Columbia, until the 1st of February, was the oldest orbiter in the shuttle fleet. She had many successful flights and was named for an eighteenth-century, Boston-based sloop captained by Robert Gray.
On 11 May 1792, Gray and his crew maneuvered their Columbia past a dangerous sandbar at the mouth of a mighty river now known as the Columbia. That ship (bearing this flag) also took Gray and his crew on the first American circumnavigation of the globe.
Columbia, the first shuttle, was soon joined by three sister ships: Challenger (in 1982); Discovery (1983), and Atlantis (1985). Endeavor came later, in 1991, after Challenger's disastrous loss.
When Columbia first launched on 12 April 1981, she had only two crew members - John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen. Their mission was to determine whether the shuttle could safely liftoff, travel in space and return to earth.
During the orbiter's departure from Cape Canaveral, NASA's cameras took pictures. Later, the shuttle team could study close-up views of Columbia's external tank and the joints of her two solid rocket boosters. At the time, of course, no one knew that a significant design flaw in those joints would cause the Challenger disaster less than five years later.
As she reached the stage where her solid rocket boosters would separate from the orbiter, Columbia continued on her launch path. Mission STS-1 was safely underway.
At the appropriate time, the external fuel tank would separate from the orbiter. Unlike the solid-rocket boosters - which were successfully recovered after they fell into the sea - the external fuel tank was not reused.
Just before her first landing, Columbia was accompanied by chase planes. Safely touching down - at Edwards Air Force Base, where crowds had gathered to witness the historic event - she awaited transport back to the Kennedy Space Center atop a specially equipped NASA Boeing 747.
It had been a triumphal flight, and Columbia would fly the next four shuttle missions. But something had happened to Columbia's heat tiles during launch. Sixteen tiles were lost and 148 others were damaged when an overpressure wave occurred as the solid rocket booster ignited.