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An evening pause: On this day eight years ago, the space shuttle Columbia broke up as it returned from orbit. Rather than watch that sad sight again, I’d rather remember the shuttle’s achievements. Watch this footage of Columbia’s first landing on April 14, 1981, which proved it was possible to glide powerless back from space and land safely on a runway. Though we as a nation might be abandoning this approach right now, future generations will use this as their standard way to return to Earth.
Several things to note as you watch the video. First, the shuttle’s angle of descent is extremely and frighteningly steep, until the very last moment. And every shuttle landing is like this. The shuttle is heavy, but it is still attempting to glide powerless to a landing. To do so it needs the thickness of the atmosphere combined with high speed to give it lift. Thus, it plows downward at a mucher higher speed and angle than any airplane, then quickly levels out at the last moment.
Secondly, this first landing did not have a drogue chute to slow the shuttle down. Rather than complicate things, they simply let the shuttle roll until it came to a stop.