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Saturday, 1 February, 2003, 20:31 GMT
Columbia: Space pioneer
  • Space shuttle Columbia (OV-102) was the oldest of Nasa's fleet of space planes.

  • Construction started in 1975. In April 1981, Columbia became the first shuttle to fly in space following the successful atmospheric test flights of its sister ship Enterprise.

  • The maiden flight - piloted by veteran astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen - heralded a new era in space exploration.

    The shuttle was the world's first reusable space vehicle. Before the shuttle, manned spaceflight had been limited to vast, expensive rockets which could only be used once.

  • On the second mission, in November 1981, astronauts aboard Columbia carried out the first scientific experiments of the shuttle programme. They also tested the shuttle's trademark robot arm.

  • Joined by its sister ships Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and later Endeavour, Columbia went on to carry out a further 27 successful missions.

  • In 1996 astronauts aboard Columbia notched up the record for the longest shuttle flight, spending 35 days orbiting the Earth.

  • Despite being the oldest in the fleet, Columbia had been extensively refurbished several times.

  •  WATCH/LISTEN
     ON THIS STORY
    The BBC's Tom Heap
    "Experts don't believe the shuttle has a poor safety record"

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