Construction began on Columbia in 1975 at Rockwell International’s (formerly North American Aviation/North American Rockwell) principal assembly facility in Palmdale, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. Columbia was named after the American sloop Columbia Rediviva which, from 1787 to 1793, under the command of Captain Robert Gray, explored the US Pacific Northwest and became the first American vessel to circumnavigate the globe. It is also named after the command module of Apollo 11, the first crewed landing on another celestial body. Columbia was also the female symbol of the United States. After construction, the orbiter arrived at Kennedy Space Center on March 25, 1979, to prepare for its first launch. Columbia was originally scheduled to lift off in late 1979, however the launch date was delayed by problems with both the RS-25 engine, as well as the thermal protection system (TPS). On March 19, 1981, during preparations for a ground test, workers were asphyxiated while working in Columbia’s nitrogen-purged aft engine compartment, resulting in (variously reported) two or three fatalities.
At last, on July 1, 2004, the Cassini spacecraft fired off its breaking rocket, glided into orbit around Saturn, and started taking pictures that left scientists in awe. It wasn't as if they hadn't been prepared for such wonders. The weeks leading up to Cassini's arrival at Saturn had served to intensify their already heated anticipation. It seemed as if each approach-picture taken was more enticing than the one preceding it. Cassini's successful mission of exploration to the Saturn system is over, but planetary scientists are left with a cornucopia filled with important new information that Cassini/Huygens sent back to Earth before its mission ended. A collaborative NASA/European Space Agency/Italian Space Agency mission, the robotic spacecraft was made up of two components. The first was the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Huygens Probe, that had been named in honor of the Dutch mathematician and astronomer Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), who discovered Titan. The Huygens Probe also closely observed Saturn's lovely system of gossamer rings. The second component, the NASA-designed Cassini Orbiter, was named after the Italian-French astronomer Giovanni Dominico Cassini (1625-1712), who discovered four of Saturn's other intriguing, numerous, and icy moons. Earlier infrared data did not have sufficient resolution to separate MK 2 from Makemake's veiling glare. The astronomers' reanalysis, however, based on the more recent HST observations, indicates that much of the warmer surface spotted earlier in infrared light may simply be the dark surface of the companion MK 2.