February, 1st, 2003 Columbia Disaster

The STS-107 crew includes, from the left, Mission Specialist David Brown, Commander Rick Husband, Mission Specialists Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla and Michael Anderson, Pilot William McCool and Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon. (NASA photo)

February, 1st marks the day when 14 years ago, Space Shuttle Columbia exploded returning from the space mission and entering Earth’s atmosphere. All seven astronauts died, and it is considered one of the most serious accidents in the history of space exploration, similar to the Challenger tragedy from 1986.

Although the Columbia accident occurred in a return from the mission, it is interesting that the cause of the accident happened at the time of launch. At the launch, because of the large stresses, business bag sized piece of insulation, torn from the external tank and damaged the thermal insulation on the left wing. When the shuttle was still in orbit, some engineers predicted that there could be damage, but NASA has not organized a detailed investigation, under the explanation that even if the problem was found, they couldn’t do much. Thus, the shuttle began its descent, and at high temperatures exploded into the atmosphere because of the damage. It disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana, and the remains are split over large areas of both federal states.

When the first alarm on Columbia board was activated, the astronauts had one more minute to live, although they didn’t know it. As the ship lost control, Pilot William McCool pushed several buttons trying to get the ship back on course. He didn’t know it was futile. Most of the crew followed the NASA procedures, and devoted more time to preparing the shuttle than themselves for the return to Earth, NASA’s 400-page report said.

Some of the astronauts did not wear gloves, most of them didn’t even manage to lower the visors of their helmets, and some were not even buckled into the seats. In the final chaotic seconds, cabin crew lost the lighting and air pressure. The astronauts had fainted because of the collapsed lung. If a loss of pressure hasn’t immediately killed them, they died from a strong rotation that cast them inside the shuttle.

Astronaut Pam Melroy, deputy head of research, said the analysis showed that the astronauts did their best trying to regain control of Columbia, which began to fall apart at the entrance to the atmosphere, because of the holes in the left wing caused by launching.

The crew lost control of the movement and direction of the aircraft, and everything on the aircraft began to fall apart, including wings.

The research team at NASA has recommended 30 changes based on Columbia, many of which are associated with the spacesuits, helmets and seat belts for the next spacecraft NASA is building.

With pilot McCool, in Columbia tragedy died mission commander Rick Husband, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Israel’s first astronaut Ilan Ramon.

Columbia was the second space shuttle NASA lost. A hole was caused by a piece of insulating foam that fell off the carrier rocket during the launch. Because of the accident, it was decided that in future all shuttles will be checked in orbit, in case the damage has occurred at launch. If the irreparable damage is found, there will always be the second shuttle to go after astronauts in Space.


Images via Wikimedia