Millions around the world watched on February 1, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia was ripped apart upon re-entry, and NASA investigations later revealed that the tragedy was likely preventable.
The Space Shuttle Columbia had made 27 successful trips to space and back, but its 28th, dubbed STS-107, was subjected to numerous delays and problems.
Its launch was originally scheduled for Jan. 11, 2001, but ultimately wouldn’t happen for another two years, on Jan. 16, 2003 — and only 80 seconds into the launch, a piece of foam insulation broke away from the shuttle’s tank and hit the Columbia’s left wing.
Some experts at NASA expressed concern that the wing could have suffered critical damage, but others felt that because similar incidents had occurred before without serious damage, the shuttle would surely be fine.
They were proven wrong when the Columbia returned from orbit on February 1 and started to break apart 230,000 feet above the surface of the Earth. The remains of the crew and the debris of the shuttle were scattered across more than 2,000 locations.
The Columbia disaster was one of the most tragic events in the history of the American space program — one that a later investigation determined could have been avoided entirely. So, what went wrong?
The History Of The Space Shuttle Columbia And Its Final Launch
Following the monumental success of the Apollo 11 space mission, humanity’s pursuit of life beyond the stars continued to make large strides, working toward the construction of the International Space Station and developing technology that could be used to repeatedly take mankind to space.
Whereas the Apollo 11 mission utilized a rocket that only allowed for a single trip, researchers and engineers later created a design for a shuttle that could take astronauts into orbit and bring them back. This shuttle was called the Columbia, named after the first American ship to travel the North American Pacific coast, and it debuted in April 1981.
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According to Space, over the next two decades, the Columbia completed 27 successful missions. Meanwhile, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster made history when it burst into a ball of flame and smoke during its launch in 1986 as the world watched it in a live broadcast.
The Columbia, it seemed, had managed to skirt any tragedy of its own, however.
So, 20 years after it was introduced, Columbia prepared for its 28th mission with a seven-person crew: Commander Rick Husband; payload commander Michael Anderson; mission specialists David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Clark; pilot William McCool; and payload specialist Ilan Ramon of the Israeli Space Agency — the first Israeli astronaut.
The crew embarked on a mission dubbed STS-107, a 16-day mission dedicated to various scientific experiments involving microgravity environments. They kept a video log of their experiments and time aboard the shuttle, offering a firsthand glance into life in space.
But despite its successful launch, all was not well with the shuttle. Roughly a minute-and-a-half into their launch, a piece of foam fell from a “bipod ramp” attached to the shuttle’s external tank fell and struck Columbia’s left wing. It caused no issues during launch but raised concerns among NASA staff that the wing may have sustained significant damage.
Even as members of NASA staff called for photos of the wing in orbit, and the Department of Defense offered to examine it with orbital spy cameras, higher-ups within the space program opted not to press the issue — and argued that little could be done to fix it, even if the shuttle had been damaged.
Following the crash, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) would determine that the Columbia crew could have repaired the damage to the wing, if they had been aware of it, or that they could have remained in orbit for an additional two weeks and awaited rescue from the Atlantis shuttle, which was planned to launch on February 15.
Instead, the Columbia began its return to the Kennedy Space Center as planned, and ended in catastrophe.
How Damage To Its Wing Caused Columbia To Break Apart Upon Re-Entry
On Feb. 1, 2003, just before 9 a.m., the Space Shuttle Columbia was 231,000 feet above California, traveling at 23 times the speed of sound when the first signs of trouble appeared.
According to HISTORY, the foam insulation had damaged the heat-resistant tiles that coated Columbia’s left wing — and created an opening that allowed the intense wind and heat of its reentry to enter the wing and rip it apart from the inside.
At 8:59 a.m., the Capcom, or spacecraft communicator, contacted Columbia to inquire about the shuttle’s tire pressure readings, which had also gone dark. Commander Rick Husband responded, “Roger—” but was cut off mid-sentence. The crew lost contact with Mission Control.
A minute later, as Columbia soared over Texas, debris began crashing to the Earth. Texans reported hearing a loud explosion and seeing streaks of smoke in the sky as Columbia disintegrated before their eyes. At 9:12 a.m., Mission Control received a phone call informing them that a network news program showed video of Columbia breaking apart.
NASA called the event a shuttle “contingency” and sent out multiple search and rescue teams to examine the debris sites, which ranged from Texas to Arkansas and Louisiana. During the search, two pilots aboard a search helicopter died in a crash, and later that day, NASA declared the Columbia’s crew had been lost.
Per the Encyclopedia Britannica, pieces of the shuttle and the crew’s remains were recovered over the course of the following month from more than 2,000 square miles spread across three states.
“This is indeed a tragic day for the NASA family, for the families of the astronauts who flew on STS-107, and likewise is tragic for the nation,” said Sean O’Keefe, administrator of NASA at the time of the crash.
The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster marked a turning point for NASA, and led to far-reaching consequences for the space program.
The Aftermath Of The Columbia Disaster
Following the disintegration of the Columbia shuttle, NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency began work to recover the debris that had broken away. In total, they collected 84,000 pieces — and found crew remains scattered among them, later identified using DNA.
Per FBI reports, the total number of people who took part in the search and recovery mission was more than 25,000. They scoured roughly 2.3 million acres of land looking for Columbia debris, and managed to collect roughly 40 percent of the shuttle’s weight.
Special Agent Gary Reinecke was among a group of agents tasked with handling hazardous material at a staging area in Lufkin, Texas. Upon arriving, Lufkin recalled, “I had no idea what to expect when I got down there. It was just swarming with astronauts.”
As the search teams scoured the country for debris and remains, they sent reports back to the FBI with possible locations of crew remains.
“After we determined we had found a crew member, we documented the scene like we would a crime scene—we mapped it and took pictures. But in this case, we didn’t keep any evidence. We turned everything over to NASA,” Reinecke said.
In August 2003, the CAIB report detailed the ways in which the Columbia disaster could have been avoided and revealed that a number of managerial decisions and the overall culture at NASA contributed heavily to the incident.
“Cultural traits and organizational practices detrimental to safety were allowed to develop,” the report reads. The board found that NASA relied too heavily on “past success as a substitute for sound engineering practices” and cited “organizational barriers that prevented effective communication of critical safety information” alongside other major issues.
Following the Columbia disaster, the space shuttle program was grounded until 2005 while NASA implemented new safety measures and reworked the fundamental components of the space shuttles. On July 16, 2005, Discovery launched and entered orbit.
In 2008, NASA additionally released a crew survival report that offered insight into the crew’s final moments, revealing that they likely survived the initial breakup but quickly lost consciousness when the cabin lost pressure. They died when Columbia disintegrated.
The crew’s memory has not been forgotten, however. Their deaths receive a public tribute each year during NASA’s Day of Remembrance, and personal artifacts from both the Columbia’s crew and the Challenger’s crew are on display at the Kennedy Space Center.
Seven asteroids orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter have also been given the names of the seven Columbia crew members.
After learning about this unfortunate disaster, remember the glory days of space exploration through these 44 vintage photos. Then, read the story of Katherine Johnson, one of the “hidden figures” behind the space program.