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The 42nd Anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia’s First Flight

Forty-two years ago on April 12, 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia launched as the United States' first reusable shuttle from Kennedy Space Center. The Columbia would become the first space shuttle to ever launch into orbit and would go on to produce many advancements in science. Its history is deeply rooted in the Antelope Valley.

The Columbia was first born at Rockwell International’s Palmdale assembly plant. Construction of the Columbia would begin after the contract was first awarded in July of 1972 and the shuttle was named after the first American ocean vessel to circle the globe. The Columbia is known for many historic firsts in space exploration, including being the command module for the Apollo 11 Moon landing. The Space Shuttle mission STS-9 in November 1983 was the maiden flight for Spacelab- a place designed to be a space-based science lab inside the Columbia’s cargo bay. Inside the Spacelab, astronauts would use the lab to study astronomy, biology, and other sciences while aboard. Spacelab would end on its 16th and final mission on the Columbia in 1998 (NASA, 2005).

In addition, many international relationships were fostered aboard. German astronaut Dr. Ulf Merbold became the first European Space Agency astronaut when he flew on the Columbia in 1983. Japanese astronaut Chiaki Mukai was the first Japanese woman to fly in space in 1994 aboard the Columbia. The crew of the STS-73 mission even threw the ceremonial first pitch for game five of the 1995 baseball World Series- marking the first time the pitcher was not on earth! In addition, the Columbia also deployed the Chandra X-ray Observatory on July 23, 1999, which is still in operation today, capturing images of far-off galaxies (NASA, 2005).

The majority of the Space Shuttle Columbia’s construction took place at Rockwell International’s Palmdale assembly plant from 1972 to 1979. The list of construction dates below from NASA’s records indicates the exact steps that took place in Palmdale (NASA, 2005).

The majority of the Space Shuttle Columbia’s construction took place at Rockwell International’s Palmdale assembly plant from 1972 to 1979. The list of construction dates below from NASA’s records indicates the exact steps that took place in Palmdale (NASA, 2005).


July 26, 1972 Contract Award March 25, 1975 Start long lead fabrication aft fuselage

November 17, 1975 Start long-lead fabrication of crew module June 28, 1976 Start assembly of crew module

September 13, 1976 Start structural assembly of aft-fuselage

December 13, 1976 Start assembly upper forward fuselage January 3, 1977 Start assembly vertical stabilizer August 26, 1977 Wings arrive at Palmdale from Grumman

October 28, 1977 Lower forward fuselage on dock, Palmdale

November 7, 1977 Start of Final Assembly February 24, 1978 Body flap on dock, Palmdale April 28, 1978 Forward payload bay doors on dock, Palmdale May 26,1978 Upper forward fuselage mate

July 7, 1978 Complete mate forward and aft payload bay doors September 11, 1978 Complete forward RCS February 3, 1979 Complete combined systems test, Palmdale February 16, 1979 Airlock on dock, Palmdale March 5, 1979 Complete post checkout

March 8, 1979 Closeout inspection, Final Acceptance Palmdale March 8, 1979 Rollout from Palmdale to Dryden (38 miles)

March 12, 1979 Overland transport from Palmdale to Edwards


After completion, on March 8, 1979 the shuttle would be transported from Rockwell International’s assembly plant in Palmdale to NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. A photograph of the shuttle’s move from Palmdale to NASA Dryden is shown here (see Figure 1), which was provided by NASA and published within the City of Lancaster’s Lancaster Celebrates a Century: A Pictorial History of Lancaster, California. The Space Shuttle Columbia would then be transported to Edwards Air Force Base and subsequently ferried to Texas and onto Florida’s Kennedy Space Center where it would take its first flight from April 12-14 of 1981. The Columbia would later land at Edwards Airforce Base, becoming the first space shuttle to ever return from space. Found within MOAH’s collections is a commemorative Pepsi can for the shuttle’s first flight landing (2023.FIC.23). The can features an image of the shuttle with the caption “Pepsi Salutes The 1st NASA Space Shuttle Landing Edwards A.F.B. CA Spring 1981” (see Figure 2).


Figure 1: Space Shuttle Columbia moves from Rockwell International’s assembly plant in Palmdale to NASA Dryden Flight Research Center on March 8, 1979 (NASA and City of Lancaster, 1983).



Figure 2: A Pepsi can commemorating the Space Shuttle Columbia’s landing at EAFB on April 14, 1981 (MOAH Collections, Object ID # 2023.FIC.23).


On February 1st 2003, the Columbia and its crew members were sadly lost during the STS-107 mission during re-entry. According to NASA, the Columbia took off from Kennedy Space Center on January 16th and lost a small piece of foam from an orange external fuel tank and struck the orbiter’s left wing. The impact caused a hole in the wing’s leading edge which caused the shuttle to break apart during reentry to Earth’s atmosphere (NASA, 2005).

MOAH remembers the crew lost: Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William C. McCool, Mission specialists Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Clark, and Payload specialist Illan Ramon. We also recognize the great contributions our Antelope Valley Community has made towards space exploration.

Works Cited:


City of Lancaster and Centennial Committee, Image of Columbia transportation from Palmdale to NASA Dryden, Lancaster Celebrates a Century 1884- 1984 A Pictorial History of Lancaster, CA, 1983.


Museum of Art and History (MOAH), Image of 2023.FIC.23.


NASA, Space Shuttle Overview: Columbia (OV-102), January 31, 2005 (NASA - Space Shuttle Overview: Columbia (OV-102)).

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