The Columbia Disaster

spacecraft columbia

Columbia returned home after 16 days in orbit, its 28th voyage. Her crew included Commander Rick Husband, Pilot William McCool, mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Blair Salton Clarke Michael Anderson as well as Israeli Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon.

Engineers were alarmed to discover that about 82 seconds into the flight a suitcase-sized piece of foam had struck the shuttle’s left wing and caused damage to its external tank.

Space shuttles

Space shuttles were large white space planes that traveled into space carrying both cargo and astronauts. Five different shuttles took flight, carrying satellites into orbit, launching rockets, constructing the International Space Station, carrying up to eight astronauts at any one time and providing essential service delivery missions.

As Columbia was on its final flight, an accidental piece of insulation from its external tank hit and damaged her left wing, sparking fears among NASA engineers that this damage might ignite upon reentry; however, management ultimately determined this risk was acceptable.

On February 1, as the shuttle approached Earth for reentry, amateur videos captured dramatic changes to its appearance. Sensor readings from its left wing also indicated abnormally high temperatures but management failed to notice and take corrective actions immediately. Only once debris began falling did authorities become aware that something was amiss. The FBI became instrumental in this investigation – ruling out any acts of sabotage and terrorism early on while helping locate crew members and catalog recovered debris.

Columbia disaster

NASA’s inaugural operational orbiter, Columbia completed 27 missions before its tragic demise in February 2003. An investigation of this disaster determined that damage sustained during launch caused by an air bag-sized piece of foam insulation striking Reinforced Carbon-Carbon Panel 8 allowed superheated air to bypass thermal protection systems and destroy Columbia as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

STS-107’s crew included Commander Rick Husband; Pilot William McCool; mission specialists Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon as well as payload specialist Ilan Ramon when an incident took place during its microgravity experiments. Engineers were aware of a foam strike during launch; however, they remained confident it did not pose any threats to their mission.

On February 1, Columbia reentered the atmosphere and disintegrated, showering debris across Texas and Louisiana. The FBI played an essential role in its recovery effort by quickly ruling out acts of terrorism or sabotage early on while cataloguing any debris recovered.

Space station

The International Space Station is the world’s largest manmade structure ever assembled in space. Conceived as a joint effort between the United States, Russia and other nations, its construction began in 1998 and remains occupied continuously by astronauts who live, work and sleep there.

As a result of Columbia, NASA changed its approach to human spaceflight. Instead of owning and operating its fleet of shuttles for transporting crew members to space stations, NASA now relies on commercial providers like SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner as commercial providers for crew transportation to reach space.

The International Space Station is a vital laboratory for researchers studying Earth and beyond, serving as well as an important test bed for cutting-edge technologies. Congress designated the space station as America’s newest national lab; operations at ISS are managed by Center for the Advancement of Science in Space. Astronauts on board Columbia work in teams on around-the-clock shifts conducting research, maintenance and other duties at their station home; their names have even been immortalized as asteroids: 51823 Rick Husband, 51824 Michael Anderson 51825 David Brown 51826 Kalpana Chawla 51827 Laurel Clark 51828 Ilan Ramon


The Columbia tragedy was an immense setback for NASA. The catastrophe started on launch day when a piece of hardened foam insulation dislodged from an external fuel tank and hit the orbiter, shattering heat-resistant tiles intended to shield it against fire during reentry.

NASA conducted an investigation, which concluded that the damage was the result of multiple factors, including improper maintenance practices, delays in Orbital Major Modification projects and competing priorities with International Space Station assembly missions and Hubble Space Telescope servicing flights. Furthermore, this disaster highlighted both vulnerability of shuttle fleet to debris as well as need for improved launch pads.

On February 1st 2003, while conducting a 16-day microgravity science mission aboard Columbia shuttle, its remains were recovered in East Texas with a memorial dedicated to seven astronauts killed being placed at Arlington National Cemetery.

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