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This article is about the Space Shuttle flight. For Synchronous Transport Signal (level)-1 in the SONET hierarchy, see Synchronous optical networking. For the gene, see STS-1 (gene).
Space Shuttle Columbia launching.jpg
The launch of STS-1
Mission type Test flight
Operator NASA
COSPAR ID 1981-034A
SATCAT № 12399
Mission duration 2 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes, 53 seconds
Distance travelled 1,728,000 kilometres (1,074,000 mi)
Orbits completed 37
Spacecraft properties
Spacecraft Space Shuttle Columbia
Crew size 2
Members John W. Young
Robert L. Crippen
Start of mission
Launch date 12 April 1981, 12:00:03 (1981-04-12UTC12:00:03Z) UTC
Launch site Kennedy LC-39A
End of mission
Landing date 14 April 1981, 18:20:57 (1981-04-14UTC18:20:58Z) UTC
Landing site Edwards, Runway 23
Orbital parameters
Reference system Geocentric
Regime Low Earth
Perigee 266 kilometres (165 mi)
Apogee 271 kilometres (168 mi)
Inclination 40.3
Period 89.88 minutes
Epoch 13 April 1981


Sts-1 crew.jpg
John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen
STS-2 →

STS-1 (Space Transportation System-1) was the first orbital spaceflight of NASA's Space Shuttle program. The first orbiter, Columbia, launched on 12 April 1981 and returned on 14 April, 54.5 hours later, having orbited the Earth 37 times. Columbia carried a crew of two – mission commander John W. Young and pilot Robert L. Crippen. It was the first American manned space flight since the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. STS-1 was also the only maiden test flight of a new US spacecraft to carry a crew, though it was preceded by atmospheric testing of the orbiter and ground testing of the space shuttle system.

The launch occurred on the 20th anniversary of the first-ever human spaceflight. This was a coincidence rather than a celebration of the anniversary; a technical problem had prevented STS-1 from launching two days earlier, as was planned.


Position Astronaut
Commander John W. Young
Fifth spaceflight
Pilot Robert L. Crippen
First spaceflight

Both Young and Crippen were selected as the STS-1 crew in March 1978. Young was the most experienced astronaut in NASA at the time and was also the only member of his astronaut class in service. He had first flown in 1965 as pilot of Gemini 3, the first manned flight of the Gemini program, and would later command Gemini 10 in 1966. After the conclusion of the Gemini program, Young flew as command module pilot of Apollo 10 in 1969 and walked on the Moon as commander of Apollo 16 in 1972. He later became Chief of the Astronaut Office in 1974. Crippen, who had joined NASA in 1969 after the cancellation of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, was a rookie and would become the first of his astronaut group to fly in space. Prior to his selection on STS-1, Crippen participated in the Skylab Medical Experiment Altitude Test and also served as a capsule communicator for all three Skylab missions and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

Columbia was manifested with EMUs for both Young and Crippen in the event of an emergency spacewalk. If such an event occurred, Crippen would go outside the orbiter, with Young standing by in case Crippen required assistance.[1]

Backup crew[edit]

Position Astronaut
Commander Joe H. Engle
Pilot Richard H. Truly

Support crew[edit]

Mission parameters[edit]

  • Mass:
    • Orbiter liftoff: 219,256 lb (99,453 kg)
    • Orbiter landing: 195,466 lb (88,662 kg)
    • DFI payload: 10,822 lb (4,909 kg)
  • Perigee: 149 mi (240 km)
  • Apogee: 156 mi (251 km)
  • Inclination: 40.3°
  • Orbital period: 89.4 min

Suborbital mission plan[edit]

During the original planning stages for the early shuttle missions, NASA management felt a need to undertake initial tests of the system prior to the first orbital flight. To that end, they suggested that STS-1, instead of being an orbital flight, be used to test the Return To Launch Site (RTLS) abort scenario. This involved an abort being called in the first few moments after launch, and using its main engines, once the SRBs had been jettisoned, to power it back to the launch site. This scenario, while potentially necessary in the event of an early abort being called, was seen as being extremely dangerous and, as a consequence, John Young overruled the proposal, and STS-1 went ahead as the first orbital mission.[3] The NASA manager's were swayed by Young questioning the need for test, and the weight of his opinion was strong especially as someone who not only been to the moon twice, but walked on it.[3] He would go on the Shuttle again with STS-9 mission, a ten-day flight in 1983

Let’s not practice Russian roulette, because you may have a loaded gun there

— Shuttle Commander on testing Return To Launch Site[3]

Mission summary[edit]

The External Tank is released from the Space Shuttle

The first launch of the Space Shuttle occurred on 12 April 1981, exactly 20 years after the first manned space flight, when the orbiter Columbia, with two crew members, astronauts John W. Young, commander, and Robert L. Crippen, pilot, lifted off from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, at the Kennedy Space Center. The launch took place at 7 a.m. EST. A launch attempt two days earlier was scrubbed because of a timing problem in one of Columbia’s general-purpose computers.

