I was well into writing this piece when I learned of John Young's death on 1/5/18. I never had the opportunity to meet him during my time at NASA, but he was indeed a legendary figure at the Johnson Space Center. I encourage anyone with an interest in space history to research his incredible career. Ad Astra Mr. Young.
When Columbia fired its engines in April of 1981, crowds cheered NASA's first manned rocket launch in nearly six years. This was STS-1, the maiden mission of the space shuttle program. The system's reusable components promised to revolutionize spaceflight. No one watching the launch that morning had any way of predicting the highs and lows of the shuttle's three-decade career ahead. They weren't even sure that this crazy spaceship-glider was going to work at all. The columns of fire and noise lifting Columbia must have been reassuring, but not everything was unfolding according to plan.
Neither the astronauts racing skyward, nor flight controllers on the ground realized that Columbia had sustained significant damage in several locations during the first seconds of the launch. Any of these injuries could have led to a catastrophic failure. In fact, mission commander, John Young, later noted that he would have aborted the launch and ejected if he had known the extent of Columbia's maladies.
Exactly how the shuttle absorbed the hard knocks of its first launch and completed the mission safely is still not completely understood. The orbiter's robust design certainly contributed, as did the expertise within Mission Control and the astronaut corps. At the same time, it is difficult to analyze the specifics of STS-1 and completely discount the role of pure, dumb luck.