We are constantly hailing the achievements in science. Our grandest achievements, such as our ability to make sense of the natural world, as well as the engineering achievements that allow us to make these observations. In that, it’s also good to remember the sacrifices that have been made in the name of advancing science and furthering the human species.
On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia and the entire STS-107 crew was lost over Texas when the shuttle disintegrated on reentry. That day, Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Laurel Clark – a team of Americans and Israelis – gave their lives in the name of exploration and understanding.
The cause for this terrible loss was damage that the shuttle sustained during launch, when a piece of foam struck the leading edge of the wing and damaged the thermal protection system – the tiles that keep the shuttle safe during reentry. Because of this damage, as the shuttle reentered the atmosphere, the extremely hot gasses that are caused by compression were allowed to enter the left wing and destroy it.
The debris field generated by Columbia covered Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The loss of the shuttle caused the entire space program to be put on hold pending further investigation. Construction on the International Space Station was suspended; we relied on the Russian Federal Space Agency for supplies and crew rotations. Eventually, after 29 months, the shuttle program resumed.
Fortunately, the sacrifice made by the crew of Columbia was not in vain. Several major procedural changes were implemented to help ensure a similar thing didn’t happen again. Such changes include in-orbit inspections to ensure the thermal tiles are in place and having a second shuttle on the ground standing by in the event the orbiting shuttle was not safe to return to Earth. NASA further limited shuttle missions to the ISS, and only made one exception when they decided to repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
The timeline of Columbia’s final descent is as follows.
8:44am EST: The crew of shuttle flight STS-107 enter the discernible atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean in an event known as Entry Interface. It’s another routine shuttle landing, in half an hour, another group of astronauts would be safely home.
8:50am EST: Columbia enters an intense period of 10-minutes where the thermal stresses are maxed out. Three minutes later, the shuttle passes over the Californian coastline.
8:53am EST: Debris is starting to shed off Columbia to a noticeable degree. Over a 23 second period, the orbiter suddenly brightened a few times. At this point, bystanders are aware that something unusual is happening.
8:54am EST: Mission control becomes aware that something is wrong with the shuttle when four hydraulic sensors indicate an ‘off scale low’ meaning the reading is too low for the sensors to read – essentially meaning the sensor has failed. The orbiter continues to flash several times over the next four minutes.
8:59am EST: Mission control becomes aware that the pressure readings for the left landing gear tires has been lost. Mission control informs the shuttle crew of the new information, to which the mission commander responded “Roger, uh, bu” He was cut off in the middle of his last word and that is the last communication received from the crew.
9:00am EST: Columbia disintegrates near Dallas, Texas.
These men and women of the 113th shuttle flight gave their lives, not in the name of any single country, but in the name of science and in the name of humanity. This is certainly the most noble of sacrifices. We learn from our successes, we learn from our failures, and we learn from our tragedies.
Sources and further reading:
Military footage of the Columbia disaster:
MSNBC news broadcast:
Debris From Columbia Disaster Found in Texas
Space Shuttle Columbia disaster:
"Columbia's Configuration at Launch:"