Attempt Planned Result Turnaround Reason Decision point Weather go (%) Notes
1 10 Apr 1981, 7:00:00 am Scrubbed --- Technical  (T-18) Timing problem in one of Columbia’s general-purpose computers. A software patch was installed to correct.[4]
2 12 Apr 1981, 7:00:03 am Success 2 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes

Not only was this the first launch of the Space Shuttle, but it marked the first time that solid-fuel rockets were used for a NASA manned launch (although all of the Mercury and Apollo astronauts had relied on a solid-fuel motor in their escape towers). STS-1 was also the first U.S. manned space vehicle launched without an unmanned powered test flight. The STS-1 orbiter, Columbia, also holds the record for the amount of time spent in the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) before launch – 610 days, the time needed for the replacement of many of its heat shield tiles.

The primary mission objectives of the maiden flight were to perform a general check out of the Space Shuttle system, accomplish a safe ascent into orbit and to return to Earth for a safe landing. The only payload carried on the mission was a Development Flight Instrumentation (DFI) package, which contained sensors and measuring devices to record the orbiter's performance and the stresses that occurred during launch, ascent, orbital flight, descent and landing. All of these objectives were met successfully, and the orbiter's spaceworthiness was verified.

During the second day of the mission, the astronauts received a phone call from Vice President George H. W. Bush. President Ronald Reagan had originally intended to visit the Mission Control Center during the mission, but at the time was still recovering from an assassination attempt which had taken place two weeks before the launch (in fact Reagan had only returned home to the White House the day prior to the launch).

Columbia reached an orbital altitude of 166 nautical miles (307 km). The 37-orbit, 1,074,567-mile (1,729,348 km)-long flight lasted 2 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes and 53 seconds. Landing occurred on Runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base, California, at 10:21 am PST on 14 April 1981.[5] Columbia was returned to Kennedy Space Center from California on 28 April atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.

Mission anomalies[edit]

STS-1 touches down at Edwards Air Force Base
STS-1 crew in Space Shuttle Columbia's cabin. This is view of training in 1980 in the Orbiter Processing Facility

STS-1 was the first test flight of what was, at the time, the most complex spacecraft ever built. Numerous anomalies were observed during and after the flight, owing to the many components and systems that could not otherwise be adequately tested. Notable anomalies included:

  • Similar to the first Saturn V launch in 1967, NASA underestimated the amount of noise and vibration produced by the Shuttle. Shock waves from the SRB thrust were deflected up into the orbiter's tail section, which could have caused structural or other damage. An improved water suppressant system was later installed in LC 39A to dampen vibrations.[6]
  • Pilot Crippen reported that, throughout the first stage of the launch up to SRB separation, he saw "white stuff" coming off the External Tank and splattering the windows, which was probably the white paint covering the ET's thermal foam.[7]
  • The astronauts' on-orbit visual inspection showed significant damage to the thermal protection tiles on the OMS/RCS pods at the orbiter's aft end, and John Young reported that two tiles on the nose looked like someone had taken "big bites out of them."[7] Classified cameras at a United States Air Force satellite tracking station in Hawaii took high-resolution photographs of the shuttle in orbit, and NASA concluded that the damage didn't constitute a "major problem."[8] Post-flight inspection of Columbia confirmed that approximately 16 undensified tiles near the OMS pod had been lost during ascent.[9]
  • Columbia's aerodynamics at high Mach numbers during reentry were found to differ significantly in some respects from those estimated in pre-flight testing. A misprediction of the location of the center of pressure (due to using an ideal gas model instead of a real gas model) caused the computer to have to extend the body flap by sixteen degrees rather than the expected eight or nine, and side-slip during the first bank reversal maneuver was twice as high as predicted.[10][11]
  • The orbiter's heat shield was damaged when an overpressure wave from the solid rocket booster caused a forward RCS oxidizer strut to fail.[12] The same overpressure wave also forced the shuttle's "body flap" – an extension on the orbiter's underbelly that helps to control pitch during reentry – into an angle well beyond the point where cracking or rupture of its hydraulic system would have been expected. Such damage would have made a controlled descent impossible, with John Young later admitting that had the crew known about this, they would have flown the shuttle up to a safe altitude and ejected, causing Columbia to have been lost on the first flight.
  • The strike plate next to the forward latch of Columbia's external tank door was melted and distorted due to excess heat exposure during reentry. This heat was attributed to an improperly installed tile adjacent to the plate.[13]
  • During remarks at a 2003 gathering, John Young stated that a protruding tile gap filler ducted hot gas into the right main landing gear well, which caused significant damage, including the buckling of the landing gear door.[14] He said that neither he nor Crippen were told about this incident and he was not aware that it had happened until reading the postflight mission report for STS-1, also adding that the gas leak was noted in the report, but not the buckling of the landing door. (The buckling of the door is in fact in the anomaly report, anomaly STS-1-V-49.)[15]

