- 约翰·杨（John Young，曾执行双子星3号、10号、阿波罗10号、16号、STS-1以及STS-9任务），指令长
- 罗伯特·克里彭（Robert Crippen，曾执行STS-1、STS-7、STS-41-C以及STS-41-G任务），飞行员
在任务规划早期，NASA曾认为他们应该在正式的轨道级任务前对部分系统进行测试。因测试此STS-1的早期建议是不入轨，取而代之的是（RTLS）也就是在起飞后数分钟，抛弃助推器之后使用三台主引擎的推力使航天飞机返回发射场。这一机动只有在遇上紧急情况，需要取消任务的时候才有可能执行，而且这一操作风险极高。约翰杨否决了这一提案，STS-1首飞任务保持原有计划 NASA的有关人员被约翰杨的质疑所动摇，尤其是在约翰杨曾两度造访月球，其中一次为登陆的情况下 他还曾参与过1983年的STS-9任务
STS-1任务哥伦比亚号航天飞机于1981年4月12日上午7时整（刚好是世界上第一次载人太空飞行的20周年）从39A发射台起飞。原先4月10日的发射尝试因为哥伦比亚号的4台主计算机（GPC IBM System/4 Pi）并没有在正确的时间向备用飞行计算机提供时序资料。
这次任务不仅仅是美国航天飞机首飞，这也是固体火箭首次被应用于载人发射任务，先前的任务只在逃逸塔、运载火箭反推引擎上使用。 STS-1 同样是首次载人飞船没有经过事先的无人试飞就投入到正式使用中的飞行任务。哥伦比亚号在这次任务结束后为了花了610天的时间跟换隔热瓦片，创造了在最长的滞留于厂房（Orbiter Processing Facility）中的时间记录。
The NASA mission objective for the maiden flight was to accomplish a safe ascent into orbit and return to Earth for a safe landing of Orbiter and crew. The only payload carried on the mission was a Development Flight Instrumentation (DFI) package, which contained sensors and measuring devices to record the orbiter's performance and the stresses that occurred during launch, ascent, orbital flight, descent and landing. All 113 flight test objectives were accomplished, and the orbiter's spaceworthiness was verified.
John, we can't do more from the launch team than say, we wish you an awful lot of luck. We are with you one thousand percent and we are awful proud to have been a part of it. Good luck gentlemen.
Ignition of the three RS-25 main engines was sensed as a sharp increase in noise. The stack rocked "downwards" (towards the crew's feet), then back up to the vertical, at which point both Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) ignited. Crippen likened lift-off to a "steam catapult shot" (such as when an aircraft is launched from an aircraft carrier). The stack's combined northwards translation and climb above the launch tower's lightning rod were readily apparent to Young. After clearing the tower the stack began a right roll (until the +Z axis or vertical fin pointed) to a launch azimuth of 067° True (in order to achieve an orbital inclination of 40.3°), and pitched to a "heads down" attitude (to reduce loading on the wings). Simultaneously control was passed from the launch team in Florida to Flight Director Neil Hutchinson's Silver team in Flight Control Room 1 (FCR 1) in Texas with astronaut Dan Brandenstein as their CAPCOM.
