WASHINGTON, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Space shuttle Columbia, which was lost Saturday morning at the end of its 28th mission, was the first winged spacecraft to orbit the Earth and was NASA's oldest operational shuttlecraft.
Called "OV-102" in the NASA inventory, Columbia was named for an 18th century sailing ship owned by Bostonian Robert Gray. On May 11, 1792, Gray and his crew maneuvered Columbia past a dangerous sandbar at the mouth of a river at the Washington-Oregon border, which later became the Columbia River. Gray later led Columbia and its crew on the first American circumnavigation of the globe, carrying a cargo of otter skins to Canton, China, and then returning to Boston.
"Columbia" also is considered the feminine personification of the United States -- its name derived from another, more famous explorer, Christopher Columbus.
Columbia was NASA's second shuttle. The first, Enterprise, was a prototype, a test vehicle named for the fictional spaceship of the popular television series, "Star Trek."
Columbia construction was completed in 1979, and the winged craft rolled from its Palmdale, Calif., assembly site on Mar. 8 of that year. It was flown on the back of a modified Boeing 747. The strange site of passenger jet and winged shuttle attracted thousands of viewers at refueling sites along the pair's path, which ended at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Mar. 24.
There, space engineers made preparations for Columbia's maiden space flight. After delays caused by equipment readiness and computer glitches, Columbia launched into space on Apr. 12, 1981, for its initial test flight, piloted by the two-man crew of John Young and Robert Crippen.
Columbia flew the first five space shuttle missions, from 1981 to 1982. The sixth mission would be flown by space shuttle Challenger, which was lost on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all seven astronauts on board.
In 1982, the spacecraft became the subject of a film, "Hail Columbia!," made in the giant IMAX format. It premiered at the National Air and Space Museum's Langley Theater in Washington later that year and then expanded its engagement to include several other IMAX-equipped theaters across the United States -- including one at Riverfront Park, in Spokane, Wash., the adopted hometown of Columbia mission specialist Michael P. Anderson.
"Hail Columbia!" featured shots of the shuttle's first liftoff from Kennedy Space Center -- an event that was delayed for two days past its original Apr. 10, 1981, scheduled launch because of mechanical problems. Following Columbia's landing, at Edwards Air Force Base in California, astronaut Young told a crowd of onlookers, "This generation is very close to going to the stars."
Four sister ships joined the fleet over the next 10 years: Challenger, which arrived in 1982 but was destroyed four years later in an explosion shortly after launch; Discovery in 1983; Atlantis in 1985; and Endeavour, built as a replacement for Challenger in 1991.
Through 1999, Columbia had flown 26 spaceflights, including being the first and only shuttle to land at White Sands, N.M., the first to deploy a commercial satellite, in 1982, and the shuttle used to deploy the Chandra X-Ray Observatory satellite, an instrument comparable in resolving power to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Columbia has undergone two extensive maintenance periods, one in 1994 and the second in 1999. During the latter overhaul, technicians added a "glass" cockpit that used the most advanced "heads-up" electronic displays, new thermal heat-shielding tiles, new brakes and a parachute system to slow the craft upon landing.
In all, nearly 200 modifications were made to Columbia's systems during the spacecraft's 22-year operational lifespan.
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