Columbia Space Shuttle Anniversary: Craft First Blasted Off 37 Years Ago Today

A revolution in space travel came to NASA on April 12, 1981—the space shuttle. The shuttle was different than anything NASA had ever created before because it was able to launch on a rocket and land like an airplane. 

This forward-thinking design made travel to space—and eventually the International Space Station—easier for astronauts. Prior to the space shuttle program, astronauts launched into space in modules—like pods—and crash-landed in water upon return. Ships had to then recover the modules. The Columbia was the first of the NASA line of reusable space shuttles, including the Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor shuttles.

columbia space shuttle The Columbia Space Shuttle launching from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on June 27, 1982. NASA

One space shuttle was built prior to the Columbia shuttle, but it never went to space—because it was never meant to. The Enterprise shuttle was used as a test for future shuttles, including tests of the landing hardware, according to NASA. So though the Columbia shuttle wasn't the first shuttle built, it was the first one to make it to space and back successfully. 

In 1981, the Columbia shuttle blasted off with two seasoned astronauts on board. John W. Young, commander, and Robert L. Crippen, pilot, took off into space on April 12 and landed the Columbia shuttle two days later, on April 14, according to NASA. The successful landing on the shuttle was just the beginning of the program that went on to run for 30 years. 

crippen and young nasa Astronauts John W. Young (left) and Robert L. Crippen (right) were the two primary crew members on the first test flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia. NASA

The shuttles were used to help build the International Space Station and bring astronauts to space for their stays on board the station. It was also used to repair satellites and do research in space, according to NASA.

That Columbia craft was lost in 2003 along with the entire STS-107 crew following an explosion that occurred when the shuttle re-entered the Earth's atmosphere. The Challenger was also lost following an explosion that occurred shortly after takeoff in 1986. That crew also perished. 

The space shuttle program was retired in 2011 when the final space shuttle mission landed back on Earth following its last trip into space.