Columbia's main engines were throttled down to 65% thrust to transit the region of Max Q, the point during ascent when the shuttle undergoes maximum aerodynamic stress. This occurred 56 seconds into the flight at Mach 1.06. The wind corrected value was Lua错误 在Module:Convert的第635行：attempt to index field 'per_unit_fixups' (a nil value) (predicted Lua错误 在Module:Convert的第635行：attempt to index field 'per_unit_fixups' (a nil value), limit Lua错误 在Module:Convert的第635行：attempt to index field 'per_unit_fixups' (a nil value)). The two SRBs performed better than expected causing a lofted trajectory, and were jettisoned after burnout at 2 minutes and 12 seconds (at 174,000英尺（53,000米） altitude, 9,200英尺（2,800米） higher than planned). After 8 minutes and 34 seconds Mission Elapsed Time (MET) the main engines were shut down (MECO, at altitude 388,000英尺（118,000米）) and the external tank was jettisoned 18 seconds later to eventually break up and impact in the Indian Ocean. Two twin-engined Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engine burns of 86 seconds duration initiated at 10 minutes and 34 seconds MET and 75 seconds duration at 44 minutes 2 seconds MET inserted Columbia into a 152.7乘153.9-英里（245.8乘247.6-公里） orbit. This subtle deviation from the original plan of 150英里（240公里） circular went largely unnoticed. In fact it adjusted the spacecraft's orbital period to take account of the 10 April scrub, so that attempts could still be made to use KH-11 reconnaissance satellites to image Columbia on orbit. Overall Young commented that there was a lot less vibration and noise during launch than they had expected. However, the sensations accompanying the first firing of the large Reaction Control System (RCS) jets surprised the crew. Crippen commented "it's like a big cannon just fired ... you don't like them the first time you hear them". Young reported that "the entire cabin vibrates ... it felt like the nose was being bent".
Once on-orbit both crew members safed their ejection seats and unstrapped. The next critical event was payload bay door opening. This was essential to allow heat rejection from Columbia's systems via the doors' space radiators. Failure to open these by the end of the second orbit would have resulted in a return to Earth at the end of the fifth orbit, before the limited capacity of the flash evaporator cooling system was exceeded. As they opened the doors the crew noticed that they had sustained damage to thermal protection system (TPS) tiles on the OMS pods. This was televised to the ground. Shortly afterwards Young, then Crippen doffed their emergency ejection suits.
The majority of the crew's approximately 53 hours in low Earth orbit was spent conducting systems tests. Despite the scheduling impact of efforts to image Columbia's TPS by utilising external assets, these were all accomplished. They included: Crew Optical Alignment Sight (COAS) calibration, star tracker performance, Inertial Measurement Unit performance, manual and automatic RCS testing, radiation measurement, propellant crossfeeding, hydraulics functioning, fuel cell purging and photography. The OMS-3 and OMS-4 burns at 006:20:46 and 007:05:32 MET respectively raised this orbit to 170.2乘170.3英里（273.9乘274.1公里） (compared to a planned 173英里（278公里） circular). These two firings were single engined utilising the crossfeed system. The crew reported a cold first night on board despite acceptable temperature indications. They found the second night comfortable after settings were adjusted.
During the second day of the mission, the astronauts received a phone call from Vice President George H. W. Bush. President Ronald Reagan had originally intended to visit the Mission Control Center during the mission, but at the time was still recovering from an assassination attempt which had taken place two weeks before the launch (Reagan had only returned home to the White House the day prior to the launch).
The crew awoke from their second sleep period earlier than planned. Preparations for return to Earth began with breakfast. Stowing of cabin items, flight control system checkout, data processing system reconfigurations, and then ejection suit donning followed. In Houston the Crimson team headed by their Flight Director Don Puddy came on duty in FCR 1 for the mission's final shift. His CAPCOM was astronaut Joe Allen with Rick Hauck assisting. Payload bay door closing was a critical milestone to ensure vehicle structural and thermal integrity for re-entry. If power closing had failed, Crippen was trained to conduct a one-man extravehicular activity (EVA) to manually winch them closed. With cabin switch positions verified, the crew strapped into their ejection seats. Meanwhile, JSC pilots Charlie Hayes and Ted Mendenhall were airborne over California's Edwards Air Force Base area in a Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) performing a final check of landing weather conditions.
