On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin, at the age of 27, became the first person to travel to space. His single orbit, from launch to landing, took roughly 108 minutes. Gagarin had been told that he was the choice only three days before the Vostok 1 mission. He returned a Soviet hero and worldwide celebrity. He died in the crash of a training flight on March 27, 1968, at the age of 34 and before the world saw human beings reach the Moon.
On April 12, 1981, only and exactly twenty years after Gagarin’s flight, the first space shuttle mission launched. That the United States had developed a reusable space plane within two decades of the first human spaceflight is a testament to our ingenuity and commitment to space exploration. That NASA chose the same date for the first shuttle launch as the Soviets had chosen for Gagarin’s first-ever spaceflight reminds us that the Cold War lingered and still fueled one-upsmanship.
Though networks covered the STS-1 launch live and gave it the same sort of Cold War fanfare that Apollo had received, we didn’t see the first shuttle launch in real time. The bigger news story that spring, the one for which teachers at Anna’s high school had stopped class to pray, had been the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan less than two weeks earlier. Reagan watched the launch on television as he recuperated at the White House. Vice President George H.W. Bush was the one to call the crew during their mission.
We caught replays of the launch, complete with the word videotape at the top of the screen. Doug remembers himself in front of a television that Sunday afternoon in the most American of venues, the shopping mall after church. Wide-eyed, mouth agape, he watched the liftoff over and over in the J.C. Penney electronics area as if it were that J.C. Penney parking lot across the water from Kennedy Space Center.
Just after launch, CBS newscaster Dan Rather explained the accomplishment in halting syntax: “We’ve been saying all week long and as the time for the launch built Friday morning and again this morning built, everybody a little bit nervous, the tension a little heavier than even usual […] because this spacecraft had not been tested at a launch in unmanned fashion as all others had, spacecraft designed to carry men. […] It’s done now, done successfully.” Leo Krupp, a Rockwell test pilot in the booth with Rather for the “Wings in Space” special report that day, gushed, “That launch was the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen.” Rather composed himself and went on to describe what had just happened: “The ground literally shook, as the spacecraft Columbia started its own sun below itself, caused that great thunder, and lifted off the pad, headed toward that orbit.” After the commercial break, Rather read a more detailed and technical description, noting that the shuttle had cleared the launch tower within five seconds and exceeded the speed of sound within thirty. (See that broadcast HERE.)
Astronauts John Young, a veteran of the Gemini and Apollo programs, and Bob Crippen, a veteran test pilot but a rookie astronaut, circled the Earth 37 times at an altitude of 191 miles, making a complete circuit roughly every ninety minutes and inaugurating the first of the shuttle program’s eventual 135 missions.
Space shuttle Columbia (OV-102), the heaviest orbiter built, landed at Edwards Air Force Base on April 14, 1981. The STS-1 CAPCOM, the person, usually an astronaut, who communicates from the ground directly to the shuttle, announced the orbiter’s safe return, saying, “Welcome home, Columbia. Beautiful, beautiful.” The reusable space plane had succeeded.
Commander Young quipped, “Do I have to take it up to the hangar, Joe?” The CAPCOM replied, “We’re going to dust it off first.” Young added, “This is the world’s greatest flying machine, I’ll tell you that.” The space shuttle era had begun.
Now, of course, the space shuttle era is over. Last week, film critic Roger Ebert died at the age of 70. At the conclusion of his review of Apollo 13, he wrote, “This is a powerful story, one of the year’s best films, told with great clarity and remarkable technical detail, and acted without pumped-up histrionics. It’s about men trained to do a job, and doing a better one than anyone could have imagined. The buried message is: When we dialed down the space program, we lost something crucial to our vision.”