoid flying over the Year End Rollover, which Shuttles were not capable of doing until 2007 due to manual computer clock resets at GMT midnight on 1 January.)
During this down time, sister Challenger was rolled out to Pad-B, marking the first of 19 occurrences of simultaneous pad occupation at Kennedy.
Launch on January 6, 1986 was halted at T-31secs due to the accidental draining of 4,000 lbs of liquid oxygen from the ET.
Launch on Jan. 7 was scrubbed at T-9mins and holding due to unacceptable weather at both Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) sites – Moron, Spain and Dakar, Senegal.
Launch was reset for Jan 9 but was delayed due to a launch pad liquid oxygen sensor breaking off and lodging in SSME-2’s prevalve. Launch on Jan. 10 was delayed two days due to heavy rains.
The launch countdown on Jan. 12 proceeded nominally and Columbia lifted off on a beautifully spectacular pre-dawn launch. Launch of STS-61C marked the first time a Costa Rican born person flew into space
Over the course of the 6-day mission, Columbia’s crew – including Charles Bolden and Florida Rep. Bill Nelson – deployed the SATCOM KU-I (RCA Americom) satellite and conducted the first observations of Halley’s Comet using the Comet Halley Active Monitoring Program (CHAMP) experiment.
The experiment did not function properly, however, due to battery problems. Nonetheless, the CHAMP experiment was set to fly again on the next Shuttle mission – STS-51L/Challenger.
Moreover, as a result of the numerous launch delays, NASA managers decided to cut Columbia’s mission from 5 days to four and the landing was moved up to Jan. 16 at Kennedy.
Bad weather on both the 16th and 17th forced a two day extension to the mission. A final attempt to land at Kennedy on the 18th was waved off due to bad weather and Columbia landed safely at Edwards on the 18th of January 1986.
In the 2.5 years that followed the loss of Challenger, hundreds of safety upgrades were implemented on Columbia and her sisters Discovery and Atlantis.
When NASA managers finalized the post-Challenger Return to Flight (RTF) manifest, Columbia was assigned to the third mission in numerical order.
However, due to payload constraints and the need to launch certain missions on light-weight orbiters in specific launch windows, Columbia’s STS-28 mission was moved to the 5th slot on the RTF manifest.
Columbia began mission specific processing on Jan. 23, 1989. She was moved to the VAB on July 3 and out to Pad-B on July 14 ahead of a launch on August 8.
STS-28, the 4th DoD (Department of Defense) dedicated flight, Columbia’s 8th, Shuttle Program’s 30th, and Columbia’s first from Pad-B, lifted off right on time at 08:37 EDT on August 8, 1989 inside a classified launch window.
The classified mission lasted 5 days 1 hour 0 minutes 8 seconds and landed at Edwards on August 13 at 06:37:08 PDT on runway 17.
This would be Columbia’s only flight in 1989.
During post-flight inspections, abnormal and high heating indications were seen on Columbia’s TPS structure caused by the premature transition to turbulent plasma flow around the vehicle during atmospheric reentry.
A report later tagged a protruding TPS gap filler as the cause of the unusual heating.
Returned to KSC on August 21, Columbia underwent processing for STS-32 in the OPF until Oct. 16 when she was moved to the VAB.
Launch was originally scheduled for December 18, 1989 but was delayed to January 8 to allow teams to complete and verify modifications to Pad-A – which was being used here for the first time since Columbia’s STS-61C mission in January 1986.
As such, Columbia spent over a month in the VAB before rolling to Pad-A on November 18.
Launch on Jan. 8, 1990 was scrubbed due to weather violations. Launch occurred on Jan. 9 at 07:35 EST from Pad-A. Launch of STS-32, the 33rd Space Shuttle mission, marked the first time a Space Shuttle mission launched off the new MLP-3 (Mobile Launch Platform 3).
With this, Columbia became the only orbiter to inaugurate two MLPs (MLP-1 and MLP-3) for the Shuttle Program. Challenger took the inaugural Shuttle flight off MLP-2.
Once on orbit, the crew deployed the SYNCOM IV-F5 defense communications satellite and retrieved the Long Duration Exposure Facility launched by Challenger in 1984.
She returned to KSC on January 26 and was towed into an OPF on Jan. 30 to begin what would become the ground processing mission from hell: STS-35.
