When the first manned satellites went into space in the early 1960s, many people felt that the wildest dreams of science fiction writers were coming true. It was only about 50 years earlier that the first aeroplanes had flown. What amazing progress had been made in half a century! But in the next 20 years events moved still faster In the USA two special achievements marked the progress of space exploration. First was the landing of men on the Moon in 1969; second was the first flight of Columbia in 1981. The moon landing was a more sensational event, but Columbia was probably more important for the future space exploration for Columbia was the first reusable space vehicle the first in a shuttle service between the Earth and space.
She looks like a fast, stubby aeroplance, and that is essentially what she is. She can manoeuvre in space, releasing satellites from her roomy hold or picking up old satellites from their orbits, and she is a flying laboratory herself. Re-entering the atmosphere, she is protected front the enormous heat by special heat proof tiles. She lands on a runway like an aeroplane, using a parachute as a brake.
In space travel, enormous power is needed for the actual launch; once in orbit, you need only a tiny fraction of the power it took to get you there. For take off, Columbia is attached to a massive fuel tank and two great booster rockets. The boosters do most of hard work of launching, and when they burn out they are released and parachute into the ocean to be picked up and used again. The giant tank, the only part which cannot be reused, falls away close to orbit altitude and burns up as it descends.