April 14, 1981: Columbia space shuttle returns to Earth after first flight

"And we have liftoff, liftoff of America's first space shuttle!"

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The Columbia shuttle, mission STS-1, takes off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 12, 1981. NASA

That's what Hugh Harris, NASA's launch commentator, told the world when Columbia launched from the Kennedy Space Center on April 12th, 1981. "The shuttle has cleared the tower."

Columbia was the first re-usable spacecraft for humankind and marked the beginning of the Space Shuttle Program, forever changing space travel.

Two days after the flight launched, with Commander John Young and pilot Bob Crippen on board, it safely touched down at Edwards Air Force base in California. After 36 orbits around the Earth, mission STS-1 was a success.

"Like a mirage over the desert, a speck in the distance. It is the Columbia," reported Dan Rather, then anchor of the "CBS Evening News."

It was a daring flight, no doubt. In fact, it's often been called "the boldest test flight in history."

"On a long list of firsts one stunning fact stands out," NASA says. "It was the first time in history a new spacecraft was launched on its maiden voyage with a crew aboard."

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In this image, space shuttle astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen (in tan space suits) are greeted by members of the ground crew moments after stepping off the shuttle Columbia following its maiden flight. NASA


The flight was launched exactly 20 years after Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on April 12th, 1961.

Columbia's historic run as the shuttle program's pioneer came to a tragic end upon its return on February 1, 2003. The spacecraft disintegrated while reentering the Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven crew members on board.

It wasn't the first disaster of the shuttle era -- the Challenger disaster in 1986 was a major loss for NASA and left the world stunned.

This Day In History: Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

Thirty years after mission STS-1 kicked off the Space Shuttle Program, it came to an end on July 21, 2011 after 135 missions.

More than 350 people from 16 countries flew 852 times on five shuttles. Those shuttles traveled over 542 million miles while hosting thousands of experiments, exponentially growing mankind's understanding of the world beyond this Earth.