NASA’s First Shuttle Mission Turns 36

The Columbia took off two days after it was scheduled to do so because out-o?f-sync gears had to be fixed up. Photo courtesy of NASA.?

Thirty-six years ago Wednesday, NASA sent humans into space in a brand new type of shuttle—one with wings and wheels.

To commemorate the mission, dubbed Space Transportation System-1, the National Air and Space Museum held a Facebook Live event with an expert breaking down the significance of the April 12, 1981, historic launch. “This was a spacecraft like no other,” said space history curator Valerie Neal on camera. “All previous spacecraft were small and looked like bells.” This shuttle, unlike others, would be able to come back to Earth, and so looked more like an aircraft. It was the first time solid, rocket boosters pushed a human spacecraft mission, and the first time a spacecraft was tested … with humans inside of it.

The delayed takeoff came on April 12—delayed because “a pair of out-of-sync gears … would require at least a day to retime,” according to NASA—which was “beautiful,” Neal said.

“The light is so great even in daylight that you feel as if you’re watching something cosmic happening,” she said.

The objectives of the flight were straight-forward: demonstrate safe launch, safe entrance into orbit, safe operational capability while in orbit, determine if tweaks or changes in orbit were needed, and finally land on Earth safely. According to NASA’s history of the mission, two “equipment packages” on the aircraft recorded “temperatures, pressures, acceleration levels, and other forces on the craft throughout the flight.” It succeeded.

You can check out the post flight presentation below (with narration from the astronauts):

Neal concluded about the mission: “It was the US making the announcement, ‘We’re back.’”