The Beginning of a New Era

The rebirth of America’s manned space program happened in March, 1981. The space shuttle Columbia, carrying astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen, began its maiden voyage on April 12, 1981, twenty years to the day after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space.

Columbia’s fifty-four-hour mission was the first manned American space flight since the US/USSR Apollo-Soyuz mission six years earlier. The flight produced one of the most enduring images of the entire shuttle program: an almost giddy John Young pacing beneath Columbia after guiding it to perfect landing in California, smiling and gesturing like a schoolboy on the first day of summer.

In the decade since Columbia’s inaugural flight, the shuttle fleet has played a major role in the space science. In April 1984, for example, shuttle astronauts repaired the crippled Solar Maximum Mission satellite. By replacing some of the electronics onboard the large satellite, astronauts brought Solar Max back to life, allowing it to collect important data on the Sun until it tumbled to Earth in 1989.

Telescopes carried into orbit by the shuttle have studied the Sun, examined objects that emit much of their energy in the infrared and ultraviolet regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, and scanned suspected black holes. In 1990, the shuttle-launched Hubble Space Telescope opened an entire new window on the universe.

Shuttle orbiters also have served as launch platforms for two planetary space craft. Magellan, which is using a high resolution radar to map the surface of Venus, was deployed in May 1989. The Jupiter-bound Galileo spacecraft was launched five months after Magellan, and arrived at the giant planet in 1995.

cassiopeia a

Supernova Remnant Cassiopeia A. Source of the image: Authors: Oliver Krause (Steward Observatory) George H. Rieke (Steward Observatory) Stephan M. Birkmann (Max-Planck-Institut fur Astronomie) Emeric Le Floc'h (Steward Observatory) Karl D. Gordon (Steward Observatory) Eiichi Egami (Steward Observatory) John Bieging (Steward Observatory) John P. Hughes (Rutgers University) Erick Young (Steward Observatory) Joannah L. Hinz (Steward Observatory) Sascha P. Quanz (Max-Planck-Institut fur Astronomie) Dean C. Hines (Space Science Institute)