Despite these problems, the STS-1 mission was completed successfully, and in most respects Columbia performed optimally. After some modifications to the shuttle and to the launch and re-entry procedures, Columbia flew the next four Shuttle missions.

Mission insignia[edit]

The artwork for the official mission insignia was designed by artist Robert McCall.[16] It is a symbolic representation of the shuttle. The image does not depict the black wing roots present on the actual shuttle.


The plaque of the Young-Crippen Firing Room in the Launch Control Center at Kennedy Space Center.

The ultimate launch date of STS-1 fell on the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's Vostok 1, the first spaceflight to carry a human crew. In 2001, Yuri's Night was established to celebrate both events. In a tribute to the 25th anniversary of the first flight of Space Shuttle, Firing Room 1 in the Launch Control Center at Kennedy Space Center – which launched STS-1 – was renamed the Young-Crippen Firing Room. NASA described the mission as "the boldest test flight in history".[17]

External tank[edit]

STS-1 and STS-2 were the only two shuttle flights to have the External Tank (ET) painted white. To reduce the shuttle's overall weight, all flights from STS-3 onward used an unpainted tank. The use of an unpainted tank provided a weight saving of approximately 272 kilograms (600 lb),[18] and gave the ET the distinctive orange color which later became associated with the Space Shuttle.

In popular culture[edit]

The song "Countdown", by Rush, from the 1982 album Signals, was written about STS-1 and the inaugural flight of Columbia.[19] The song was "dedicated with thanks to astronauts Young and Crippen and all the people of NASA for their inspiration and cooperation".

IMAX cameras filmed the launch, landing, and mission control during the flight, for a film entitled Hail Columbia!, which debuted in 1982 and later became available on DVD. The title of the film comes from the pre-1930s unofficial American national anthem, Hail, Columbia.

Wake-up calls[edit]

NASA began a tradition of playing music to astronauts during the Gemini program, and first used music to wake up a flight crew during Apollo 15.[20] A special musical track is chosen for each day in space, often by the astronauts' families, to have a special meaning to an individual member of the crew, or in reference to the day's planned activities.[21]

Flight Day Song Artist/Composer
Day 2 "Blast-Off Columbia" Written by Jerry W. Rucker, a NASA shuttle technician; sung by Roy McCall
Day 3 "Reveille" Houston DJs Hudson and Harrigan

Pad fatalities[edit]

"I think it is only right that we mention a couple of guys that gave their lives a few weeks ago in our countdown demonstration test: John Bjornstad and Forrest Cole. They believed in the space program, and it meant a lot to them. I am sure they would be thrilled to see where we have the vehicle now. "

STS-1 Commander John Young, tribute given in-orbit to the victims of the accident.[22]

An accident occurred on March 19, 1981 that led to the deaths of three people. During a countdown test for STS-1, a pure nitrogen atmosphere was introduced in the aft engine compartment of Columbia to reduce the danger of an explosion from the many other potentially dangerous gases on board the orbiter. At the conclusion of the test, pad workers were given clearance to return to work on the orbiter, even though the nitrogen had not yet been purged due to a recent procedure change. Five workers were involved in the incident. John Bjornstad died at the scene; Forrest Cole died two weeks later without ever regaining consciousness, and Nick Mullon suffered permanent brain damage and died 14 years later from complications of his injuries.[23][24][25][26] The compartment on Colombia was filled with pure nitrogen [22][27] These were the first launchpad deaths at Canaveral since the Apollo 1 fire, which claimed the lives of three astronauts during preparations for the manned moon landing missions.[27]

At first three technicians went to the orbiter and passed out due to lack of oxygen. Several minutes later another worker saw them and tried to help but passed out himself.[28] The fourth did not alert anyone, but was himself seen by two other people.[28] Of those two, one went to get help and another went to help the unconscious group.[28]

