JS blocked

Lessons From Space Shuttle Columbia (1981)

The space shuttle was a magnificent machine, the most capable spaceship ever built. It was also a fragile monster that required an expensive standing army to fly, and punished the slightest inattention to detail in its preparation and operation with fatal results.

All of that was there on April 12, 1981, when the space shuttle Columbia roared off Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on STS-1, its first flight test. A seven-man team from Aviation Week chronicled its spectacular success “carrying winged flight into uncharted territory.”

Reading our moment-by-moment account again, with the proverbial genius of hindsight, it is too easy to say that Editor-in-Chief William H. Gregory was being overoptimistic when he editorialized on the basis of one flight that the shuttle’s design goal - “routine airline-analogous turnaround”...“is now achievable.”

Gregory and his colleagues - all highly skilled aerospace journalists - had just witnessed a spectacular display of engineering and piloting prowess - a near-flawless first mission by a highly complex vehicle that never had flown through its entire regime before. They covered the two-day flight like the dew, telling our readers in detail not just what happened, but what could have gone wrong. Optimism was understandable then, because the mission went so well.

Also with hindsight, it is interesting to find the technological anachronisms in the coverage, the quaintness of cathode-ray tube displays in the cockpit and ground-station connectivity issues two years before the shuttle Challenger orbited the first Tracking and Data Relay Satellite on STS-6.

Even the photos are dated, the huge aluminum external tank gleaming with 600 pounds of white paint. To save weight, the paint job was skipped after STS-2 and tanks flew with their brownish-orange insulating foam exposed to the elements. That foam was a problem that didn’t reveal itself until STS-107, when a piece of it slammed into the reinforced carbon carbon heat shield on Columbia’s left wing during ascent, cracking it and rendering it useless for reentry.

The Columbia accident, which ultimately led to the retirement of the shuttle fleet, was foreshadowed on that first mission. The crew - John Young and Bob Crippen – quickly spotted gaps in the ceramic-tile thermal protection system (TPS) covering the aft Orbital Maneuvering System pods, and flight dynamicists in Houston spent hours fretting over downloaded video of the damage before concluding the vehicle could reenter safely.

After Columbia was lost at the end of STS-107, the return to flight so the fleet could finish building the International Space Station was all about making sure the tiles and wing leading edges were intact after launch. Comprehensive TPS-inspection procedures were developed using cameras on the robotic arm and the spectacular back-flip rendezvous pitch maneuver as shuttle orbiters approached the ISS so astronauts could photograph their belly tiles.

The solid-rocket boosters that triggered the Challenger accident in 1986 performed flawlessly on STS-1. The crew was ready for the rough ride they generated, because it matched what they had felt in the simulators. The booster casings were recovered for reuse after parachuting into the Atlantic. The flaw that felled Challenger – cold-hardened o-rings in the booster field joints - lurked undetected until 73 seconds into STS-51L, the 25th space shuttle mission, when a joint in the starboard booster failed to contain the hot gas inside.

Launch controllers had decided it was safe to launch that day, despite the freezing temperatures. Controllers also made a last-minute decision to launch STS-1 despite an off-nominal range condition, an S-band tracking radar that had gone offline. That decision turned out to be correct, but it was a judgment call that set a precedent for the “normalization of deviance” blamed in both subsequent fatal mission failures.

STS-1 launched 20 years to the day after Yuri Gagarin’s historic Vostok-1 flight. That was an accident too, because the original launch date was two days earlier. What our report termed a “40-millisec. time skew” in the flight computers forced a scrub while the problem was found and fixed. It was another harbinger of the operational issues that would plague the shuttle throughout its career, forever blocking its utility as a low-cost space truck able to fly humans to space with “airline-analogous” ease.

In “After Apollo: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program,” John Logsdon traces the decision to build the magnificent space plane Young and Crippen flew to orbit and returned safely that week in April 34 years ago. It was a real Washington-policy tussle, but Logsdon notes that it never really addressed the operational issues that plagued the shuttle fleet from the beginning to the end.

Ultimately the difficulty of operating the space shuttle overwhelmed its fantastic utility. NASA has put its money for the next generation of U.S. human spacecraft on capsules – Orion and the commercial Dragon and CST-100. When Columbia soared into the Florida sky for the first time, the lessons that drove that choice already were there for the learning.

► Read our coverage of the launch in the April 20, 1981 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology:

Columbia Exceeds Flight Goals - part 1

Columbia Exceeds Flight Goals - part 2

Columbia Exceeds Flight Goals - part 3

► Read our coverage of the Columbia tragedy in the February 10, 2003 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology:

USAF Imagery Confirms Columbia Wing Damaged

► Aviation Week is approaching its 100th anniversary in 2016. In a series of blogs, our editors highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history, including viewpoints from the industry's most iconic names and stories that have helped change the shape of the industry.

Please or Register to post comments.

What's From The Archives?

Aviation Week & Space Technology marked its centennial in 2016. Here, we highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history.

Blog Archive
We use cookies to improve your website experience. To learn about our use of cookies and how you can manage your cookie settings, please see our Cookie Policy. By continuing to use the website, you consent to our use of cookies.