This Day in History
Launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia

Launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia, April 12, 1981, 7:00:10 EST

It was on April 12 at 7:00 a.m. (exactly twenty years after Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first man to orbit the earth) that the space shuttle Columbia was launched from Cape Canaveral, the huge rocket engines consuming some 1 million pounds of propellant as they hurtled the immense craft into space. Thus began the 54 1/2 hour orbit of seasoned astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen; thus the doors to the “Final Frontier” finally opened wide.

Plans for such a vehicle had been on the drawing board ever since young navy test pilots first began breaking the sound barrier some thirty years before. However, the space shuttle program would be delayed until the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I in 1957. The Soviets had a man in space; the rockets needed to launch a craft like Columbia and her sister ships Challenger and Discovery were not yet developed, and would take too long to begin operating. As the United States joined the Soviet Union’s “race to the moon," attention focused upon the smaller and more costly (because they were not reusable) but more feasible vehicles such as those used in the Apollo and Gemini projects.

Although it will still be a long time before a “Space Family Robinson” actually exists, or before travel to and from space will be considered nothing out of the ordinary, Columbia pointed the way, and it, and the other shuttles, will continue to do so as they orbit the earth, retrieve heretofore irretrievable communication satellites and undergo fantastic test and operational flights. Work stations, space laboratories, industries located in the vast reaches of outer space might well strain our imagination. The successful launching, however, of the somewhat graceless Columbia, nicknamed “Dumbo, the Space Truck” by the irreverent, from Cape Canaveral in 1981; its exciting re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere through heat measuring some two thousand degrees; and its eventual “gliding home” to Edwards Air Force Base in California would have strained the imaginations of even the wildly imaginative Jules Verne. Whether or not the benefits to humankind will balance out the hundreds of billions of dollars required to fulfill the scientific and literary dreams remains to be seen.

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All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Künstler, Edward Lengel, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright © 2001-2019. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.