On April 12, 1981, Columbia (OV-102) roared into a deep blue sky as the nation's first reusable space shuttle. Boeing was awarded the contract on July 26, 1972 and Columbia was rolled out of its Palmdale facility on March 8, 1979. It proved the operational concept of a winged, reusable spaceship by successfully completing the Orbital Flight Test Program - missions STS-1 through STS-4. Named after the first American ocean vessel to circle the globe and the command module for the Apollo 11 Moon landing, Columbia continued this heritage of intrepid exploration. The heaviest of NASA's shuttles, Columbia weighed too much and lacked the necessary equipment to assist with assembly of the ISS. Despite its limitations, the shuttle's legacy is one of groundbreaking scientific research and notable "firsts" in space flight. Space shuttle mission STS-9, launched in late November 1983, was the maiden flight for Spacelab. Designed to be a space-based science lab, Spacelab was launched into orbit from inside the shuttle's cargo bay.
Columbia was the first on-line orbiter to undergo the scheduled inspection and retrofit program. In 1991, the orbiter was transported to Rockwell International's Palmdale, California assembly plant for upgrades. The oldest orbiter in the fleet underwent approximately 50 modifications, including the addition of carbon brakes, drag chute, improved nose wheel steering, removal of development flight instrumentation and an enhancement of its thermal protection system.
Columbia and its crew were tragically lost during STS-107 in 2003. As the space shuttle lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on January 16, a small portion of foam broke away from the orange external fuel tank and struck the shuttle's left wing. The resulting damage created a hole in the wing's leading edge, which caused the vehicle to break apart during re-entry to Earth's atmosphere on February 1.