Columbia was called the "first true spaceship," a winged rocket that would revolutionize space travel and make ferrying humans and equipment into orbit routine and economical.
But from the moment the space shuttle left its Palmdale factory nearly 25 years ago to its catastrophic breakup two weeks ago, it was shadowed by persistent technical problems and a few near-disasters.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 27, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Shuttle term -- A Feb. 17 article in Section A about the Columbia space shuttle should have said the orbiter had 1,060 plumbing valves, not pumping valves.
Even before its first mission, Columbia lost 4,800 temporary tiles and 200 heat-resistant tiles as it was being transported across the country for its maiden launch in Florida. When it finally reached the launch pad, two men working inside the shuttle's engine compartment were killed, marking the first deaths aboard the ship.
Several times since then, astronauts have endured missions that could have ended in disaster. In 1999, Columbia spewed explosive hydrogen fuel all the way into space and experienced a separate rocket engine malfunction when an electrical wire short-circuited.
Two years earlier, a fuel-cell malfunction posed the risk of an explosion onboard the shuttle while it was in orbit, forcing the crew to abort the mission and return early.
"I don't remember any astronaut saying it was a dog, but the reality is that it wasn't meant to be operational. It was a test model," said Howard McCurdy, a space policy analyst at American University. "It still had a lot of bugs to work out."
Investigators are trying to determine the cause of Columbia's breakup over Texas on Feb. 1, and there is no indication the shuttle's past technical problems had anything to do with it. NASA officials believe the orbiter's skin was breached by a still-unknown event.
But a Los Angeles Times review of Columbia's history shows it has been plagued by a large number of incidents and problems, many of them not revealed until years later and with little public attention.
Experts say they know of no systematic effort to compare Columbia's reliability record with the three other orbiters. Numerous independent safety boards that investigated the shuttle fleet, for example, never compared the overall rate of problems among the orbiters.
But based on a review of NASA documents, books and interviews with astronauts and former shuttle workers, Columbia seems to have experienced more than its share of problems.
At a minimum, the problems demonstrate what a high-risk endeavor human spaceflight is, something NASA has reiterated time and again. And experts caution that Columbia -- the oldest orbiter in the fleet -- never gained a bad reputation among the astronauts whose lives depended on it.
"It certainly wasn't a bucket of bolts," said Jeremiah Pearson, former NASA associate administrator for human spaceflight. "In fact, there was an old wives' tale among the astronauts that it was the best."
Columbia was launched 28 times, but more than 70% of the time it was delayed at least once because of technical problems, and in some cases the orbiter was hampered by repeated aborts for weeks at a time, according to NASA reports and flight histories in a book published by the Smithsonian Institution. That launch delay record is the worst among the orbiters.
Even after the delays were overcome, the space shuttle encountered additional problems. In a little-known incident, Columbia tumbled out of control for 20 minutes while astronauts slept in a January 1990 mission. That flight was also marred by false smoke alarms, leaks from a dehumidifier and a computer failure that delayed the shuttle's return.
All but four of Columbia's missions were affected by reported malfunctions or other irregularities during launch, in orbit or when landing.
In 1983, inspectors found a charred and blackened rear compartment after Columbia had landed. Highly volatile hydrazine fuel that powered the orbiter's auxiliary power unit had sprung a leak in orbit and caught fire while Columbia was descending.
In one of the more agonizing launch delays, Columbia sat on the pad for 25 days starting Dec. 18, 1985. It began when NASA officials realized paperwork was not in order, recalled astronaut Robert "Hoot" Gibson, who commanded the mission that carried a seven-man crew, including Bill Nelson, then a Florida congressman.
On the next day, the countdown was stopped with 14 seconds left when an electronics box malfunctioned. NASA tried again Jan. 6 but stopped two minutes short of ignition when sensors detected the engines were too cold.
Officials discovered later that the oxygen tanks had been inadvertently drained during countdown, probably leaving the shuttle without enough fuel to reach orbit.
The flight finally got underway Jan. 12.
"We had one of the more interesting ascents," Gibson said. "We had a helium tank leaking, and in the midst of working that problem, we had failures of several maneuvering thrusters."
More problems developed during reentry, Gibson said, when astronauts had to shut down an auxiliary power unit that was being cooled too much by a "water spray boiler."