Columbia space shuttle
 

Columbia lands at the end of STS-1, the first shuttle mission.

 
Construction began on Columbia in 1975 primarily in Palmdale, California. Columbia was named after the Boston-based sloop Columbia captained by American Robert Gray, which explored the Pacific Northwest and became the first American vessel to circumnavigate the world; the name also honoured Columbia, the Command Module of Apollo 11. After construction, the orbiter arrived at John F. Kennedy Space Centre on March 25, 1979 to prepare for its first launch. On March 19, 1981 during preparations for a ground test, five workers were asphyxiated during a nitrogen purge, resulting in two deaths.

The first flight of Columbia (STS-1) was commanded by John Young (a space veteran from the Gemini and Apollo eras) and piloted by Robert Crippen, a rookie who had never been in space before, but who served as a support crew member for the Skylab missions and Apollo-Soyuz. It launched April 12, 1981 and returned April 14, 1981 after orbiting the earth 36 times.

In 1983, Columbia undertook its first operational mission (STS-9) with 6 astronauts, including the first non-American astronaut on a space shuttle, Ulf Merbold. On January 12, 1986 Columbia took off with the first Hispanic American astronaut, Dr. Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, as well as the first sitting member of the House of Representatives in space, Bill Nelson. Another first was announced on March 5, 1998 when NASA named U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Eileen Collins as commander of a future Columbia mission making Collins the first female commander of a space shuttle mission.
 
Columbia, unlike her operational sister ships, was built with the technologies that were available at the time of her construction in Palmdale in the mid-1970's. One major difference between Columbia and later shuttles was the use of heavier-weight spars in the orbiter's wings and fuselage. Thus, despite improvements over the course of her lifetime, Columbia would never weigh as little unloaded as the orbiters in the current fleet (Challenger, despite improvements during her conversion from the Structural Test Article into an operational orbiter, was also heavy, although it was 10,000 lb. lighter)

Externally, Columbia was the only orbiter in the fleet that originally had an all-tile thermal protection system (TPS). The all-tile TPS would later be modified to incorporate felt insulation blankets on the fuselage and upper wing surfaces work that was performed during Columbia's first retrofitting and the post-Challenger stand-down. Also unique to Columbia were the black "chines" on the shuttle's upper wing surfaces. These black areas were part of Columbia's wing design to distinguish it from Enterprise, and also because the first shuttle's designers did not know how re-entry heating would affect the craft's upper wing surfaces.

Until its last refit, Columbia was the only operational orbiter with wing markings consisting of an American flag on the left wing and the letters "USA" on the right. From its last refit to its destruction, Columbia bore markings identical to those of its sister orbiters the NASA "meatball" logo on the left wing and the American flag and "Columbia" designation on the right.

Another unique external feature, termed the "SILTS" pod, was located on the top of Columbia's tailfin, and was installed after STS-9 to acquire infrared and other thermal data. Though the pod's equipment was removed after initial tests, NASA decided to leave it in place, as the agency had plans to use it for future experiments. The tailfin was later modified to incorporate the drag chute first used on Endeavour in 1992.

Internally, Columbia was originally fitted with Lockheed-Martin-built ejection seats identical to those found on the SR-71 Blackbird. These seats were active on the initial series of orbital test flights, but were deactivated after STS-4 and were removed entirely after STS-9. Columbia was also the only orbiter not delivered with heads-up displays for the pilot and co-pilot, although these were incorporated after STS-9. Like its sister ships, Columbia was eventually retrofitted (at its last refit) with the new MEDS "glass cockpit" display and lightweight seats. Unlike the other orbiters, Columbia retained an internal airlock, but was fitted to accept the external airlock and docking adapter needed for flights to the International Space Station. This retention of an internal airlock allowed NASA to use Columbia for the last Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, along with the Spacehab double module used on STS-107. If Columbia had not been destroyed, it would have been fitted with an external airlock after STS-107 for a flight to the International Space Station in 2003.
 