Rolled to the VAB and mated to her ET/SRB stack on April 16, the entire STS-35 vehicle was moved to Pad-A on April 22 ahead of a targeted May 16 launch.
This resulted in Columbia being at Pad-A when Discovery launched on April 24, 1990 from Pad-B to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope.
At the FRR (Flight Readiness Review), Columbia’s launch was pushed back to change out a faulty Freon coolant loop proportional valve in her coolant system. A Delta FRR then set the launch date for May 30.
Launch on May 30 was scrubbed during ET loading when a minor leak of liquid hydrogen was detected in the Tail Service Mast (TSM) on the MLP and a major hydrogen leak was detected between the External Tank and the Columbia’s 17-inch quick disconnect assembly. Hydrogen was also detected in Columbia’s aft compartment, though this was believed to be associated with the leaking 17-inch disconnect.
A Tanking Test was performed on June 6 and confirmed the 17-inch disconnect leak.
Columbia was deserviced (but her payload remained in her payload bay) and rolled back to the VAB on June 12.
Once in the VAB, Columbia was demated and returned to the OPF on July 15. Back in the OPF, Columbia’s 17-inch disconnect assembly was replaced with one taken from yet-to-arrive sister Endeavour. The External Tank was also fitted with a new 17-inch disconnect assembly.
On Aug. 2, Columbia was moved back to the VAB, remated, and the hauled back to Pad-A on Aug. 9 for a September 1 launch. Due to a backlog at the VAB, Columbia passed the waiting Shuttle Atlantis/STS-38 which was parked outside the VAB until Columbia could vacate VAB HB3.
On Aug. 30, the avionics box on the BBXRT portion of Columbia’s ASTRO-1 payload malfunctioned and had to be changed out and retested. The launch was delayed to Sept. 6.
During ET propellant loading on Sept. 6, high concentrations of hydrogen were detected in Columbia’s aft compartment. The launch was scrubbed and NASA managers determined that Columbia had experienced separate hydrogen leaks from the beginning: one at the now-replaced 17-inch disconnect assembly and one or more in the aft compartment, which resurfaced.
Focus quickly narrowed to a package of three hydrogen recirculation pumps in Columbia’s aft compartment. The pumps were replaced and retested. A damaged teflon cover seal in SSME-3’s hydrogen prevalve was also replaced and the launch rescheduled for Sept. 18.
Nonetheless, the hydrogen leak in aft compartment resurfaced during ET prop loading for the Sept. 18 attempt, and the launch was scrubbed again. At this time, STS-35 was put on hold until the problem could be resolved by a special tiger team.
On Oct. 8, Columbia was rolled from Pad-A to Pad-B to make room for Atlantis and the STS-38 mission – the first time in Shuttle history when a Shuttle vehicle was rolled directly from one launch pad to the other.
One day later, Columbia was rolled back to the VAB to ride out Tropical Storm Klaus. This was the second rollback for the mission (representing the 4th and 6th rollbacks, respectively for the program).
Columbia was returned to Pad-B on Oct. 14 and a mini-tanking test was performed on Oct. 30. No leaks were detected during this test and launch was set for Dec. 2.
On December 2, 1990, the launch was delayed 21mins to allow Air Force range personnel time to observe low-level clouds.
The clouds proved a non-issue and Columbia FINALLY lifted-off at 01:49:01 EST – the 6th night launch of the Shuttle program and Columbia’s 10th flight. To this day, this is the most delayed mission – from initial target launch date to actual launch – in Space Shuttle Program history.
During the 9-day mission, Columbia’s crew performed round the clock observations of the celestial sphere in ultraviolet and X-ray astronomy with ASTRO-1 and conducted the Space Classroom Program “Assignment: The Stars” to spark student interest in science, math, and technology.
The mission was eventually cut short by one day due to impending bad weather at Edwards.
Columbia landed safely on December 10 at 21:54:08 PST on runway 22 at Edwards. Overall, 70-percent of the mission’s scientific objectives were accomplished.
Columbia was retuned to KSC on December 20 and post-flight deservicing occurred in the OPF before Columbia was moved to the VAB for storage. Flight-specific processing for STS-40 began on Feb. 9, 1991 when Columbia was moved back to an OPF.
