NASA staffers and leaders had a celebration planned on February 1, 2003 for the return of Columbia and its crew after the successful completion of STS-107. STS-107 had been launched from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A on January 16 on a science mission that was dedicated to research in physical, life, and space sciences. It held the SPACEHAB Research Double Module and involved the execution of approximately 80 separate experiments, comprised of hundreds of samples and test points. The seven astronauts aboard had worked 24 hours a day, in two alternating shifts, to complete these experiments.
Unfortunately, STS-107 never made it home; both the vehicle and crew were lost during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. NASA lost communication with Columbia a little before 9:00 a.m. EST on February 1, and when the shuttle failed to land at its appointed time of 9:16 a.m. at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe knew something was wrong. He said:
I immediately advised the President and the Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, at the point after landing was due to have occurred at 9:16 a.m., and spoke to them very briefly to advise them that we had lost contact with the Shuttle orbiter, Columbia, and STS-107 crew. They offered, the President specifically offered, full and immediate support to determine the appropriate steps to be taken. We then spent the next hour and a half working through the details and information of what we have received [concerning]…operational and technical issues.
Lost in the accident was the STS-107 crew of seven astronauts. These included Mission Commander Rick Husband; Pilot William “Willie” McCool; Mission Specialists Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Laurel Clark; Payload Commander Michael Anderson; and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon. Sad as this loss was, NASA personnel vowed that the astronauts had not died in vain and that space exploration would continue. Moreover, this accident taught harsh lessons of the risk of exploring a new frontier and allowed humanity to learn lessons that would make space travel safer into the future.
President G.W. Bush offered these comments at the memorial service for the crew:
The loss was sudden and terrible, and for their families, the grief is heavy. Our nation shares in your sorrow and in your pride. And today we remember not only one moment of tragedy, but seven lives of great purpose and achievement. To leave behind Earth and air and gravity is an ancient dream of humanity. For these seven, it was a dream fulfilled. Each of these astronauts had the daring and discipline required of their calling. Each of them knew that great endeavors are inseparable from great risks. And each of them accepted those risks willingly, even joyfully, in the cause of discovery.
Columbia was the first orbiter built and flown in space, having undertaken 28 successful missions. In February 2001, Columbia had received a major overhaul and update of its systems but it was still an aging vehicle. The STS-107 mission where it was lost was Columbia’s second flight following its overhaul, with the first one a successful servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in March 2002.
The process of initiating a Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) began almost immediately. Its first meeting, under the direction of retired U.S. Navy Admiral Harold W. Gehman Jr.—who co-chaired the commission that investigated the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Aden, Yemen, on October 12, 2000—was scheduled for February 3. “While the NASA family and the entire world mourn the loss of our colleagues, we have a responsibility to quickly move forward with an external assessment to determine exactly what happened and why,” said Administrator O’Keefe. “We’re honored to have such a distinguished panel of experts, led by Admiral Gehman.”
At the same time, with debris scattered over Texas, Louisiana, and other parts of the south-central United States, teams of investigators scoured the countryside for as much of Columbia as they could find. Within 24 hours of the accident, a large group was on the ground and working with local officials in Texas and Louisiana. The State of Texas activated 800 members of the Texas National Guard to assist with the retrieval of debris. By February 4, more than 2,000 people from Federal Emergency Management Agency, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, U.S. Forest Service, Texas National Guard, and state and local authorities were working to locate, document, and collect debris.
By May 2003 the CAIB released their working scenario for the accident. The Board commented that at approximately 81 seconds after a 10:39 a.m. EST launch on January 16, 2003, post-launch photographic analysis determined that foam from the External Tank (ET) left bipod ramp area impacted Columbia in the vicinity of the lower left wing reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) panels 5-9. While on orbit for 16 days, neither the Columbia crew nor controllers on the ground had any indication of damage based on orbiter telemetry, crew downlinked video, still photography, or crew reports. When the vehicle began reentry this damaged section of the wing according to the CAIB, “was subjected to extreme entry heating over a long period of time, leading to RCC rib erosion, severely slumped carrier panel tiles, and substantial metallic slag deposition on the RCC panels nearest the damaged area.” The destruction of the wing from overheating caused the breakup and crash of Columbia. It was a tragedy that cost the lives of seven astronauts and the spacecraft.
The loss of both Columbia and its crew signaled the beginning of an important policy debate about the future of human spaceflight. NASA grounded the shuttle fleet, appropriately so, at the time of the accident, but wanted to return to flight by the fall of 2003. Others, some of them members of Congress, thought that the shuttle fleet should not only be grounded but immediately retired. Still others announced that America must find the technical problem that caused the loss of Columbia, fix that problem on all of the remaining orbiters, determine the appropriate organizational and management issues that allowed the technical problem to go unresolved, and only then return to flight.
A decade has passed since this accident. The crew deserves honor and respect for their sacrifice, to be sure, but also for their commitment and dedication to the cause of pushing back the frontiers of knowledge about space. The space shuttle has been retired. The policy debate about how best to continue human spaceflight still rages. NASA is presently pursuing a program designed to foster private sector solutions to support International Space Station operations in low-Earth orbit. The intention is that the space agency will be able to contract with outside providers of launch services to orbit rather than build its own vehicle for that purpose.
That strategy may free NASA up to pursue technologies opening up cis-lunar and perhaps trans-lunar space activities. Turning low-Earth orbit over to commercial entities—as in the classic 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey—could empower NASA to focus its attention on deep space exploration, making possible a return to the Moon and perhaps explorations beyond sooner rather than later. That would be an exceedingly appropriate remembrance for the crew of Space Shuttle Columbia.
Roger Launius is a curator in the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum.