’s Second Flight Proves the Practicality of the Space Shuttle Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Circling above the globe, the world’s first reusable spacecraft opened the future to payloads and experimenters to whom space was previously inaccessible.

Summary of Event

After the success of the lunar landings in 1969, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) wanted to send astronauts to Mars, build a fifty-person Earth-orbiting space station serviced by a reusable ferry (space shuttle), and build a second space station orbiting the Moon. At $8 billion to $10 billion per year, Congress rejected the proposal as too expensive. NASA proposed two other programs, each one simpler and less expensive, but Congress refused to finance either of them. By the spring of 1971, NASA was determined to secure appropriations for at least the space shuttle, which would be the first step if any of the other programs were approved. Space shuttle program;Columbia Columbia (space shuttle) National Aeronautics and Space Administration;space shuttle program [kw]Columbia’s Second Flight Proves the Practicality of the Space Shuttle (Nov. 12-14, 1981) [kw]Flight Proves the Practicality of the Space Shuttle, Columbia’s Second (Nov. 12-14, 1981) [kw]Space Shuttle, Columbia’s Second Flight Proves the Practicality of the (Nov. 12-14, 1981) Space shuttle program;Columbia Columbia (space shuttle) National Aeronautics and Space Administration;space shuttle program [g]North America;Nov. 12-14, 1981: Columbia’s Second Flight Proves the Practicality of the Space Shuttle[04700] [g]United States;Nov. 12-14, 1981: Columbia’s Second Flight Proves the Practicality of the Space Shuttle[04700] [c]Spaceflight and aviation;Nov. 12-14, 1981: Columbia’s Second Flight Proves the Practicality of the Space Shuttle[04700] [c]Science and technology;Nov. 12-14, 1981: Columbia’s Second Flight Proves the Practicality of the Space Shuttle[04700] Engle, Joe H. Truly, Richard H. Young, John W. Crippen, Robert L., Jr.

NASA turned to the Department of Defense Department of Defense, U.S. (DOD). Under NASA’s plan, the DOD would provide a large portion of the funding for the shuttle; in return, the shuttle would be used for military as well as scientific missions. The shuttle also would become the only launch vehicle in NASA’s fleet, thereby replacing expendable boosters and saving billions of dollars. Congress approved this proposal, and plans were drawn for a shuttle system.

Budgetary cuts forced NASA to reduce the shuttle program formally known as the Space Transportation System (STS) to the four-part system it became. Basically, the shuttle system consists of an orbiter, to which are attached three main engines to be used during launch; a large, external fuel tank for the engines; and a pair of strap-on solid rocket boosters to get the stack off the launch pad. The orbiter could be reused, as could the major components of the solid rocket boosters, which would parachute back into the ocean after running out of fuel. Only the external fuel tank would have to be discarded.

Columbia’s first launch on April 12, 1981, carries astronauts Robert L. Crippen, Jr., and John W. Young into an Earth orbital mission.


By 1977, a series of drop tests were done using an orbiter that was identical to later flight versions but that was incapable of spaceflight. Enterprise Enterprise (space shuttle) (named for the starship from the television series Star Trek) was placed on top of a modified Boeing 747 airliner and released. This allowed the glide characteristics of the orbiter to be determined and gave shuttle pilots hands-on experience with landing at speeds close to those expected on orbital missions.

On December 29, 1980, the first operational space shuttle, Columbia, was rolled to Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in preparation for its first flight. This was to be a piloted flight, and it marked the first time that a piloted space vehicle would be flown without the benefit of robotic test flights in space another result of budgetary limits.

The STS-1 mission blasted off on April 12, 1981, twenty years to the day after the first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, had been launched into space by the Soviet Union. The STS-1 commander was John W. Young; the pilot was Robert L. Crippen, Jr. Astronauts and cosmonauts The two-day “shakedown cruise” showed that the systems worked and that the orbiter could convert from rocket to orbiter to glider without enormous problems. The only major concept yet to be tested was that of reusability. The only way to find out was to fly Columbia a second time.

The STS-2 mission was scheduled to be launched on November 4, 1981. The STS-2 commander was Joe H. Engle; the pilot was Richard H. Truly. A problem with one of Columbia’s auxiliary power units (APUs), however, could not be corrected in time to meet the launch deadline for the day. The launch was pushed back to November 12. At 59 seconds past 10:09 a.m. eastern standard time, the era of the reusable shuttle vehicle began. The launch proceeded normally, and Columbia was placed into a 222-kilometer-high orbit above Earth. The mission was supposed to last five days but was shortened to a little more than two days after a fuel cell failure less than five hours into the mission. During the shortened mission, more than 90 percent of the high-priority flight tests were completed successfully. The Development Flight Instrumentation, used to monitor Columbia’s systems during the flight, showed that the orbiter functioned as planned. The Remote Manipulator System’s 15-meter robot arm was first flown on this mission. On later missions, it would be used to handle large payloads.

