It was just about noon. The sky was clear. The air was warm. Then a deafening rumble meant it was time. Columbia had launched and a new, more practical, more liberating era in space exploration had begun.
Today, April 12th 2020, is the 39th anniversary of the launch of STS-1, the first orbital flight of the Space Shuttle. The flight, which lasted a little longer than 54 hours and consisted of 36 complete orbits of the planet, was crewed by just two astronauts– John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen. The flight was essentially a trial of the Space Shuttle’s launch and orbital capability in advance of flights that would carry satellites, space station modules, experimental equipment, and other payloads.
CBS coverage of the launch highlights just how big a milestone the launch was for space exploration and the country as a whole. Check it out below and listen to Dan Rather guide Americans as they watched history take place. The Space Shuttle represented a revolutionary shift from the liquid-fueled single-use spacecraft used until this point. Rather than having to discard an entire vessel after each mission, the space shuttle could be re-used with new rocket components attached. It wasn’t the first spaceflight, or the longest, or the farthest, but it nonetheless represented a major accomplishment, just twenty years on the dot after the first manned spaceflight by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
Now, nearly double the time has elapsed since that day in 1981 than did between Gagarin’s flight and the launch of STS-1. The Space Shuttle is retired and Columbia itself was lost to tragedy, but space travel does press on. The reusable vehicles that will compose the next generation of spacecraft may look a lot more like the Apollo capsules of the ‘60s and ‘70s than they Space Shuttle, but they have shown promise. When we finally see those rockets launch with crews aboard, I bet it’ll be as exciting as this was back in 1981.