Seventeen years ago, NASA suffered their third major loss in the exploration of space. This event would put a final nail in the coffin of the Space Shuttle program.
The Space Shuttle Columbia met a tragic fate on February 1, 2003, as the first spacecraft of its kind fell apart on re-entry over the southwestern United States. Seventeen years to the day after this heartbreaking accident, we look back at the final mission of STS-107.
Columbia was the first Space Shuttle launched into space, the most complex machine ever designed by the human race, until the completion of the International Space Station. The maiden voyage of the orbiter marked a turning point in the history of human space flight.
“On April 12, 1981, a bright white Columbia roared into a deep blue sky as the nation’s first reusable Space Shuttle. Named after the first American ocean vessel to circle the globe and the command module for the Apollo 11 Moon landing, Columbia continued this heritage of intrepid exploration,” NASA states in a tribute to the historic vehicle.
The Final Flight
On January 16, 2003, the veteran spacecraft once again sat on pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, ready for launch. At 10:39 am EST, the mighty solid rocket boosters ignited, aided by engines aboard the orbiter itself, lifting the spacecraft to its date with history. Touchdown was scheduled for the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, but the crew of seven would never make it to their destination.
Aboard Columbia were Commander Rick Husband and Pilot Willie McCool, together with Payload Commander Michael Anderson and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, along with Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and David Brown.
The goals of the mission were to further knowledge needed to further the ability of human beings to live in space. Carrying the Spacehab Research Double Module (RDM), the seven astronauts performed experiments on the actions of fire in space, providing valuable information need for future human missions into Earth orbit and beyond. The crew also examined how crystals reacted under pressure while in space, aiding future construction efforts off the face of our home planet. In addition, the crew performed experiments on proteins, medicine, and physiology.
“KSC landing was planned for Feb. 1 after a 16-day mission, but Columbia and crew were lost during reentry over East Texas at about 9 a.m. EST, 16 minutes prior to the scheduled touchdown at KSC. A seven-month investigation followed, including a four month search across Texas to recover debris… Nearly 85,000 pieces of orbiter debris were shipped to KSC and… [a]bout 38 percent of the orbiter Columbia was eventually recovered,” NASA reports on the Mission Archive web page.
When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system.” — Laurel Clark, following her her first flight to space in 1997.
What the doomed crew could not have known was that a piece of insulating foam had ripped from beneath one wing on launch. Facing the intense heat of recovery, critical mechanisms within the wing tore asunder, rendering the craft unstable. The vehicle began to tumble, tearing apart under stress, and the first Shuttle to fly in space, along with the crew piloting her on her last mission, were no more.
Seventeen years later, the work and sacrifice of the crew of Columbia on her final mission has brought the dream of permanent human habitation of space a little closer to reality.
James Maynard is the founder and publisher of The Cosmic Companion. He is a New England native turned desert rat in Tucson, where he lives with his lovely wife, Nicole, and Max the Cat.
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