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Remembering The Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster, On This Day 20 Years Ago

The lift off of Space Shuttle Columbia from Launch Pad 39A at the beginning of mission STS-107. (Photo: NASA)

The orbiter broke apart while reentering the atmosphere at the end of the STS-107 mission.

February 1, 2003 will live up as one of the saddest days in the history of space exploration. Just 22 minutes before touchdown, at 8:54 AM EST, unusual readings from the sensors showed up at Mission Control as the Space Shuttle Columbia was on approach to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), in Florida, at the end of the STS-107 mission.

“FYI, I’ve just lost four separate temperature transducers on the left side of the vehicle, hydraulic return temperatures. Two of them on system one and one in each of systems two and three”, said the Maintenance, Mechanical, Arm and Crew Systems Officer to the Flight Director on the intercom. Other sensors begin showing not-nominal readings, while aerodynamic drag on the left wing increase.

At 8:59, MMACS reports the loss of tire pressure readings on the left landing gear, which is relayed to the Space Shuttle commander. “Roger, buh” was his abruptly cutoff answer, the last radio transmission from the crew as the Shuttle was approaching Dallas, Texas. In the following seconds, flight controllers begin reporting a string of problems.

At 9:03, the Capsule Commander (CAPCOM) attempts to communicate with the orbiter: “Columbia, Houston, comm check.” With the radio calls every 30 seconds going unanswered, everyone begins to realize something might be very wrong, as no radio contact and radar tracking could be established.

At 9:12 the control room gets the news nobody wanted to her that day, the vehicle broke up and multiple contrails were seen along Columbia’s flight path. The seven astronauts on the Columbia, Commander Rick D. Husband and Pilot William C. “Willie” McCool, Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson, Mission Specialists David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel B. Clark, and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, lost their lives.

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The crew of STS107. (Image credit: NASA)

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The crew of STS107. (Image credit: NASA)

The flight director declares a contingency: “Lock the doors”, ordering the controllers to start the Flight Control Operations Handbook contingency plan procedure. The Mission Control is isolated, no transmissions of any kind in or out, while flight controllers secured all their information, notes and data gathered from the spacecraft.

STS-107 was the first Shuttle mission of the year, out of six planned. This was the first shuttle mission dedicated to microgravity research in nearly five years, while the others were planned to continue the construction of the International Space Station. During the mission, the seven-member crew worked on 80 U.S. and international experiments aboard a Spacehab Double Research Module in Columbia’s payload bay.

Space shuttle Columbia began its 28th mission with a liftoff from KSC’s Launch Pad 39A at 10:39 am EST on Jan. 16, 2003. The launch appeared to go well and after eight and a half minutes, Columbia reached its planned orbit to begin the 16-day microgravity research mission. During routine analysis of launch films, however, engineers noted that at about 82 seconds into the flight, a piece of foam insulation released from the Shuttle’s External Tank (ET) appeared to strike Columbia’s left wing.

On Jan. 23, the Flight Director notified Husband and McCool of the foam strike, but assured them that because the phenomenon had occurred on previous missions, it caused no concern for damage to the vehicle or for reentry. However, engineers on the ground continued to assess the impact of the foam strike, requesting high-resolution imaging of the affected area to complete a more thorough analysis, but ultimately managers turned down the request.

And then, fifteen minutes after entry interface, flying over Texas at an altitude of 207,000 feet and 16 minutes from landing at KSC, Mission Control lost contact with Columbia and her crew.

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Bob Cabana, Associate Administrator of NASA, delivers remarks during NASA’s Day of Remembrance ceremony, hosted by the Astronauts Memorial Foundation at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Thursday, January 26, 2023. The ceremony highlighted the crew of Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 for the 20th anniversary of the mission disaster that killed seven astronauts on Feb. 1, 2003. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

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Bob Cabana, Associate Administrator of NASA, delivers remarks during NASA’s Day of Remembrance ceremony, hosted by the Astronauts Memorial Foundation at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Thursday, January 26, 2023. The ceremony highlighted the crew of Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 for the 20th anniversary of the mission disaster that killed seven astronauts on Feb. 1, 2003. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

Five hours after the tragedy, President George W. Bush addressed a shocked nation, “My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news, and great sadness to our country. … The Columbia is lost; there are no survivors.” By that time, authorities in Texas and Louisiana had begun the arduous task of recovering the remains of the astronauts and the debris from Columbia, a process that took more than three months and resulted in the recovery of about 38% of Columbia by weight.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board found out that the foam from the external tank’s left bipod ramp area impacted Columbia in the vicinity of the lower left wing reinforced carbon-carbon panels 5-9. While on orbit, no one on the Shuttle and on the ground had any idea about the damage. When the vehicle began reentry this damaged section of the wing was subjected to extreme entry heating over a long period of time, causing the destruction of the wing and then the breakup and crash of Columbia.

The CAIB report also criticized NASA’s organizational and safety culture, finding similar faults that led to the 1986 Challenger accident. Among the criticisms, the report stated that NASA had become complacent to the loss of foam from the external tank, since none had led to significant issues other than postflight maintenance.

The investigation led to the grounding of the space shuttle fleet as NASA implemented the recommendations from the CAIB, until the STS-114 return to flight mission of Discovery in July 2005. By then, it was decided to retire the shuttle after completing assembly of the ISS, with the last mission being the STS-135 flight of Atlantis in July 2011. For future human space flights, NASA developed the Crew Exploration Vehicle, now called Orion, for deep space exploration missions.

On January 28, the day of the annual tribute to all fallen astronauts, NASA marked the 20th anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia tragedy with somber ceremonies and remembrances. The day was chosen because of the clustering of the dates of the worst accidents, the Apollo 1 launch pad fire on January 27, 1967, the loss of Challenger during liftoff on January 28, 1986 and the loss of Columbia on February 1, 2003.

About Stefano D’Urso
Stefano D’Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he’s also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.
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