She was moved to the VAB for mating ops on April 16 and out to Pad-B on May 2 for a May 22 launch.
Less than 48-hours before launch, the mission was postponed when it became known that a liquid hydrogen transducer in Columbia’s Main Propulsion System (MPS), a transducer removed and replaced during leak testing in 1990, had failed an analysis by the vendor.
The fear was that one or more of the nine liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen transducers protruding into the fuel and oxidizer lines could break off and be ingested by the engine turbopumps, leading to potential catastrophic SSME failure.
Additionally, one of Columbia’s five General Purpose Computers (GPCs) failed completely, along with one of the multiplexer-demultiplexers that control orbiter hydraulics, ordinance, and OMS/RCS functions in the aft compartment.
A new GPC and multiplexer-demultiplexer were installed and tested and one liquid hydrogen and two liquid oxygen transducers were replaced upstream in the propellant flow system near the 17-inch disconnect area. Three liquid oxygen transducers were replaced at the engine manifold area while three liquid hydrogen transducers at the same location were removed and their openings plugged.
With the repairs underway, launch was reset for 08:00 EDT June 1.
Launch on this day was postponed after several attempts to calibrate Inertial Measurement Unit 2 (IMU 2) failed. The IMU was replaced and retested, and the launch was rescheduled for June 5.
During the 9-day mission, Columbia’s crew performed the fifth dedicated Spacelab mission, the first dedicated solely to life sciences, using the habitable module. STS-40 featured the most detailed and interrelated physiological measurements in space since the 1973-1974 Skylab missions with human, rodent, and tiny jellyfish subjects. Of the 18 investigations performed, 10 involved humans, seven involved rodents, and one used the jellyfish.
Columbia landed again at Edwards on runway 22 on June 14 at 08:39:11 PDT and was returned to KSC on June 21.
Post-flight deservicing occurred in an OPF before Columbia was moved to the SLF, mated to the SCA again, and returned to Palmdale for a multi-month refit/upgrade.
During her time at Palmdale, Columbia’s plumbing was modified to interface with the new Extended Duration Orbiter (EDO) pallet to allow a Shuttle orbiter to carry extra Fuel Cell propellant and remain on orbit for longer periods of time.
Overall, 50 upgrades were made to Columbia, including the addition of carbon brakes and a drag chute, improved nose wheel steering, removal of instrumentation used during the test phase of the orbiter, and an enhancement of its Thermal Protection System.
Columbia returned to KSC in early February 1992 and immediately entered processing for STS-50. At this time, sister Endeavour became the final orbiter to join the Shuttle fleet on May 7, 1992.
Columbia was mated to her ET on May 29 and moved to Pad-A on June 3.
Liftoff occurred on the originally targeted day, June 25, at 12:12:23 EDT after a five minute weather delay.
The flight was the first to use the EDO pallet and was, at the time, the longest flight of the Space Shuttle and served as a pathfinder mission for future long-duration microgravity research missions and long-duration manned missions on what would become the International Space Station.
After a record-setting 13days 19hours 30minutes, 04secs Columbia triumphantly made her FIRST KSC landing on July 9, 1992 (over 11 years after she entered service) after weather concerns from Hurricane Darby’s remnants forced flight controllers to divert landing to Kennedy.
Columbia immediately entered processing for STS-52.
Launch on Oct. 22 was delayed 1hr 53minutes due to RTLS (Return To Launch Site) abort crosswind constraints and TAL site cloud cover.
Columbia lifted off on her the 13th mission at 13:09:39.6433 EDT weighing 250,130 lbs.
The 10-day mission deployed the Laser Geodynamic Satellite II into orbit and operated the US Microgravity Payload-1, which included three experiments mounted on two connected Mission Peculiar Equipment Support Structures in Columbia’s payload bay.
Numerous secondary and middeck payloads were also flown on this mission.
Columbia landed successfully on her 13th mission, performing the 13th KSC landing on November 1 at 09:05:53 EST.
Columbia then spent exactly 3-months and 1-day in OPF-2 before rolling to the VAB on Feb. 3, 1993 and out to Pad-A on Feb. 8 for a late-February launch.
This date slipped to early March due to concerns with the tip-seal retainers in all three of Columbia’s SSME oxidizer turbopumps. The turbopumps were replaced at the pad and later found to be in good condition.
