(Click images for a 640 w px view of the clipping; click that view for a 1500 px view)

In 1981, the United States launched the first space shuttle into orbit. Named Columbia, she succeeded an earlier test model never intended for orbital flight named Enterprise, in a partial bow to a sustained fan campaign from the Star Trek camp.

In an earlier cross country flight aboard an absurdly modified 747, an issue had become apparent with respect to the intended first orbital shuttle’s myriad ceramic tiles. At airspeed aboard the back of the 747, Columbia had shed a large quantity of the ceramic tiles intended to safeguard her and her crew during re-entry.

Amid handwringing, a solution that addressed the wholesale tile shedding was implemented, and in April, 1981 the first orbtial space shuttle, Columbia, roared skyward, opening, it was thought, a new era in space travel, with up to 30 annual launches of a fleet of the new “space truck.”

Concern about the new shuttle’s tile performance was proved justified, as up to sixteen tiles were lost at liftoff. NASA apparently employed certain national security resources to examine the belly of the craft while in orbit.

After this examination, the determination was made to attempt a landing, and so it happened.

As the article notes, “millions” helped bring Columbia back. I recall our teacher in my freshman drawing class arranging to have a television brought in that we could watch. The images were strangely boring, which surprised me at the time. Of course, boring was what the space shuttle program was intended to be, and routine is what was hoped for.

As we all know, it didn’t quite work out that way. When Challenger exploded in 1986, the year prior had seen a record number of shuttle flights – nine or ten, if my non-rocket scientist memory serves. The program was never to approach the projected 30 annual round trips, and of course is even less likely to now, in light of Columbia‘s loss.

Embedded images are from, respectively, Time Magazine, the first page of the section in Columbia’s inaugural launch, in the issue dated April 20, 1981, and the Bloomington, Indiana Herald-Telephone, April 14, 1981, and April 16, 1981. I do not reproduce the entire Time Magazine article.

One thought on “Columbia: 1981

  1. I still remember the Washington Post coverage of the very first Shuttle launch, when one writer described the launching orbiter with rockets as “an airborne Taj Mahal”. I do hope the fleet is rebuilt and the program continues…

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