It’s the 40th Anniversary of the Space Shuttle’s First Launch


It was called STS-1, an acronym for the very first Space Transportation System, colloquially called the Space Shuttle. Just before 7 on the morning of April 12, 1981 is sat on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, three massive rockets with a NASA plane 78 feet wingtip to wingtip given the name Columbia attached, astronauts Bob Crippen and John Young on board, and Stokes McMillan’s throat had a lump in it as he watched from Houston. He was the Space Shuttle Training Team Leader. Those were his guys and this was his project.

“When we launched no one talked. Everybody was watching TV, watching the Space Shuttle Columbia lift off. And of course lift off was a little scary there for a second,” McMillan recalls. Those massive engines were going to make a very large racket, and NASA sprayed water to reduce the noise. As the countdown closed in on ignition and the mighty rockets were lit up, a massive cloud of white smoke engulfed the entire rocket unexpectedly. No one breathed for a moment.

It was only steam, and Columbia lifted from the launch pad, emerging above the billowing white cloud and headed skyward, banking in a roll that would become its signature.

Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavor.

NASA’s space shuttle program that began 40 years ago today made a final landing on July 21, 2011. In 135 missions the fleet demonstrated the capability of returning a craft back to earth after orbiting the planet, and inspiration that lives on in the developing commercial space program.

As NASA moves forward, and upward, to the future, a part of the 30-year shuttle era will travel with the Artemis program when it returns man, and a woman, to walk on the moon. McMillan will be following it closely, no doubt holding his breath with a lump in his throat. McMillan’s first job in Alabama was helping to develop the main engines and computer modeling for the Shuttle program, and he says the work was good and solid. The next spacecraft will be the Orion, and it will sit atop the SLS, the Space Launch System, which will use three old space shuttle engines. They’ll be put on the end of the Orion vehicle. Though modified and reconfigured, the design is a tip of the hat to the brilliant engineers who made the Shuttle program possible.“So you can say from the Shuttle era, the main engines and the solid rocket boosters are being reused,” McMillan says with a smile.

The launch window for the first Artemis 1 mission is this November.

photo: Getty Images


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