Columbia History

Space Shuttle Columbia file photo after recent landing
Space Shuttle Columbia file photo after recent landing

Space Shuttle Columbia is the oldest NASA shuttle. It became the first shuttle launched into space in 1981. Columbia is known as OV-102 to the people at NASA, which stands for Orbiter Vehicle 102.

The name "Columbia" honors the sloop of Robert Gray, who lived in Boston, Mass. in the 18th century. NASA awarded the primary shuttle contract to Rockwell International in Palmdale, Calif. on July 26, 1972. The completely assembled Columbia spacecraft rolled out of Palmdale on March 8, 1979 and began its long trip to Florida.

It made many stops along its way, but eventually reached Kennedy Space Center on March 24. Columbia sits on the launch pad at KSC prior to the first shuttle flight, STS-1. Columbia's empty weight at rollout was 158,289 pounds. It weighed 178,000 pounds with the main engines installed. It measured 37.2 meters tall and had a maximum diameter of 23.8 meters -- the same as the other four NASA shuttles. Its total payload equaled 21,190 kilograms.

The shuttle was built to accommodate up to an eight-person crew in 71.50 cubic meters of total habitable space. Columbia's three main engines use N2O4/MMH propellant. They each weigh 7,480 pounds (3,393 kilograms), stand 14 feet (4.2 meters) tall and produce a maximum thrust of 512,950 pounds (2,308 kN) in a vacuum.

Space Shuttle Columbia has the distinction not only of being the first shuttle to fly, but also of having been used for the first five shuttle missions between 1981 and 1982. The shuttle program came to a screeching halt for approximately two years after the Space Shuttle Challenger accident that killed the crew and destroyed the spacecraft. No flights were flown during this time.

Columbia and the other remaining shuttles underwent a series of improvements, including upgrades to the main engines, thermal protection system and propellant supply system, and installation of a new crew escape system. The Chandra X-ray Observatory is installed into Columbia's payload bay prior to the STS-93 launch. Columbia went through three other maintenance and upgrade sessions over the course of its operational lifetime.

It spent approximately six months in Palmdale, Calif. from 1991 to 1992 when it became the first shuttle to go through the scheduled inspection and retrofit program. Approximately 50 modifications were made, including adding carbon brakes and a drag chute, improving the nose wheel steering, removing development flight instrumentation and enhancing the thermal protection system.

Columbia has also had two Orbiter Maintenance Down Periods, one in 1994 and another in 1999. The second OMDP included plans to make more than 100 modifications, including the installation of a multi-functional electronic display system or "glass cockpit." By the end of 1999, Columbia completed 26 spaceflights.

Highlights from its flight career included being the first and only shuttle to land at White Sands, New Mexico in 1982 and being the first shuttle used to deploy a commercial satellite in November 1982. More recently, the STS-93 crew flew aboard Columbia in July 1999 to deploy the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Source: NASA