Countdown to History: 25th Anniversary of 1st Shuttle Launch

It was 25 years ago today, April 12th, 1981, that space shuttle Columbia lifted-off the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the first of many shuttle missions that have followed over the past quarter century. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, the astronauts aboard Columbia that day were at Space Center Houston today, reliving the shuttle's first baby steps.

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The launch came at 6 o'clock in the morning Houston time, with commander John Young and pilot Robert Crippen the only two astronauts on board for the historic flight.

"Five, four. We've gone for main engine start. We have start and launch of America's first Space Shuttle. And the Shuttle has cleared the tower."

Today at Space Center Houston, Crippen remembered how it felt to be propelled into space.

"When those solids lit off, my eyeballs were about that big. I had listened to John tell me about earlier flights on the Saturn and so forth, but the solids give you a real kick in the pants when you come off the pad. It was a thrilling ride. It wasn't violent but that eight and a half minutes seemed like it was about 30 seconds. I was just all over in a blur."

Crippen and Young spent two days in space, orbiting the earth 36 times before they landed in the desert at Edwards Air Force base on April 14th. Young, who had already walked on the moon in 1972 and was one of NASA's most decorated astronauts, remembered a mission that was virtually flawless.

"The thing worked perfect from end to end. Sure, we had a few malfunctions that we found out about after we landed, but we didn't know about them in orbit and came back and landed perfectly and everything worked perfectly and we were just overjoyed. It worked just like it was supposed to work in the book."

Since the Columbia launch in 1981, 113 more shuttles have blasted into space. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin says the first one 25 years ago will always have a special significance.

"This was the boldest test flight that anybody ever did. Boldest test flight in history. It was an increbible step and it was incredibly successful. We engineers don't believe in miracles, but if there are miracles, it was one."

Sugar Land Congressman Tom DeLay, who has been instrumental in securing NASA funding over the past two decades, says the shuttle's maiden voyage set the stage for a new era in space exploration.

"The shuttle was then and remains today the safest, most dependable and most technologically advanced spacecraft in the world. In last quarter-century, the shuttle has become a global icon of American ingenuity and American courage."

A new spacecraft, called a Crew Exploration Vehicle, will replace the space shuttle after it makes its last flight in 2010. The CEV is expected to launch for the first time as soon as 2012, with trips to the Moon and on to Mars planned within the next two decades.

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