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Shuttle got better as it grew older

Washington, Feb. 1 (Reuters): The space shuttle Columbia was Nasa’s oldest space plane and the first of its vaunted orbital fleet, flying its maiden mission in 1981.

Columbia was the first of the US space agency’s winged spaceships — the others are Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour and the ill-fated Challenger — that launched the era of reusable space freighters, replacing the expendable rockets used during the first two decades of manned space flight.

It took off on January 16 for a 16-day mission, its 28th voyage, with seven astronauts aboard. The launch marked Nasa’s 113th shuttle mission. Columbia was delivered to Kennedy Space Center in March 1979 and lifted off for the first time on April 12, 1981, successfully completing its orbital test flights.

The 22-year-old spacecraft underwent more than 100 modifications in September 1999 at Rockwell International’s Palmdale, California, assembly plant.

The orbiter returned to the Kennedy Space Center in February 1992 after the $70 million tuneup, which included upgrades to make a longer stay in space possible.

Columbia is a safer shuttle today than the day it first launched,” astronaut John Young, who commanded Columbia’s first space mission, said at the time. “Columbia has gotten better as it has gotten older. It’s gone from test flights to doing things we once never dreamed we could do.”

The modifications included a new, lighter cockpit that used less electricity, inspection of more than 320 km of wire and enhanced heat protection on the craft’s wings.

Yesterday, Nasa’s flight entry director, Leroy Cain, was asked about possible damage or missing tile to the left wing of the orbiter on lift-off. He said the analyses by Nasa engineers had shown any damage to be minor.

Columbia is named after the Boston, Massachusetts-based sloop that in 1792 manoeuvred past the dangerous sandbar at the mouth of a river extending more than 1,600 km through what is today southeast British Columbia, Canada and the Washington-Oregon border.

Shuttle Challenger exploded on its ascent on Jan. 28, 1986.

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