How the Shuttles Got Their Names: Columbia and Challenger

by CruiseReady

Where the names of Space Shuttles Columbia and Challenger came from. NASA's stroke of genius in choosing names for the shuttle was inspired by maritime history.

Did you know that the five extraordinary vehicles we called space shuttles have each traveled into space bearing the names of notable sailing vessels?

Being a great fan of the amazing work done by NASA, and also a lover of all things nautical, that thought brings a smile to my face. I can imagine the great minds that engineered the remarkable manned space flight program being acutely aware of a very special historical connection. They must have felt there was a kinship between earlier souls who went forth to explore on the seas and those of our age who were hurtled aloft to explore the heavens.

What a stroke of genius! They named the shuttles that would make history carrying explorers through the skies after noteworthy vessels that had taken other souls on journeys of exploration on the sea.

Learn here about the ships that gave their names to Columbia and Challenger.

The First Shuttle Launch Ever

STS-1 on April 12, 1981

A New Era Begins with STS1

The Dawn of a New Era in Space Travel:  STS-1 Image Credit: NASA (public domain) .


As the Space Shuttle Columbia sat on the launch pad, ready to rumble into space, a new era in space travel was about to begin.  Man was going to explore outer space.

Like those sea adventurers of old, this new generation of explorers would open new horizons for the entire human race. .

Her name honored a sailing ship that had made some history of her own almost two hundred years earlier.

A Symbol of America

Lent Her Name to a Noteworthy American Ship

Yes, it was sailing vessels that gave their names to our shuttles.  But also of interest is where the first of those ships got her name.

In the early days of the United States of America the lady Columbia was becoming a metaphor for and symbol of the country. The word "Columbia" stood for America in song and verse.

She was often depicted dressed in patriotic garb, and was sometimes seen in the company of Uncle Sam on posters, even as late as World War II.

The famous ship Columbia (Columbia Rediviva) as well as the command module for the Apollo 11 space program, and finally, the very first reusable space exploration vehicle all paid tribute to their homeland using the poetic moniker.

Lady Columbia

Vintage Poster

Columbia Rediviva: 1773 to 1806

First American Built Ship to Circumnavigate the Globe

Columbia, the shipThe first American space vessel built to take men to space and back was fittingly named for the first American ship build to circumnavigate the globe. 

Under the command of John Kendrick, the Columbia Rediviva accomplished the first ever American circumnavigation of the world in 1790.  Think of it -around the world on a three masted armed sailing ship only 83' in length!  

Two voyages to the Pacific Northwest were also instrumental in opening the maritime fur trade, with Captain Robert Gray at the helm.  

In 1792, on the second fur trading voyage, Gray sailed into the mouth of a river that would become part of the border between the states of Washington and Oregon.  This river he named for his ship, Columbia.

Columbia, from a 1919 sketch, PD

NOTE - Some historians put her initial build as simply the Columbia in 1773, while others say she was built as Columbia Rediviva in 1787.  However, since rediviva is  Latin for reborn or rebuilt, then perhaps that is exactly what happen in 1787 - a rebuild.

NASA's First Space Shuttle

The First Operational Orbiter Vehicle (OV-102)

Columbia's second launch

Liftoff for STS-2 on November 12, 1981 (PD)


Columbia first blasted into space on STS-1 from Cape Canaveral on  April 12, 1981.  It, and the next mission were test flights for the new shuttle program.

Over nearly 22 years, the senior member of the fleet flew 28 missions, orbited the earth over 4,800 times, and traveled over 125 million miles.  


  • First time for a vehicle to go into space, return safely to earth, and be used again to go back into space.
  • First ever female commander of an American space mission. (Lt. Cmdr. Eileen Collins)
  • Carried the first sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives to go into space.  (Bill Nelson, of Florida)
  • First ever Israeli astronaut to fly on an American spacecraft.  (Ilan Ramon)



Do you notice something out of the ordinary in the launch photo above?  The external fuel tank is white, not the familiar orange.  

It was only ever painted white on the first two missions (STS-1 and 2) both of which were flown by Columbia.  Thereafter, the tanks were left unpainted orange.  This shaved about 600 pounds off the weight.  That's some heavy paint!

Columbia Rediviva Lives On (sort of)

At Disneyland, California

The ship that had made history by sailing around the world under the American flag, and opening trade between Boston and China,  was decommissioned in October of 1806.  She had become salvage, or scrap.

However, if you'd like to see what she looked like, you still can - at Disneyland.  Christened in 1958, the full scale model sometimes sails the park's "Rivers of America."  She is also used as Captain Hook's pirate ship in the "Fantasmic!" show, which is performed in the evenings.

Exhibits inside the ship include replicas of various crew member's quarters, the pantry, galley, sick bay and dry stores.

Columbia Rediviva replica, Disneyland, p.d.


The First Launch Ever

This is how most of us who were around then saw it in 1981 - on live television.  We were all very well aware that we were watching history being made.  It was something utterly amazing.

