The Sciences

The First Shuttle Launch

The Space Shuttle first lifted off 37 years ago. Here's what it looked like from the ground.


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Photo Credits: Ernie Mastroianni

Writers, photographers, and television crews crowded the viewing area prior to launch on April 12. In the background is the Vehicle Assembly building where the old Saturn V rockets and space shuttles were assembled.

Photo Credits: Ernie Mastroianni

The launch pad was brightly lit prior to sunrise as photographers set up cameras at the press site.

Photo Credits: Ernie Mastroianni

Liftoff went as planned, leaving viewers astounded at the power and the deafening noise. We could feel the heat of the launch even from 3 1/2 miles away.

Photo Credits: Ernie Mastroianni

At two minutes and 38 seconds, the launch cloud was dispersing and the shuttle was nearly out of sight.

Photo Credits: Ernie Mastroianni

One minute after liftoff and the trail was straight and true.

By then the shuttle was already traveling about 1,000 miles per hour and had burned through more than a million and a half pounds of fuel.

Photo Credits: Ernie Mastroianni

The giant treads of the crawler-transport vehicle provide the backdrop for a TV interview. The crawler moved the shuttle and Saturn V rockets to the launch pad.

Photo Credits: Ernie Mastroianni

Thirty-seven years ago, a colleague and I drove more than a thousand miles from northeast Ohio to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to cover the first launch of the Space Shuttle. Though we had media credentials from the small daily newspaper where we worked, we were on our own time and our own dime. This a selection of photos I took at the historic event.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of print and television journalists from around the world crowded the viewing area, 3 ½ miles from the launching pad. Millions of spectators clogged the Florida roads outside the launch area. On board the massive shuttle — which had never before left the ground — were veteran moonwalker John Young and rookie astronaut Robert Crippen. The pair accepted the risky assignment, but a six-year gap since American astronauts last launched left many wondering if the U.S. space program could pull off the technically challenging feat.

But the event went off without a hitch: The engines lit up on April 12, 1981 stunning spectators with a launch spectacle not seen since the Apollo moon rockets.

Aside from a few lost tiles, Young and Crippen spent two successful days in orbit and returned safely to earth in the first ever runway landing from orbit.

The shuttle would ferry astronauts and hardware into orbit for 30 years, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station. Sadly, two fatal crashes and very high mission costs would ultimately ground the spacecraft, leaving the three remaining shuttles as museum pieces on display in Chantilly, Va., Cape Canaveral, Fl, and Los Angeles, Ca. A fourth shuttle, the glider test model Enterprise, is in New York.

Photo Credits: Ernie Mastroianni

Discover photo editor Ernie Mastroianni, left, then with the Kent-Ravenna Record Courier, and a colleague, pose with a vintage 600mm telephoto lens to photograph the launch.

Photo Credits: Ernie Mastroianni

Journalists had to sleep onsite prior to the shuttle launch or risk getting caught in massive traffic jams outside the space center’s main gates.

Photo Credits: Ernie Mastroianni

Astronaut Jim Lovell (left) of Apollo 13 fame talks with Life magazine photographer Ralph Morse (right).

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