Columbia landed at Edwards Air Force Base on November 14 at 6:23 p.m. Pacific time. The space shuttle had been proved to be reusable.


In a throwaway society where nearly everything is disposable, the idea of building a spacecraft that could be used many times over was pure science fiction until the space shuttle. Prior to the Space Transportation System, a satellite or probe was launched into space and, if it arrived at its destination successfully, kept operating until it ran out of fuel or lost electrical power. Then it was discarded for a newer model.

By building a vehicle that could carry large payloads to and from low Earth orbit, it was possible to retrieve those old satellites and either repair them or bring them back to Earth. Doing so would save the space program a great deal of money. The ideal and most economical craft for this job was one that reused all or most of its parts: the space shuttle.

The space shuttle program continued to enjoy a number of achievements in the years that followed Columbia’s historic flight. Sadly, the entire U.S. space program was dealt a severe blow with the fiery explosion of the Challenger Challenger (space shuttle) accident spacecraft and the tragic loss of its entire crew, including the first civilian astronaut, on January 28, 1986. NASA identified the problem and corrrected it, returning to flight in 1988 with STS-26 and completing many more missions increasingly to service the growing International Space Station International Space Station (ISS). When a second accident killed the seven-member crew of Columbia on February 1, 2003, during the reentry of STS-107, NASA was forced into another hiatus to determine what had caused small pieces of the heat-resistant foam tiles to peel from the shuttle upon liftoff and again put measures in place to correct the problem: The return-to-flight mission, STS-114, lifted off in July of 2005 with unprecedented cameras and procedures in place to inspect the orbiter in space as it also delivered supplies to the ISS.

As the shuttle fleet aged and with two of the orbiters lost, NASA continued its plans to complete the shuttle’s obligations to the ISS. It also made plans for a new fleet of crew transfer vehicles to replace the shuttle program, the lifetime of which was expected to end around 2010. In the meantime more than a quarter century and many successful launches later the space shuttle remained NASA’s primary source for piloted space exploration. Counted among its many successes are the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory; the Galileo, Ulysses, and Magellan probes; and the early stages of construction of the International Space Station. Space shuttle program;Columbia Columbia (space shuttle) National Aeronautics and Space Administration;space shuttle program

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, David. Space Shuttle. New York: Crown, 1979. Covers the early days of the Space Transportation System and how the shuttle evolved. Includes several artists’ conceptions and photographs of models of earlier versions. Contains a preview of a flight of the shuttle to orbit and plans for using the shuttle to carry cargo to space.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Godwin, Robert, ed. Space Shuttle: STS Flights 1-5 The NASA Mission Reports. Burlington, Ont.: Apogee Books, 2001. Presents comprehensive details on each of Columbia’s first five flights. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harland, David M. The Space Shuttle: Roles, Missions, and Accomplishments. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. Covers the complete history of the shuttle program up to the late 1990’s, with sections on weightlessness and exploration in addition to information on the shuttle’s operations. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrington, Philip S. The Space Shuttle: A Photographic History. San Francisco: BrownTrout, 2003. Presents the history of the shuttle program through more than one hundred color photographs along with text by a popular astronomy writer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jenkins, Dennis R. Rockwell International Space Shuttle. Arlington, Tex.: Aerofax, 1989. Discusses the history and origins of the Space Transportation System. Includes specifications and diagrams of early designs and of several vehicles used to test the final version. Features drawings, including interesting cutaways, and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">National Aeronautics and Space Administration. STS-2 Orbiter Mission Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982. Official report for the second mission of Columbia during the Orbiter Flight Test program. Details the performance of each of the vehicle’s main systems orbiter, solid rocket motors, and external tank. Includes a complete biomedical, trajectory, and flight control evaluation. Features photographs, line drawings, charts, and tables.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Otto, Dixon P. On Orbit: Bringing on the Space Shuttle. Athens, Ohio: Main Stage, 1986. Chronicles the Space Transportation System from its inception through the Challenger accident. Discusses the early design concepts for the shuttle and some of the factors that influenced its evolution. Includes several black-and-white photographs from each flight as well as a portfolio of color photos.

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Spacelab 1 Is Launched Aboard the Space Shuttle

Two Women Walk in Space

Challenger Accident

First Permanently Manned Space Station Is Launched

Astronauts Repair the Hubble Space Telescope

Space Shuttle Docks with Mir

International Space Station Is Manned

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