Watch a recording of the live network television coverage of the first space worthy shuttle blasting off into space.  It was like nothing any of us had ever seen before.  IT was the beginning of a new world.  We were filled with excitement and hope for what the future would bring.  


Broadcast News Covers an Amazing Event

Challenger - The Second Shuttle to Fly into Space

On April 4, 1983

Challenger's First Landing

.Callenger's First Landing, April 9. 1983 (p.d. image from NASA) 

On April 4, 1983, Challenger became the second shuttle to leave for space from a Cape Canaveral launch pad.  She landed at Edwards Air Force Base on April 9. 

The great thing about the space shuttles was that they really were shuttles.  They were reusable space vehicles that landed on a runway on their return from space.

Like the Riyal Navy corvette after which she was named, she carried those who would accomplish several firsts.

HMS Challenger - 1858 to 1921

Laid the Foundation for the Science of Oceanography


HMS Challenger in 1874

The captains and crew HMS Challenger undertook quite a task when they set sail.  The ambitious undertaking, called the "Challenger Expedition," was no small one.  From December of 1872 to May of 1876, the men conducting the first ever global marine research expedition spent 713 days at sea aboard the HMS Challenger. 

Why was this so historic?  Be

cause it marked the beginnings of modern oceanography.  

The amazing journey took the scientists and sailors around the world.  (You can see the route they took here,  by clicking on the map.)  

Their work resulted  in a 50 volume scientific work.  Among other things, they examined the sea floor; disproved the (then) accepted theory that beyond a depth of about 1800 feet the ocean was a 'dead zone;' and cataloged over 4,000 species previously unknown to man.

It was, indeed, a history making expedition!

Image: HMS Challenger, from NOAA archive, p.d.



The Second Shuttle

Challenger Brings Night Launches, Women in Space

The First Night ALaunch

STS-8: First Nighit Launch, P.D. image from NASA

NASA's Orbiter Vehicle 099, named Challenger, first lifted off from Kennedy Space Center's launch pad B on April 4, 1983, and immediately began making history.  On that mission, STS-8, Astronauts Story Musgrave and Donald Peterson conducted the first ever extavehicular activity, or "spacewalk."  

Though she only flew ten missions, nine of which were completed, she made good on her name, and made her own history, as she challenged the frontier of space.


Beginning of space walks with STS-6

Deployed the first Tracking and Data Relay Satellite.  (Among other things, these satellites facilitate space communications.) 

First woman in space. (Sally Ride, on STS-7)

STS-8 (August, 1983) was something that had never been attempted before - a nighttime shuttle launch and landing.  (Boy, were those night launches ever spectacular!)  

Carried the first African American  (Guion Bluford), Dutch (Wubbo Ockels), and Canadian (Marc Garneau) Astronauts.

Sadly, very sadly, the first shuttle disaster took place on January 28, 1986, when Challenger broke apart and disentegrated less than two minutes after liftoff of STS-51-L.



Because Christa McAulliffe  - the initial participant in the "Teacher in Space" project - was on board the ill fated final flight of Challenger, it was one of most widely viewed launches ever.  News of the disaster spread so quickly that an 85% of all Americans had heard about it within the first hour.

HMS Challenger Suffered an Inglorious End

But NASA Honored Her

Apparently, after the history making Challenger Expedition, the role the ship had played in it all was not exactly celebrated.  

Seasat and Challenger Image

 Two years later, she was decommissioned, and never sailed the seas again.  

First, she simply SAT for six years. Then, in  1883, she was moored in the River Medway, and 'housed' brand new naval recruits (some presumably not so willingly recruited!) until they were sent to their first duty. 

It was not until 1921, however, that the then old lady was laid to rest, when she was scrapped.  

 It seems that those of her day simply discounted her contribution to the world.  But, NASA didn't forget!

In artwork from NASA shown here, a tribute is paid to a shadowy HMS Challenger.  The spacecraft is Seasat A, which was  launched in 1978 with the purpose of gathering data for oceanographic studies.  (Sadly, the spacecraft lasted less than a year.)

Artist's Concept of Seasat A, with HMS Challenger, PD

The Sad Loss of Two Shuttles and Their Brave Crews

Challenger and Columbia Are No More

Sadly, the first two of NASA's amazing space shuttles were disastrously and tragically lost.  With them, we lost a total of fourteen extraordinary human beings.


A minute and thirteen seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986, Challenger broke apart over the Atlantic Ocean.  All seven astronauts aboard were lost.


Columbia was re-entering the atmosphere of planet earth near the conclusion of her 28th mission when she broke apart over Texas.  See took her entire seven person crew with her.



Learn about fun space things to share with young children: the first astronauts, weightlessness, and how shuttles land; fun space toys, books, and costumes for kids under eight.
Information for teens and parents of tweens, about the International Space Station and space camps. Also Gift ideas, including books & astronaut costumes for space minded kids
Updated: 06/08/2016, CruiseReady
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