In the 1981 mishap, about five workers entered an area filled with odorless colorless nitrogen gas and lost consciousnesses.[29] They were discovered and pulled out from the danger area.[29] The full sequence of events is more complicated, and one of the problems is that in sequence, the workers went into the area went in to investigate only to be overcome by the lack of oxygen.[22] Quite heroically they tried rescue each other only to be in danger themselves.[22]

One of the men died on the way to hospital, and another died two weeks later.[29] 14 years later another died after many years spent dealing with complications from the mishap.[22] The names of John Bjornstad, Forrest Cole and Nicholas Mullon are engraved on a monument at the US Space Walk of Fame in Florida.[22] The Commander of STS-1 gave an in-orbit tribute to the men who had died in 1981.[22]

A three-month inquiry determined a combination of a recent change in safety procedures and a miscommunication during the operations were the cause of the accident.[29] A report called LC-39A Mishap Investigation Board Final Report was released with the findings.[22]


See also[edit]


 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

  1. ^ "STS-1 Press Kit" (PDF). NASA. 1981. p. 36. Retrieved 28 November 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c STS-1 Transcript. Internet Archive. Retrieved 19 October 2012.
  3. ^ a b c Dunn, Terry (26 February 2014). "The Space Shuttle's Controversial Launch Abort Plan". Tested. Retrieved 31 March 2015. 
  4. ^ "Space Shuttle Mission Summary" (PDF). NASA Johnson Space Center. 
  5. ^ "STS-1 Overview". NASA. Retrieved 22 August 2010. 
  6. ^ "FAQ: Why do you drop water under the shuttle as the engines start?". NASA. 5 January 1999. Retrieved 17 July 2013. 
  7. ^ a b STS-1 Technical Crew Debriefing, page 4-4
  8. ^ King, James R. (13 April 1981). "NASA says missing tiles no threat to shuttle". The Madison Courier. Associated Press. Retrieved 22 January 2013. 
  9. ^ "STS-1 Anomaly Report" (PDF). NASA. 27 February 2003. p. 5. 
  10. ^ "STS-1 Anomaly Report" (PDF). NASA. 27 February 2003. p. 27. 
  11. ^ Iliff, Kenneth; Shafer, Mary (June 1993). "Space Shuttle Hypersonic Aerodynamic and Aerothermodynamic Flight Research and the Comparison to Ground Test Results" (PDF). Google Docs. pp. 5–6. Retrieved 16 February 2013. 
  12. ^ "STS-1 Anomaly Report" (PDF). NASA. 27 February 2003. p. 39. 
  13. ^ "STS-1 Anomaly Report" (PDF). NASA. 27 February 2003. p. 19. 
  14. ^ Jeff Foust (14 April 2003). "John Young's shuttle secret". Space Review. Retrieved 22 August 2010. 
  15. ^ STS-1 In-Flight Anomaly report. NASA. p.33. Retrieved 16 February 2013.
  16. ^ "STS-1 Press Kit" (PDF). NASA. 1981. p. 3. Retrieved 30 July 2016. 
  17. ^ "NASA – STS-1". Retrieved 12 August 2010. 
  18. ^ NASA. "NASA Takes Delivery of 100th Space Shuttle External Tank." Press release. p. 99–193. 16 August 1999. Retrieved 17 July 2013.
  19. ^ "25 years later, JSC remembers shuttle's first flight". JSC Features. Johnson Spaceflight Center. 2006. Retrieved 3 March 2010. 
  20. ^ Fries, Colin (25 June 2007). "Chronology of Wakeup Calls" (PDF). NASA. Retrieved 13 August 2007. 
  21. ^ "Chronology of Wakeup Calls" (PDF). NASA. May 13, 2015. Retrieved June 29, 2016. 
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h Burlison, Terry. "Columbia's First Victims". Baen Books. Retrieved 27 January 2017. 
  23. ^ NASA – 1981 KSC Chronology Part 1 – pages 84, 85, 100; Part 2 – pages 181, 194, 195,
  24. ^ Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon (2010), p. 188
  25. ^ "One Dead In Shuttle Accident", Spartanburg, SC – Herald-Journal Newspaper, Mar 20, 1981
  26. ^ "Space shuttle worker dies in fall at launch pad", – 3rd paragraph from bottom of article., 3/14/2011
  27. ^ a b Wilford, John Noble (1981-03-20). "SHUTTLE PASSES TEST; A WORKER IS KILLED". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-01-10. 
  28. ^ a b c White, Rowland; Truly, Richard (2016-04-19). Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Astronauts Who Flew Her. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781501123627. 
  29. ^ a b c d Long, Tony (19 March 2009). "March 19, 1981: Shuttle Columbia's First Fatalities". WIRED. Retrieved 27 January 2017. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]