On the first day of February 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia was returning from its 28th mission when it disintegrated upon re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven members of its crew. Amongst 5 American nationals were Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut and Kalpana Chawla, the first woman with Indian origin to fly in space. That day, the people who were in Texas saw the Space Shuttle come apart and fall out of the sky. A regular mission spaceflight had suddenly become NASA’s second failed Space Shuttle program mission after Challenger, which had a catastrophic failure just 73 seconds after being launched on January 28, 1986. Columbia was the first Space Shuttle which was ever successfully sent to space. It was first launched in April 1981 and successfully completed 27 missions before its debris. One of the fields the space shuttle was meant for was scientific research. Since 1983, the shuttle had carried the European Spacelab 16 times. Mission STS-107 was instructed by Congress in order to perform experiments dedicated to microgravity. While the STS-107 crew were in space, some of NASA’s teams investigated a debris that had happened during liftoff but not gave it much importance as it had happened before with other spaceflights such as
The days after Columbia was launched
Two hours after being launched, the video from the tracking cameras was examined by the Intercentre Photo Working Group (IPWG). At first, no unusual events were recorded. During that night, the film was processed to achieve a much higher resolution and sent to the IPW group once again. When the higher resolution videos were investigated, they noticed a large object, which was then found to be insulating foam, had detached from the External Tank and struck the underside of the left wing at 81.9 seconds after launch. The personnel was concerned to see the large size and momentum of the object, Columbia could have sustained damage at a location in the wing which was not detectable in the views provided by the cameras. Subsequently, the IPWG addressed a report with a clip of the incident which was then sent to the Mission Management Team and the engineers at United Space Alliance and Boeing. These began an assessment of possible harm to Columbia’s left wing and rapidly notified a Debris Assessment Team (DAT) to write a precise analysis on the event. Five days into the mission, the first DAT meeting was held, during which, the engineers agreed to request for imaging of the wing while being on orbit as it would provide more data to build the report. The petition was declined, which restricted the DAT to base their assessment on a mathematical modeling tool which was not designed for this kind of impact. During the next six days, the team members concluded that heating damage would be expected on the zone of impact during re-entry but they could not observe if structural damage would occur. On January 24, a presentation of the results was made to the Mission Evaluating Room. That same day, the team declared the strike as insignificant which lead them to not pursuing the demand of imagery. Even though the investigation was finalized, the head engineers continued to discuss the possible damage and its consequences. The Columbia Shuttle crew were not told about the possible problems that could occur during re-entry.
Re-entry to atmosphere and wreckage
On February 1, 2003, duty was begun in the Mission Control Centre. The flight control team demonstrated no worries about the stricken wing, therefore, the re-entry procedure was treated like any other. At 8:10 a.m. EST, the Capsule Communicator announced to the crew that they could start the de-orbit burn, Commander Rick Husband and Pilot William McCool received the notification and executed it 5 minutes after. No problems occurred during the burn. Entry Interface happened at 8:44 a.m. over the Pacific Ocean. As the shuttle approached the atmosphere, the heat produced by the air molecules striking the Orbiter, caused it to steadily reach an estimated 1371 degrees Celsius during the next 5 minutes. Four minutes had passed since the Entry Interface when a sensor on the stricken wing showed higher strains than usual. This was recorded on the Auxiliary Data System, meaning it was not displayed to the ground controllers or the crew. At 8:49 a.m. Columbia executed a right roll maneuver and less than a minute later she entered the period of maximum heating. At 8:54, the Mission Control Team received signs of failing sensors in the damaged wing. At 8:59, radio contact with the crew was lost and a few seconds later, Space Shuttle Columbia was out of control. A few seconds after 9 a.m., the left wing broke off and during the course of a minute, the main structure disintegrated, the crew cabin began to depressurize and broke into pieces. Evidence shows that the crew was aware of the control loss and at depressurization, the whole team of astronauts would have been unconscious or killed.