Fifteen years later: The space shuttle Columbia tragedy

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Feb 1, 2018

Where were you when you first heard that Columbia had been destroyed? If you’re of a certain age, it’s a moment you probably remember well. The shuttle launched on January 16, 2003, with her seven-person crew: Commander Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Mike Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Laurel Blair Salton Clark. It was Columbia’s 28th mission and the space shuttle program’s 113th.

During the launch of the STS-107 mission, a piece of lightweight foam that was about the size of a suitcase broke off of the attached external tank and hit the orbiter’s left wing. After examining close-up footage of the launch, NASA realized what had happened. There was some concern internally that it could have damaged the spacecraft. But, in the end, nothing came of it and no action was taken. Besides, Columbia’s wing was made of reinforced carbon fiber. Many thought there was no way foam could do any damage.

They were wrong.

Columbia was the first space shuttle, and as a result, she was a little heavier than her counterparts. “Columbia was hardly a thing of beauty, except to those of us who loved and cared for her,” her first pilot Bob Crippen famously said at the memorial service. But what she lacked in finesse, she more than made up for in grit. The story of her harrowing first flight in 1981 is expertly told in the book Into the Black by Rowland White. A human was required to pilot the space shuttles, so NASA could not conduct an uncrewed test. Columbia performed beautifully, with John Young and Bob Crippen at her controls, and a new era in space travel was born.

The early days of the shuttle program weren’t exactly smooth sailing, though. Lessons learned from the Apollo 1 tragedy had faded, but NASA was quickly reminded that they weren’t infallible when the space shuttle Challenger exploded during liftoff on January 28, 1986.

But what happened to Columbia? To understand that, it’s necessary to go back to the design of the space shuttle.

Whenever you saw pictures of the space shuttle on the launch pad, you were treated to the vision of the actual spacecraft attached to a orange-colored rocket, with two flanking white smaller rockets. You can see the full splendor in the image below (Atlantis, on the pad before the last launch of the program).

The bigger orange rocket is what’s called the external tank, which contained the fuel for the rocket. Because the fuel was liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, which had to be kept cold, the tank was covered in spray-on insulation foam. The foam also protected the surface of the tank from heat, as well as prevented ice from forming. There had historically been issues with the tank shedding its foam during launch, and because the shuttle was attached to the tank, rather than on top of the launch vehicle like the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules had been, pieces of foam could impact the spacecraft. That’s just what happened during STS-107. The foam impact damaged the wing.

When Columbia reentered the atmosphere on February 1, 2003, hot plasma entered the ship through the breached wing and melted the internal structure of the spacecraft. The crew tried to save their dying ship in their last seconds of consciousness; they did everything they could, but nothing could have changed their fates. Columbia broke apart over the southern United States; debris was scattered across Texas and Louisiana.

The massive recovery effort that followed is chronicled incredibly well in the book Bringing Columbia Home by Michael Leinbach and Jonathan Ward. It was the largest-ever ground search in American history, as NASA, public servants, and local communities came together to bring the space shuttle, and her crew, home.

In the accident’s aftermath, a group was convened to determined exactly what happened to the shuttle and how to prevent it from ever occurring again. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board was able to drill down the physical cause of what happened: the foam strike to the wing.

But there’s also a human component here. It’s not just about the loss of the spacecraft; it’s the seemingly needless death of seven astronauts.

This wasn’t just the physical failure of Columbia’s wing; the human failure was just as tremendous. It’s called “normalization of deviance” within NASA management. It’s also the culture that directly led to the destruction of Challenger: an assumption that just because an abnormal occurrence didn’t lead to disaster the first time it happened, it will never lead to disaster. Foam shedding was a known issue people assumed was safe because it hadn’t mortally wounded previous spacecraft.

The Columbia tragedy marked the end of the space shuttle era; after a two-year investigation, the orbiters returned to flight. But this accident sealed the program’s fate. The eventual retirement of the shuttle fleet in 2011 was directly tied to Columbia.

Fast forward 15 years, and we’re at an exciting point when it comes to spaceflight. There are many inspiring new missions on the horizon, as well as a return to American-crewed flights in the next few years. But as we look ahead to what comes next, to moving beyond the low Earth orbit that the International Space Station inhabits, and exploring our solar system, it’s important to remember those who sacrificed their lives on our journey to the stars.

Ad Astra Per Aspera

Rick D. Husband
William C. McCool
Michael P. Anderson
David M. Brown
Kalpana Chawla
Laurel Blair Salton Clark
Ilan Ramon

February 1, 2003