Auxiliary Power Units (APUs) 2 and 3 were started (to provide flight control hydraulic pressure). The 160-second twin-engine OMS de-orbit burn took place during the 36th orbit over the southern Indian Ocean and changed the orbital parameters from 168乘170英里（270乘274公里） to 168乘0英里（270乘0公里）. This ensured atmospheric capture of the spacecraft close enough to the planned landing site to have sufficient energy for a controlled glide landing, but not so close that energy would have to be dissipated at a rate exceeding its structural capability. Young then slowly pitched Columbia up to the wings level nose high entry attitude. Both crew members armed their ejection seats during this pitch around. Nearly half an hour later APU 1 was started as planned. Shortly afterwards Columbia entered an approximately 21-minute long communications blackout. This was due to a combination of ionisation (16 minutes) and lack of ground station coverage between Guam and Buckhorn. Entry Interface (EI) was reached over the eastern Pacific Ocean 5,040英里（8,110公里） from the landing site at a speed of around 17,550英里每小時（28,240公里每小時）. EI is merely an arbitrarily defined geodetic altitude of 400,000英尺（120,000米） employed by NASA for the purposes of trajectory computations and mission planning. Above this altitude, the spacecraft is considered to be outside the "sensable atmosphere".
Most of this first orbiter entry was flown automatically. An initial angle of attack of 40° had to be maintained until through the most severe aerodynamic heating after which it was gradually reduced. At about 330,000英尺（100,000米） altitude a light pink air glow caused by entry heating became visible, and both crew members lowered their visors. Columbia had to maneuver 362英里（583公里） "cross range" of its orbital ground track to reach the planned landing site during the entry. Consequently, a roll into a right bank was flown when the air density had increased sufficiently to raise dynamic pressure to Lua错误 在Module:Convert的第635行：attempt to index field 'per_unit_fixups' (a nil value) (with speed still in excess of Mach 24 and approximately 255,000英尺（78,000米） altitude). Automatic roll reversals to control energy dissipation rate and cross range steering were performed at around Mach 18.5 and Mach 9.8. The crew clearly observed the coast of California as Columbia crossed it near Big Sur at Mach 7 and 135,000英尺（41,000米）. Both the Mach 4.8 and Mach 2.8 roll reversals were automatically initiated and manually completed by Young. The last RCS jet firing took place at an altitude of 56,000英尺（17,000米）—14,000英尺（4,300米） lower than desired (due to a predicted risk of combustion chamber explosion).
Young again took manual control for the remainder of the flight as they went subsonic approaching the Heading Alignment Circle (HAC). A wide left turn was flown to line up with lake bed runway 23, whilst T-38 "Chase 1", crewed by astronauts Jon McBride and "Pinky" Nelson joined formation. Main gear touch down occurred on runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base, at 211英里每小時（339公里每小時） equivalent airspeed, slightly slower and around one-half英里（800米） further down the runway than planned. This was the result of a combination of better than predicted Orbiter lift-to-drag ratios and tail wind. Touch down time was 10:21 AM PST on 14 April 1981. As they rolled to a stop a pleased John Young remarked over the radio:
This is the world's greatest all electric flying machine. I'll tell you that. That was super!
Columbia was returned to Kennedy Space Center from California on 28 April atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. The 36-orbit, 1,074,567-英里-long（1,729,348-公里） flight lasted 2 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes and 53 seconds.
STS-1 was the first test flight of what was, at the time, the most complex spacecraft ever built.[來源請求] Roughly 70 anomalies were observed during and after the flight, owing to the many components and systems that could not otherwise be adequately tested. Notable anomalies included:
- Similar to the first Saturn V launch in 1967, engineers underestimated the amount of noise and vibration produced by the Shuttle. Shock waves from the SRB thrust were deflected up into the orbiter's tail section, which could have caused structural or other damage. An improved sound suppression system was later installed in LC 39A to damp vibrations.
- Pilot Crippen reported that, throughout the first stage of the launch up to SRB separation, he saw "white stuff" coming off the External Tank and splattering the windows, which was probably the white paint covering the External Tank's thermal foam.
