Remembering Seven Astronauts Lost their Lives To Columbia Disaster 21 Years Ago, Here’s what happened and What NASA has learned from it

On Feb. 1, 2003, NASA’s space shuttle Columbia broke up as it made its way back to Earth killing the seven astronauts on board. The Columbia disaster left the entire world in heavy grievance. The disaster made NASA suspend its space shuttle flights for more than two years as it inspects the actual cause of the disaster.

During the investigation, the team conducting the inspection concluded that a large piece of foam must have fallen off from the shuttle’s external tank and breached the spacecraft’s wing. Spacecraft engineers and technicians have been familiar with the challenges associated with foam for years even before the disaster. NASA was heavily scrutinized both in Congress and across several media platforms for enabling the situation to continue thriving.

The Columbia disaster was the second after the Challenger disaster following a catastrophic failure upon its launch in 1986. However, the devastation of the Columbia disaster made NASA retire its space shuttle fleet in 2011. Currently, NASA sends its astronauts to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets and commercial spacecraft like the SpaceX Crew Dragon.

Before the disaster, the space agency trusted Columbia so much that it was the first space shuttle to fly in space in April 1981. In fact, the space shuttle completed 27 missions before the Feb. 2003 disaster. During its 28th flight, on Jan. 16, 2003, Columbia left Earth for the last time.

During that era, NASA focused its shuttle program on the development of the International Space Station. However, during its mission known as STS-107, the Columbia team focused more on conducting space research.

What You Should Know as Columbia Crew Members

Columbia’s last mission consists of seven crew members. They include Rick Husband, commander; Michael Anderson, payload commander; David Brown, mission specialist; Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Laurel Clark, mission specialist; William McCool, pilot; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist from the Israeli Space Agency.

These astronauts spend about 24 hours conducting numerous science experiments in two shifts. During their flight, they conducted about 80 experiments in life science, material sciences, fluid physics, and other matters before they commenced to return to Earth’s surface.

What Caused the Columbia Disaster?

On January 16, 2003, the NASA Columbia space shuttle ascended into space for the 28th time carrying seven astronauts. About 82 seconds into the launch, NASA officials observing the mission noticed that a piece of foam fell from a “bipod ramp” that was part of a structure that attached the external tank to the shuttle.

However, the Columbia shuttle still arrived in space with its crew. The astronauts conducted their experiments in space upon arrival for the STS-107 mission. On the 16th day of the mission, NASA’s official was still investigating the foam strike that occurred during the ascend.

The Video evidence from the launch revealed that the foam struck Columbia’s left wing. The officials conducting the investigation later realized that a hole was created on the left wing allowing atmospheric gases to bleed into the shuttle as it passed its harsh re-entry process. The hole led to the loss of the sensors and also contact loss with the Columbia space shuttle, and the seven astronauts onboard.

Many people within NASA requested to get images of the damaged wings. The Department of Defense was even ready to use its orbital spy cameras to get a closer view of the Columbia before the disaster.

However, the NASA official in charge turned down the request, according to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) and “Comm Check,” a 2008 book by space journalists Michael Cabbage and William Harwood, about the disaster. Hence, the landing of the shuttle proceeded without further investigation.

How the Columbia Disaster Occurred

Image recieved by NASA as part of Investigation for Columbia disaster accident. (Image creadit: NASA)

On Feb. 1, 2003, The Columbia Space Shuttle began its usual landing procedure at the Kennedy Space Center. However, moments before 9 a.m. EST, strange readings began to show up at Mission Control. First, the temperature readings from sensors located on the left wing were lost.

After that, the tire pressure readings from the left side of the shuttle also disappeared. The space communicator phoned Columbia astronauts to discuss the abnormal tire pressure reading. At exactly, 8:59:32 a.m., that morning, Husband, who is the commander of the STS 107 mission phoned back from Columbia saying, “Roger,” followed by a word that disrupted in the mid-sentence.

At that moment, Columbia was approaching Dallas, moving at about 18 times the speed of sound and still at around 200,700 feet (61,170 meters) above the ground. Mission Control lost communication with the astronauts as all attempts to communicate with them failed.

Twelve minutes afterward, when the Columbia space shuttle should be making its final approach to the runway, the Mission Control team received a phone call. The caller revealed that a television network filmed the shuttle breaking up in the sky. Moments after the disaster, NASA declared the space shuttle ‘contingency.’

The agency also sent search and rescue teams to the debris site in Texas and Louisiana. Later that same day, NASA declared the seven astronauts lost.

“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,” stated NASA’s administrator at the time, Sean O’Keefe.

What Happened After the Columbia Disaster?

More than 82,000 pieces of debris from the Feb. 1, 2003 shuttle disaster, were recovered. Imaged released May 15, 2003. (Image credit: NASA)

After this disaster, the NASA search team began to find this debris for weeks. some of them landed in about 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) in east Texas alone. The agency was able to recover about 84,000 pieces of the shuttle. These recovered pieces represent only about 40 percent of the entire Columbia by weight.

The crew remains were also among the recovered material which were identified with DNA. In 2008, NASA released an official statement revealing that the Columbia crew lasted a few minutes and survived the initial breakup of Columbia. However, they lost consciousness seconds after the cabin lost pressure.

The astronauts passed on as the shuttle disintegrated. The Columbia disaster crew members received several tributes to their memory over the years. When the Mars Spirit rover landed on Mars, NASA named its landing site Columbia Memorial Station.

The agency also named seven astronauts orbiting the sun in the asteroid belt region between Mars and Jupiter the names of the seven astronauts who died during the Columbia disaster. Humanity will never forget these astronauts for generations to come.

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