Apollo 16 astronaut John W. Young, along with his crewmate
Charles M. Duke, were walking on the Moon in April 1972 when mission control
informed them that Congress had authorized the development of the space shuttle.
Young and Duke both enthusiastically responded to the positive news with
“Beautiful! Wonderful! Beautiful!”
Young added with some foresight, “The country needs that
shuttle mighty bad. You’ll see.”
He had no way of knowing that—nine years later—he would be
commanding the first ship of the space shuttle fleet, Columbia, on its maiden voyage.
Administrator James Fletcher (left) and President Richard Nixon present the space
shuttle. Right: Apollo 16 astronauts John
Young (left) and Charles Duke on the Moon. Image Credits: NASA
President Richard M. Nixon announced on Jan. 5, 1972, his
decision for NASA to build the space shuttle, formally called the Space
Transportation System, stating that “it would revolutionize
transportation into near space.”
NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher hailed the president’s
decision as “a historic step in the nation’s space program,” adding that it
would change what humans can accomplish in space. Once Congress authorized the
funds, NASA awarded the contract to the North American Rockwell Corporation of
Downey, California, on July 26 to begin construction of the first orbital vehicle,
later named Columbia after Captain
Robert Gary’s sloop that explored the Pacific Northwest in the 1790s—the first
American ship to circumnavigate the globe—as well as the Apollo 11 Command
Module. Construction of Columbia’s
first components at Rockwell’s Palmdale, California, plant began on March 25,
Left: Columbia's crew compartment during assembly in 1976.
Right: Columbia's aft fuselage and
wings during assembly in November 1977. Image Credits: NASA
Nearly four years later on March 8, 1979, Columbia rolled out of the Palmdale
facility to begin its multi-day journey across the nation to its launch site, NASA’s
Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The first step was an overland haul to NASA’s
Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), 36 miles away. Two
days later, workers there hoisted Columbia
onto the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), a Boeing 747 aircraft modified to
transport space shuttle orbiters.
Left: Workers towing Columbia from Palmdale to Dryden. Right: Columbia atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), taking off from Dryden to begin the cross-country ferry flight. Image Credits: NASA
During a test flight, thousands of the orbiter’s temporary thermal
protection system tiles fell off. Columbia was returned to the hanger, where
more than 100 men and women worked for nine days to reapply the tiles. Weather
then delayed Columbia’s departure
until March 20, when the SCA/shuttle duo flew from Dryden to Biggs AFB in El
Paso, Texas, since conditions prevented them from reaching their planned
refueling stop at Kelly AFB in San Antonio, Texas, until the next day.
About 200,000 people went to view the shuttle during its
overnight layover in San Antonio. Astronaut Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, program
manager for Shuttle Flight Test Operations, was interviewed. After another
overnight stop at Eglin AFB in Florida, Columbia,
atop the SCA, touched down at Kennedy’s Shuttle Landing Facility on March 24.
Left: Astronaut Deke Slayton is interviewed in front of the Columbia/SCA during the overnight stop at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Right: Columbia atop the SCA, touching down at Kennedy. Image Credits: NASA
The next day, after removing the orbiter from the back of
the SCA, workers towed it into the Orbiter Processing Facility, where Columbia spent the next 19 months
preparing for its first flight. Rollover to Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for
mating with the external tank and the two solid rocket boosters took place Nov.
24, 1980. After series of integrated tests, the shuttle stack rolled out of the
VAB and made the 3.5-mile trip to Launch Pad 39A on Dec. 29, 1980.
Left: Columbia in the Orbiter Processing Facility. Middle: Columbia is hoisted in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for mating with the external tank and solid rocket boosters. Right: Columbia rolls out of the VAB on its way to Launch Pad 39A. Image Credits: NASA
NASA Johnson Space Center