First man, first shuttle

Posted by Rich Talcott
on Thursday, April 12, 2007
The first space shuttle flight came April 12, 1981,
when the shuttle Columbia roared off the launchpad
at Cape Canaveral. NASA

"I see Earth. It's so beautiful!"

Although these words don't resonate quite the way "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind" do, they hold a special place in space-exploration history. Forty-six years ago today, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin uttered the words — the first ever spoken from space.

Gagarin spent 108 minutes in flight, and reached an altitude of 203 miles (327 kilometers). He didn't have much to do on the flight — engineers had locked the Vostok capsule's manual controls because they had no clue how weightlessness might affect the cosmonaut. Gagarin parachuted to a landing near the village of Smelovka, where Anna Takhtarova, her granddaughter, and a cow were the first creatures to see him.

Not long after, Gagarin was awarded the official title of "Hero of the Soviet Union." But, in truth, he became a hero throughout much of the world, among all those who dreamed of human spaceflight. Gagarin died tragically 7 years later, on March 7, 1968, while test-piloting a MiG-15 airplane.

You'd think one significant anniversary for April 12 would be enough, but the 102nd day of the year boasts another spaceflight milestone: On this date in 1981, the space shuttle made its maiden voyage. Columbia lifted off from launch complex 39A at 7:00 A.M. EST with astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen on board. A timing problem on one of the shuttle's computers delayed the flight 2 days, setting up Columbia's date with destiny.

The shuttle hasn't made it into space yet this year but, earlier this week, NASA announced tentative plans to launch Atlantis as early as June 8. Engineers continue to repair the external fuel tank, damaged during a sudden hail storm at Kennedy Space Center February 26. Approximately 2,660 sites on the tank need repair. It will be nice to have the shuttle back in flight, to build on the legacies of April 12.

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