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The Space Shuttle Columbia was the first space shuttle that was used in space. The first Space Shuttle ever built, Enterprise, was only tested in our planet’s orbit. Columbia was named after the first American ship to circle the globe, which also explored the Columbia River. The name has also been used by the U.S. Navy. The Space Shuttle Columbia had its first mission in April of 1981.
During its career, the shuttle flew 28 missions and orbited the Earth 4,808 times. Columbia never visited either the International Space Station or Shuttle-Mir because its build was not equipped to handle being in that high of an orbit. It was the heaviest of all of the orbiter shuttles weighing approximately 178,000 pounds with the main engines installed. Additionally, Columbia was not equipped to help build the International Space Station. Columbia did work on building the Spacelab though; it and other shuttles brought the Spacelab up in a number of pieces.
A number of historic flights were also made on the Space Shuttle Columbia. The first Japanese woman in space flew aboard the shuttle Columbia, and the first European Space Agency astronaut also flew on Columbia. Throughout the years, the shuttle has undergone many modifications – well over 100 – including the installation of computerized video screens.
The Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed in 2003 when it disintegrated during reentry into our planet’s atmosphere. All seven crew members perished when it was destroyed. Seven crew members were aboard Columbia when it was destroyed including the first Israeli astronaut to travel to space. One of the astronauts was an Indian-born engineer. The cause of the disaster was a piece of foam, about the size of a small briefcase, which broke off the shuttle soon after liftoff. The piece of foam slammed into a panel and caused a small hole. Scientists believe that this caused hot gases to seep in and destroy the internal wing structure. Therefore, the shuttle broke up in flight.
As when the Challenger shuttle disintegrated, the Space Shuttle program was halted for months while officials investigated the Columbia disaster. During that time period, the International Space Station depended solely Russian shuttles in order to supply them and do maintenance. The commission also noted that more measures needed to be taken to protect astronauts. These measures included better seatbelts, helmets, and suits. Additionally, astronauts were instructed to take steps to get in protective gear more quickly.
Astronomy Cast has episodes on the US Space Shuttle.