Columbia launches on its final mission, STS-107
 
On its final mission, the craft was carrying the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, and the first female astronaut of Indian birth, Kalpana Chawla. Other crew members on the final flight included Rick Husband (commander), Willie McCool (pilot), Michael P. Anderson, Laurel Clark, and David M. Brown.

On the morning of February 1, 2003, the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere after a 16-day scientific mission. NASA lost radio contact at about 0900. EST, only minutes before the expected 0916 landing at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. Video recordings show the craft breaking up in flames over Texas, at an altitude of approximately 39 miles (63 km) and a speed of 12,500 mph (5.6 km/s).

In the months following the tragedy, NASA scientists determined that a hole was punctured in the leading edge on one of Columbia's wings, made of a carbon-carbon composite. The hole had formed when a piece of insulating foam from the external fuel tank peeled off during the launch 16 days earlier, puncturing the edge of the wing. Hot gases, referred to by many reports as plasma, penetrated the interior of the wing, destroying the support structure and causing the rest of the shuttle to break apart during the intense heat of re-entry.

(The use of the word "plasma" to describe the gases that entered the wing is not technically accurate, according to NASA and Boeing aero-thermal engineers who support the Space Shuttle program at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. They pointed out during the Columbia accident investigations that atmospheric entry heating and its intrusion into damaged left wing was from superheated air, not ionized gas and not plasma, though this technicality has largely been ignored by the media.)

The collected debris of the vessel is currently stored on the 16th floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Centre; recovered items are occasionally loaned for research into the hypersonic flight regime. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe has vowed that Columbia will not be sealed away as the debris from the Challenger was. The debris from Challenger is permanently entombed in two Minuteman missile silos at KSC.
Date Designation Notes
1981 April 12 STS-1 First Shuttle mission
1981 November 12 STS-2 First re-use of manned space vehicle
1982 March 22 STS-3 Landed White Sands Missile Range
1982 June 27 STS-4 Last shuttle R&D flight
1982 November 11 STS-5 First 4 person crew
1983 November 28 STS-9 First 6 person crew. 1st Spacelab.
1986 January 12 STS-61-C Representative Bill Nelson (D-FL) on board
1989 August 8 STS-28 Launched KH-11 reconnaissance satellite
1990 January 9 STS-32 Retrieved Long Duration Exposure Facility
1990 December 2 STS-35 Carried multiple X-ray & UV telescopes
1991 June 5 STS-40 5th Spacelab - Life Sciences-1
1992 June 25 STS-50 U.S. Microgravity Laboratory 1 (USML-1)
1992 October 22 STS-52 Deployed Laser Geodynamic Satellite II
1993 April 26 STS-55 German Spacelab D-2 Microgravity Research
1993 October 18 STS-58 Spacelab Life Sciences
1994 March 4 STS-62 United States Microgravity Payload-2 (USMP-2)
1994 July 8 STS-65 International Microgravity Laboratory (IML-2)
1995 October 20 STS-73 United States Microgravity Laboratory (USML-2)
1996 February 22 STS-75 Tethered Satellite System Reflight (TSS-1R)
1996 June 20 STS-78 Life and Microgravity Spacelab (LMS)
1996 November 19 STS-80 3rd flight of Wake Shield Facility (WSF)
1997 April 4 STS-83 Microgravity Science Laboratory (MSL)- cut short
1997 July 1 STS-94 Microgravity Science Laboratory (MSL)- reflight
1997 November 19 STS-87 United States Microgravity Payload (USMP-4), Kalpana Chawla becomes first Indian-born astronaut to fly on the space shuttle
1998 April 13 STS-90 Neurolab - Spacelab
1999 July 23 STS-93 Deployed Chandra X-ray Observatory
2002 March 1 STS-109 Hubble Space Telescope service mission
2003 January 16 STS-107 A multi-disciplinary microgravity and Earth science research mission. Shuttle destroyed during re-entry on February 1, 2003 and all seven astronauts on board killed. Hundreds of the nematoad worms onboard for research survived.