Remembering the Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster


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The Columbia area shuttle crew’s official photograph for mission STS-107 was taken in October 2001. From left to proper: David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon. (Credit score: NASA)

NASA is holding its annual Day of Remembrance as we speak to honor the crew members of Apollo 1 and area shuttles Challenger and Columbia, in addition to different NASA workers who’ve misplaced their lives whereas advancing area exploration.

This yr marks the 15th anniversary of Columbia’s final area shuttle mission, which suffered a catastrophic and deadly finish. The unlucky occasion shook the science neighborhood and the general public, however the classes taken away from the incident overhauled NASA’s method to security considerations and future area journey.

Columbia’s Final Mission

On January 16, 2003, Columbia launched into its 28th area shuttle mission, designated STS-107, to hold out a sequence of microgravity science experiments. Nonetheless, about 80 seconds into the shuttle’s launch from the Kennedy House Heart, a big piece of froth insulation break up off from the “bipod ramp” — a bit used to connect the exterior tank to the shuttle. Engineers used digital camera footage to assessment the incident, and located that the suitcase-sized piece of froth struck the shuttle’s left wing because it fell. Nonetheless, floor employees weren’t capable of decide precisely the place the harm occurred or how extreme it was. Moreover, NASA engineers believed that if intensive harm did happen, the crew members wouldn’t be capable to treatment the scenario whereas the shuttle was in orbit.

This was the fifth time that foam had been noticed breaking off of a bipod ramp, and the issue had turn out to be so widespread that it even had a reputation: foam shedding. Because the 4 earlier instances of froth shedding occurred with out incident, NASA turned accustom to the phenomena and didn’t take many preventative measures to cease it from occurring in future launches.

On the morning of February 1, 2003, because the Columbia mission was starting its descent again to Earth, Mission Management beginning receiving uncommon readings from the tire strain and temperature sensors on the shuttle’s left wing. They had been briefly capable of contact the crew, however misplaced communication earlier than they had been capable of tackle the considerations.

Shortly after the shuttle crossed the coast of California, whereas it was at an altitude of over 230,000 ft (70,100 meters), civilians began seeing particles fall from the sky. A number of unsuccessful makes an attempt at communication had been remodeled the following jiffy as Columbia traveled over California to Texas.

Across the time that Columbia ought to have been touchdown on the Kennedy House Heart, eyewitnesses close to Dallas started reporting that the shuttle had disintegrated overhead. At 9:12 a.m., Entry Flight Director LeRoy Cain instigated NASA’s contingency plan and alerted search and rescue groups in Texas and Louisiana.

One of the more substantial objects recovered from Columbia was its nose gear with its tires still intact. (Credit: NASA/Columbia Accident Investigation Board)

One of many extra substantial objects recovered from Columbia was its nostril gear with its tires nonetheless intact. (Credit score: NASA/Columbia Accident Investigation Board)

Search and Rescue

Search and rescue groups, together with 1000’s of volunteers, spent a number of weeks combing via elements of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas attempting to recuperate as a lot of Columbia as attainable. NASA was finally capable of recuperate 84,000 items of particles, which added as much as about 40 p.c of the area shuttle.

Inside the 1000’s of items of particles, NASA was capable of find the stays of every of the crew members, verified via DNA. An investigation into the incident later decided that the froth shed throughout Columbia’s launch created a gap within the left wing, which prompted intensive harm to the shuttle’s sensors and allowed atmospheric fuel to leak into the cabin throughout de-orbit. The ensuing harm prompted the craft to lose management and disintegrate because it re-entered Earth’s ambiance, killing everybody onboard.

The search workforce additionally recovered points of science experiments carried out onboard, together with teams of small worms, often known as Caenorhabditis elegans. The research concerned feeding the worms an artificial nutrient to see if they’d develop in area, however because of the period of time that it took to recuperate the worms, the info was misplaced. Nonetheless, the truth that lots of the worms, that are solely about 1 millimeter lengthy, survived the crash with minimal warmth harm was a scientific discovery in itself.

The Aftermath

After the incident, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CIAB) was fashioned to completely examine the shuttle’s destruction. By the investigation, they decided that NASA had an inclination to miss potential issues, like foam shedding, in the event that they hadn’t prompted main incidences previously. In addition they concluded space-based rescue try might have been made by transferring up the launch of the deliberate Atlantis shuttle to February 10 (Columbia might have orbited till February 15).

The CAIB additionally issued suggestions to NASA to overtake their method to security by actively looking for out any potential issues and mitigating them earlier than they happen. NASA took the boards recommendation by suspending missions for over two years whereas they redesigned their exterior tank and initiated further security precautions.

In July 2005, they examined new security measures — corresponding to further cameras to watch foam shedding — on the Discovery area shuttle mission STS-114, however they discovered that extra foam had damaged off of the shuttle than anticipated. This pressured them to once more delay any additional missions till July 2006, from which the missions continued till the Worldwide House Station was full. The station’s 2011 completion marked the top of the area shuttle program.


The Columbia spacecraft is proven throughout its last launch from the Kennedy House Heart on January 16, 2003. (Credit score: NASA)

Public Response

Because the nation and the science neighborhood grieved the lack of Columbia’s crew members, officers reiterated to the general public that, though the tragic incident occurred, the search for area exploration was removed from over. “We at the moment are decided to maneuver ahead with a cautious, milestone-driven return to spaceflight actions, and to take action with the utmost concern for security, incorporating all the teachings discovered from the tragic occasions of February 1st. That’s precisely what we’ll do,” stated Sean O’Keefe, NASA’s administrator from 2001-2005, in an announcement.

“We’re about to start a brand new chapter in NASA historical past, one which will probably be marked by a renewed dedication to excellence in all points of our work, a strengthening of a security ethos all through our group, and an enhancement of our technical capabilities,” added O’Keefe.

Then-president George W. Bush launched an announcement on the day of the Columbia catastrophe, commemorating the astronauts who gave their lives, and in addition reiterating the significance of area exploration. “In an age when area flight has come to look virtually routine, it’s straightforward to miss the hazards of journey by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer ambiance of the Earth. These astronauts knew the hazards, they usually confronted them willingly, understanding they’d a excessive and noble goal in life,” stated Bush in a presidential tackle. “The trigger [for] which they died will proceed. Mankind is led into the darkness past our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to know. Our journey into area will go on.”

Though there’s solely at some point annually formally devoted to remembering those that misplaced their lives within the pursuit of area exploration, the crew members’ legacies proceed to stay on every day. Observances for NASA’s annual Day of Remembrance as we speak will probably be held at Virginia’s Arlington Nationwide Cemetery, Florida’s Kennedy House Heart Customer Complicated, and a number of different NASA facilities.


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