When in October 1977 the astronauts Haise and Fullerton terminated the series of flight tests planning and the Enterprise was withdrawn, NASA scientists thought that the first orbital mission of the Columbia shuttle could be carried out in March 1978.
As scheduled, this would be followed by other orbital test missions, necessary to tune up Columbia to the smallest detail before reaching the fifth mission, the first with operational objectives. But not a few technical problems arose in the motors and in the thermal shield that made the date of the first launch be postponed about three years, which was finally set for April 10, 1981.
The command of Columbia had been entrusted to John W. Young, 50, a San Francisco astronaut, a true space veteran, after having participated in two Gemini missions and two Apollo. Ypung would be accompanied by pilot Robert C. Crippen, 43, of Texas, a space rookie.
Everything was prepared for the departure of Columbia. The countdown had begun at the Kennedy Space Center, where tens of thousands of spectators had come to attend the historic takeoff. Approximately 20 minutes before the zero hour, the four primary computers indicated the presence of a defect. The countdown stopped and, although the problem was quickly diagnosed and solved, the game had to be postponed two days.
Finally, on April 12, 1981, a few seconds after seven o'clock in the morning, Columbia stood between two huge tongues of fire and left the ramp to begin its first orbital trip. The earth shook around him, shaken by the power of the rockets, which provided 3,400,000 kg. of thrust, and the noise of this authentic projectile could be heard many kilometers away.
The separation of the two booster rockets occurred with perfect regularity and also the large outer tank separated from the shuttle after the Columbia had been placed in the pre-established circular orbit of 241 km.
During this first mission, Columbia traveled virtually empty. In its large cellar there was no special load, without taking into account the instruments to measure the protection systems of the vehicle by high temperatures.
Once in orbit, Young and Crippen had to experience twice the maneuverability of the cellar doors and it was precisely when performing this simple operation when the astronauts realized a breakdown: some of the thermal protection plates that largely cover of the Shuttle had fallen.
Young and Crippen indicated the damage to Earth and NASA technicians immediately examined the case. After precise calculations, they established that, fortunately, the missing sheets were not placed in critical places and that the fault would not compromise the return of the Columbia, when all the fuselage and the wings of the Shuttle became hot due to the friction with the atmosphere . These forecasts were revealed exactly when Young and Crippen began the return maneuver.
The landing for this first mission had to be done manually by the pilots, but this did not harm the result: at 10 a.m. local time, the Columbia descended with surprising precision on runway 23 of the Rogers salty lake of the Edwards base, in California.
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