35 years ago today: Columbia’s first flight; 55 years ago today: humanity’s first flight

On April 12, 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia blasted off the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center’s LC-39A.  Her crew for this test flight were Commander John Young and Pilot Bob Crippen.  Young was already an experienced astronaut, with three flights including a lunar surface mission under his belt, while Crippen was a rookie out of the cancelled MOL program.  This was the first, and so far only, time an orbital spacecraft has made its first flight with human crew on board.  NASA had wanted a suborbital test flight first, but Young had argued against it, saying that the flight profile (a deliberate Return To Launch Site abort) required “continuous miracles interspersed by Acts of God” in order to be successful.  And in the end, he was right.  The risky RTLS was not necessary, and STS-1 was a success.  After thirty seven orbits and 54.5 hours, the two men returned, landing Columbia in the deserts of southern California, at Edwards Air Force Base’s Dryden Flight Research Center (now the Armstrong Flight Research Center).  On this video, note the white External Tank (they stopped painting it after STS-2, which saved considerable weight) and the distinctive black chines that always marked Columbia.

But that’s not the only amazing thing on this date in history, for this is Yuri’s Night.  Today is also the 55th anniversary of Vostok 1.  Yuri Gagarin climbed into the capsule atop an R-7 missile.  The capsule was modified from spy satellites, which had a pressurized reentry capsule to return film for developing and analysis, and it was a tight fight even for the small man.  (All early cosmonauts were short in stature, selected specifically for ease in fitting into tight confines as well as high G-load resistance.)  He completed two orbits of the Earth and then returned, but since Vostok did not have a landing system, he ejected after reentry and parachuted down separately.  He landed in a farmer’s field in Russia, startling the farmer and his daughter.  “When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet citizen like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!”  Gagarin immediately was lauded as a hero, and grounded from future spaceflights; sadly this would not save his life, as he died in a plane crash only seven years later.  But it is Gagarin that all astronauts follow, and will forevermore.


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