A burst hydraulic flex hose in the aft compartment then forced a further delay to March 22 at 09:51 EST.
At T-6.6secs, Columbia GPCs sent the commands to start the SSMEs in a staggered-start sequence beginning with SSME-3.
All three engines ignited and began building up to 90 percent rated thrust.
At T-3secs, Columbia’s GPCs registered an incomplete ignition on SSME-3 (SSME-3 did not reach 90 percent rated thrust by T-3secs) and immediately issued an RSLS abort.
Commands were instantly sent to shutdown SSME-3 and inhibit the ignition of the SRBs. With these commands sent, Columbia then sent commands to shutdown SSME-2 and SSME-1.
This was the first and only post-SSME start RSLS abort for Columbia and the 3rd overall for the Shuttle Program.
The issue was eventually traced to a leak in the liquid oxygen preburner check valve. All three SSMEs were replaced at the pad and the launch rescheduled for April 24.
Launch on April 24 was scrubbed due to a potentially faulty reading from one of Columbia’s IMUs.
During STS-50, Columbia carried to orbit the second reusable German Spacelab and further demonstrated the Shuttle’s ability for international cooperation, exploration, and scientific research in space.
After 9days 23hours 39minutes 59seconds, Columbia landed at Edwards on May 6 on runway 22.
Columbia then entered processing for STS-58 upon return to KSC. On July 24, her Spacelab tunnel was installed. Columbia was moved to the VAB on Aug. 12 and out to Pad-B on September 17.
An initial launch attempt on Oct. 14 was first delayed two hours by weather constraints.
Once the weather cleared, the count proceeded to the T-31sec mark before the Air Force Range Safety (the system used to destroy the vehicle if necessary during ascent) command message encoder verifier at the Range Control Center malfunctioned and aborted the countdown.
A launch attempt the following day was postponed when one of two TRW S-band communication antennas in Columbia failed.
The launch was rescheduled for Oct. 18 at 10:53 EDT, but the launch was delayed for 10secs when a US Navy vessel wandered into the range safety restricted zone.
During the mission, Columbia’s crew performed a series of experiments to gain knowledge on how the human body adapted to the weightless environment of space. The experiments focused on the cardiovascular, regulatory, neurovestibular, and musculoskeletal systems of the body.
After 14-days on orbit, Columbia landed at 07:05:42 PST on runway 22 at Edwards.
Interestingly enough, this marked the final time Columbia would land at Edwards Air Force Base. Her remaining 12 successful missions would all land at KSC.
Conducting her 16th mission, Columbia’s first launch attempt for STS-62 occurred on March 3, 1994, but was postponed prior to the start to ET loading due to an extremely unfavorable weather forecast.
Columbia lifted off right on time on March 4, 1994 at 08:53:01 EST.
Columbia carried to orbit the USMP-02 (US Microgravity Payload -2) microgravity experiments package and the OAST-2 (Office of Aeronautics and Space Technology -02) engineering and technology payload.
The 14-day mission featured numerous biomedical experiments focusing on the effects of long-duration spaceflight.
Columbia landed at KSC at 08:10 EST on March 18, 1994 and immediately began processing for STS-65, another microgravity research mission.
The International Microgravity Laboratory (IML-2) mission was the second in a series of Spacelab flights dedicated to enabling scientists to apply results from one mission to the next microgravity research mission in order to further the scope and variety of investigations between missions.
In total NASA, the European Space Agency, Japan space agency, the Canadian Space Agency, the German space agency, and the French space agency all contributed to and sponsored experiments on this mission.
In all, 13 nations were represented on STS-65.
To this end, STS-65 remains to this day the most-international free-flight (no rendezvous with/docking to a Space Station) mission of the Space Shuttle Program.
It was the most-international mission for the entire program until sister Endeavour conducted the first International Space Station construction mission on behalf of 15 partner nations in December 1998.
After 14 days 17 hours 55 minutes 00 seconds, Columbia glided to runway 33 at KSC at 06:38:00 EDT.
With completion of STS-65, Columbia was deserviced and then ferried to back to Palmdale to undergo her first Orbiter Modification Down Period.
Part II of Columbia’s tribute is published here:
(All Images via L2’s STS Historical High Res Image database).