- The astronauts' on-orbit visual inspection showed significant damage to the thermal protection tiles on the OMS/RCS pods at the orbiter's aft end, and John Young reported that two tiles on the nose looked like someone had taken "big bites out of them." The Air Force also photographed the orbiter using a KH-11 KENNEN reconnaissance satellite. Due to the top secret nature of the satellite, only a small number of NASA personnel were aware of this, and they had arranged for the photography prior to the launch as a precaution to make sure no damage had been done to the thermal tiles on the underside of the orbiter, as there had never been a flight of a crewed spacecraft before where the heat shield was exposed to the vacuum of space for the entire duration of the mission. Young and Crippen were instructed to perform maneuvers with the RCS thrusters to align Columbia so that the KH-11 could photograph it, but were not informed of the reason for them. Aligning the shuttle's low Earth orbit with the KH-11's polar orbit was a somewhat tricky move, and launch on 12 April was scheduled for a few minutes after the launch window opened, due to the need to get the KH-11 into correct orientation for imaging the shuttle. Images obtained confirmed that damage to Columbia was not serious. Post-flight inspection of Columbia confirmed that approximately 16 undensified tiles near the OMS pod had been lost during ascent.
- Columbia's aerodynamics at high Mach numbers during reentry were found to differ significantly in some respects from those estimated in pre-flight testing. A misprediction of the location of the center of pressure (due to using an ideal gas model instead of a real gas model) caused the computer to have to extend the body flap by sixteen degrees rather than the expected eight or nine. Also, the first roll manoeuvre resulted in lateral and directional oscillations during which side slip angles of up to 4° were reached. This was twice as high as predicted. Analysis attributed the cause to unexpectedly large rolling moments due yaw RCS jet firings. During the early stages of entry, orbiter roll control is achieved as a result of sideslip modulation.
- The orbiter's heat shield was damaged when an overpressure wave from the solid rocket booster caused a forward RCS oxidizer strut to fail.
- The same overpressure wave also forced the shuttle's "body flap"–an extension on the orbiter's underbelly that helps to control pitch during reentry–into an angle well beyond the point where cracking or rupture of its hydraulic system would have been expected. Such damage would have made a controlled descent impossible, with John Young later admitting that had the crew known about this, they would have flown the shuttle up to a safe altitude and ejected, causing Columbia to be lost on the first flight. This appears to contradict remarks Young has made several times stating how skeptical he was of the prospects of successful ejection whilst the SRBs were still attached and burning (e.g. in a 2006 interview: "if you had to use ejection seats to jump out while the solid rocket motors were still burning, you probably would have ignited yourself . . ."). The SRBs were not jettisoned until Columbia was well above the ejection seat envelope.
- The strike plate next to the forward latch of Columbia's external tank door was melted and distorted due to excess heat exposure during reentry. This heat was attributed to an improperly installed tile adjacent to the plate.
- During remarks at a 2003 gathering, John Young stated that a protruding tile gap filler ducted hot gas into the right main landing gear well, which caused significant damage, including the buckling of the landing gear door. He said that neither he nor Crippen were told about this incident and he was not aware that it had happened until reading the postflight mission report for STS-1, also adding that the gas leak was noted in the report, but not the buckling of the landing door. (The buckling of the door is in fact in the anomaly report, anomaly STS-1-V-49.)
Despite these problems, the STS-1 mission was completed successfully, and in most respects Columbia performed optimally. After some modifications to the Shuttle and to the launch and reentry procedures, Columbia flew the next four Shuttle missions.
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After the flight, mission commander John Young was shown those videos. His reaction was severe. 'Had I known the body flap had been deflected so far off position,' he told associates, 'I'd have concluded the hydraulic lines had been ruptured and the system was inoperative.' Without a working body flap, a controlled descent and landing would have been extremely difficult if not impossible. The pitch control thrusters might or might not have been enough to provide control. The shuttle might have tumbled out of control and disintegrated at very high speed and altitude ... 'I'd have ridden the vehicle up to a safe altitude,' he later stated, 'and while still in the ejection envelope [the range of speed and altitude for safely firing the ejection seats] I'd have pulled the ring.'
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