Columbia was named after a Boston-based sloop commanded by Captain Robert Gray, who noted while sailing to the Pacific Northwest a flow of muddy water fanning from the shore, and decided to explore what he deemed the "Great River of the West." On May 11, 1792, Gray and his crew maneuvered the Columbia past the treacherous sand bar and named the river after his ship. After a week or so of trading with the local tribes, Gray left without investigating where the river led. Instead, Gray led the Columbia and its crew on the first U.S. circumnavigation of the globe, carrying otter skins to Canton, China, before returning to Boston in 1793.

In addition to Columbia (OV-102), which first flew in 1981, Challenger (OV-099) first flew in 1983, Discovery (OV-103)in 1984, and Atlantis (OV-104) in 1985. Endeavour (OV-105),which replaced Challenger, first flew in 1992. At the time of the launch of STS-107, Columbia was unique since it was the last remaining Orbiter to have an internal airlock on the mid-deck. (All the Orbiters originally had internal airlocks, but all excepting Columbia were modified to pro-vide an external docking mechanism for flights to Mir and the International Space Station.) Because the airlock was not located in the payload bay, Columbia could carry longer payloads such as the Chandra space telescope, which used the full length of the payload bay. The internal airlock made the middeck more cramped than those of other Orbiters, but this was less of a problem when one of the laboratory modules was installed in the payload bay to provide additional habitable volume.

Columbia had been manufactured to an early structural standard that resulted in the airframe being heavier than the later Orbiters. Coupled with a more-forward center of gravity because of the internal airlock, Columbia could not carry as much payload weight into orbit as the other Orbiters. This made Columbia less desirable for missions to the Interna-tional Space Station, although planning was nevertheless underway to modify Columbia for an International Space Station flight sometime after STS-107.
コロンビアは初期の構造基準に従って建造されたため、機体が他のオービターより重く、 また内蔵型のエアロックのために重心が前寄りになっており、コロンビアは他のオービターより軌道に運び上げられる重量が少なくなっていました。このため、STS-107以後どこかの時点で国際宇宙ステーションへのフライトが可能なようにコロンビアを改修する計画があったにもかかわらず、国際宇宙ステーションに関するミッションには適さないと考えられていたのです。