NASA is remembering space shuttle Columbia that broke apart during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003 over northeastern Texas, taking the lives of all seven crew members. This year marks the 8th anniversary of the loss of the Columbia spacecraft.
The Columbia STS-107 mission took off on Jan. 16, 2003, for a 16-day science mission featuring numerous microgravity experiments. Upon reentering the atmosphere on Feb. 1, the Columbia orbiter suffered a catastrophic failure due to a breach that occurred during launch when falling foam from the External Tank struck a panel on the underside of the left wing.
The crew members including commander Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Laurel Salton Clark were lost about 16 minutes before the space shuttle was scheduled to touch down at Kennedy Space Center.
"On February 1st, the nation suffered a devastating loss. As the Space Shuttle Columbia descended from orbit, it broke apart. The space shuttle crew was a remarkable team of professionals. They were and will always be role models for all Americans. Their dedicated service and sacrifice to promote scientific research, not only for our country, but for the world, will never be forgotten. They paid the ultimate price in pursuit of not only their dreams, but the dreams of nations. For that, we will be forever grateful," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said in a Feb. 12, 2003 statement.
Within hours of the tragedy, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe appointed an external group, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), chaired by Harold Gehman, to investigate the accident. The Board released its report on Aug. 26, 2003 concluding that the tragedy was caused by technical and organizational failures.
What Caused the Columbia Disaster?
"The physical cause was damage to Columbia’s left wing by a 1.7 pound piece of insulating foam that detached from the left 'bipod ramp' that connects the External Tank to the orbiter, and struck the orbiter’s left wing 81.9 seconds after launch," CAIB said in a statement.
"The foam strike created a hole in a Reinforced Carbon-Carbon panel on the leading edge of the wing, allowing superheated air (perhaps exceeding 5,000-degree Fahrenheit) to enter the wing during reentry. The extreme heat caused the wing to fail structurally, creating aerodynamic forces that led to the disintegration of the orbiter," CAIB said.
Could the Crew Have Been Saved?
The Board concluded that the crew died from “blunt trauma and hypoxia” (lack of oxygen) after the crew cabin separated from the rest of the disintegrating shuttle and, finally disintegrated itself.
The Board asked NASA to evaluate two options for returning the crew safely if the degree of damage had been understood early in the mission: repairing the damage on-orbit, or rescuing the crew with another shuttle mission. The repair option "while logistically viable....relied on so many uncertainties that NASA rated this option ‘high risk'." The rescue option "was considered challenging but feasible."
General Deal’s Views
Air Force Brig. Gen. Duane Deal, a CAIB member, wrote a 'supplement' that NASA may not fully implement the CAIB’s recommendations, and particularly its observations. "History shows that NASA often ignores strong recommendations; without a culture change, it is overly optimistic to believe NASA will tackle something relegated to an 'observation' when it has a record of ignoring recommendations."
General Deal said the supplement was written from the perspective of someone "who fears the [CAIB] report has bypassed some items that could prevent the next accident from occurring—the next O-ring or the next bipod ramp." He believes the observations should have been characterized as "strong signals that are indications of present and future problems" rather than "weak signals" that could indicate future problems.
Bush's Speech on Columbia Disaster
"In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the Earth. These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life," said U.S. President George Bush during his address to the nation on Feb. 1, 2003. "Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on," he added.
"Their mission was almost complete and we lost them so close to home. The men and women of the Columbia had journeyed more than 6 million miles and were minutes away from arrival and reunion. The loss was sudden and terrible, and for their families the grief is heavy. We remember not only one moment of tragedy, but seven lives of great purpose and achievement," Bush said at a memorial service for Columbia astronauts on Feb. 4.
In June 2003, the shuttle's final crew was honored when the U.S. Geological Survey's Board of Geographic Names approved the name Columbia Point for a 13,980-foot (4,262 meter) mountain peak in Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Columbia Point is located on the east side of Kit Carson Mountain.
On the northwest shoulder of the same mountain is Challenger Point, a peak of the same height previously named in memory of the astronauts of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded soon after liftoff on January 28, 1986.
"Columbia Point is an appropriate honor for this shuttle's last voyage. Those who explore space in the days ahead may gaze back at Earth - and know that Columbia Point is there to commend a noble mission. The point looks up to the heavens and it allows us, once again, to thank our heroes who soared far beyond the mountain, traveled past the sky -- and live on in our memories forever," Interior Secretary Gale Norton said during the naming ceremony on June 10, 2003.
On Feb. 2, 2004, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe announced the Martian hills, located east of the Spirit Mars Exploration Rover's landing site, would be dedicated to the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 crew. The Columbia Hills on Mars were also named in honor of the crew.
"These seven hills on Mars are named for those seven brave souls, the final crew of the space shuttle Columbia. The Columbia crew faced the challenge of space and made the supreme sacrifice in the name of exploration," Sean O'Keefe said in an statement.
The individual seven peaks, which are named after the seven astronauts, are from north to south: