Ready for flight

The Shuttle's complexity made it difficult to test its elements separately. A dummy called Pathfinder was built at Marshall Spaceflight Center to test some support systems, scale wind-tunnel models were analyzed at Ames Research Center, and the prototype

(now renamed Enterprise) was ^^^mmmm launched from a Boeing 747 in flight tests. But the nature of the orbiter meant there was no way to launch a boilerplate model into space. Similarly, while there were many test firings of the engines, they could not be flown alone. So the first launch of the Space Shuttle became the ultimate "all-up" test - after nine years of development and many billions of dollars of investment, the maiden flight of the fully functional orbiter Columbia, designated STS-1, on 12 April 1981, was one of those occasions where a single fault might cause a critical failure, even if everything else worked.

The crucial mission was to be helmed by experienced astronaut John Young (see panel, above), with rookie Bob Crippen at his side. To minimize the risk to their lives, they wore specially designed pressure suits modified from those

30 March 1982

The Shuttle touches down on a reserve strip at White Sands, New Mexico.

27 June 1982

Columbia launches on its final test flight, STS-4.

4 July 1982

Columbia returns to Edwards, landing for the first time on the runway.

Californian John W. Young (b.1930) had one of the most varied careers of any astronaut. Joining NASA in 1962, he flew on Geminis 3 and 10 and Apollos 10 and 16. Taking over the running of the Astronaut Office from Deke Slayton in 1974, he was in charge of NASA's astronaut selection through to 1987 and commanded STS-1 and STS-9, the first Spacelab mission. He retired from NASA in 2004.


The Shuttle prototype Enterprise flies free during a test flight in late 1977. Launched from the back of its 747 carrier, Enterprise was fitted with instruments to record its flight characteristics at subsonic speeds - there was no way to test the Shuttle's supersonic performance until a real launch.


John Young (foreground) and Bob Crippen monitor controls on Columbia during STS-1. On their return to Earth, an enthusiastic Crippen dubbed the Shuttle "a superb flying machine".



Throughout the early flights, damage to the Shuttle's fragile ceramic tiles was a recurrent issue. Problems with the delicacy of the tiles themselves, and the adhesive that fixed them to the hull, delayed Columbia's maiden launch, and the Shuttle suffered from lost or damaged tiles on several occasions.

Fortunately for the astronauts, their luck held - the damaged areas were not those that took the brunt of heat on re-entry.

for the first time, the planned five-day mission was cut down to just three days due to a problem with Columbia's power-generating fuel cells.

STS-3 launched as planned in March 1982. One of its aims was to study conditions around the Shuttle in space, and to do this the RMS hoisted an instrument pallet out of the cargo bay. The flight was planned to last seven days, but poor weather forced NASA to switch landing sites, and the Shuttle ultimately came back, a day late, to White Sands in New Mexico.

One final test flight was scheduled for June 1982, carrying a classified military cargo. Although a fault with the payload caused problems, the Shuttle itself once again performed well, and after it touched down at Edwards on 4 July, President Reagan announced that the Shuttle was now operational.


John Young (foreground) and Bob Crippen monitor controls on Columbia during STS-1. On their return to Earth, an enthusiastic Crippen dubbed the Shuttle "a superb flying machine".

worn by test pilots. As things turned out, the mission went entirely to plan, and the astronauts spent two days giving Columbia her orbital shakedown before returning to Earth at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Despite its overall success, the maiden flight still encountered some problems - most significantly with the Shuttle's thermal tiles (see panel, below), and these were partly responsible for pushing back the date of the second test flight to 12 November 1981. Although STS-2's launch went smoothly and Joe Engle and Dick Truly were able to test the Remote Manipulator System (RMS)

MMU frame fits around astronaut's PLSS life-support bockpack rotational hand controller orients astronaut in space __

MMU arm angle and length adjust to fit operator

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