The space shuttle Columbia broke apart on February 1, 2003, while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members. The disaster occurred over Texas, and only minutes before Columbia was scheduled to land at the Kennedy Space Center. An investigation later determined the catastrophe was caused by a piece of foam insulation that broke off the shuttle’s propellant tank and damaged the edge of the shuttle’s left wing. The Columbia disaster was the second tragedy in the history of the space shuttle program, after the space shuttle Challenger broke apart shortly after launch in 1986 and all seven astronauts on board perished.
Space Shuttle Columbia Launch
The Columbia’s 28th space mission, designated STS-107, was originally scheduled to launch on January 11, 2001, but was delayed numerous times for a variety of reasons over nearly two years. Columbia finally launched on January 16, 2003, with a crew of seven.
Eighty seconds into the launch, a piece of foam insulation broke off from the shuttle’s propellant tank and hit the edge of the shuttle’s left wing.
Cameras focused on the launch sequence revealed the foam collision but engineers could not pinpoint the location and extent of the damage.
Although similar incidents had occurred on three prior shuttle launches without causing critical damage, some engineers at the space agency believed that damage to a wing could cause a catastrophic failure.
Their concerns were not addressed in the two weeks that Columbia spent in orbit because NASA management believed that even if major damage had been caused, there was little that could be done to remedy the situation.
Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster
Columbia re-entered the earth’s atmosphere on the morning of February 1, 2003.
It wasn’t until 10 minutes later, at 8:53 a.m.—as the shuttle was 231,000 feet above the California coastline traveling at 23 times the speed of sound—that the first indications of trouble began. Because the heat-resistant tiles covering the left wing’s leading edge had been damaged or were missing, wind and heat entered the wing, damaging hydraulic systems and sending the shuttle into an unrecoverable spin, causing it to break apart.
Ground observers noticed the shuttle shedding debris as it passed over California, with the first recovered pieces hitting the ground in West Texas near Lubbock at 8:58 a.m. One minute later, the last communication from the crew of five men and two women was heard, and at 9 a.m. the shuttle disintegrated over northeast Texas, near Dallas.
Residents in the area heard a loud boom and saw streaks of smoke in the sky. Debris and the remains of the crew were found in more than 2,000 locations across East Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. Making the tragedy even worse, two pilots aboard a search helicopter were killed in a crash while looking for debris.
Strangely, worms the crew had used in a study and which were stored in a canister aboard the Columbia did survive.
Columbia Disaster Investigation
In August 2003, an investigation board issued a report revealing that it would have been possible either for the Columbia crew to repair the damage to the wing or for the crew to be rescued from the shuttle.
The Columbia could have stayed in orbit until February 15 and the already planned launch of the shuttle Atlantis could have been moved up as early as February 10, leaving a short window for repairing the wing or getting the crew off of the Columbia.
In the aftermath of the Columbia disaster, the space shuttle program was grounded until July 26, 2005, when the space shuttle Discovery was launched on the program’s 114th mission. In July 2011, the space shuttle program, which began with the Columbia’s first mission in 1981, completed its final (and 135th) mission, flown by Atlantis.