Today, it’s the 18th anniversary of the fateful day when Columbia’s last space shuttle mission suffered a catastrophic and fatal end on February 1, 2003, taking away the life of its 7 onboard crew members. Columbia disintegrated over Texas during its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, shortly before it was scheduled to conclude its 28th mission, STS-107.

What was STS-107?

STS-107 was the 113th flight of the Space Shuttle program and Space Shuttle Columbia’s final flight. The mission was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on January 16, 2003. It stayed in its orbit for 15 days, 22 hours, 20 minutes, and 32 seconds, and its main aim was to study microgravity phenomenons. During its lifetime of fewer than 16 days, the team onboard conducted several scientific experiments, which included videos taken to study atmospheric dust, experiments to test the reaction of zero gravity on the web formation of the Garden Orb Spider, and many other experiments. Around 80 experiments in life sciences, material sciences, fluid physics, and other matters were performed on average.

The team onboard

The crew of STS-107 in October 2001. From left to right: Brown, Husband, Clark, Chawla, Anderson, McCool, Ramon
The crew of STS-107 in October 2001. From left to right: Brown, Husband, Clark, Chawla, Anderson, McCool, Ramon

Rick D. Husband was an American Air force colonel and a mechanical engineer who served as the mission commander. Husband’s hobbies included singing, and it was his childhood dream and a lifelong goal to be an astronaut.

William C. McCool was the Pilot for the mission who had started his flying career with the navy. He loved to see kids’ eyes lighting up while talking to them about space and experiments. McCool was known as the most steady and dependable of all the men by his friends.

Michael P. Anderson, who served as the mission’s Payload Commander, was also a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and physicist. Anderson was a role model for several children and used to say, “Whatever you want to be in life, you’re training for it now.”

Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force, was Columbia’s Payload Specialist. He was the son of a holocaust survivor and was the first person from Israel to be selected as an astronaut.

Kalpana Chawla was a mission specialist and an aerospace engineer. She was the first woman of Indian origin to go to space. This was Chawla’s second space mission.

David M. Brown was a U.S. Navy captain appointed as one of Columbia’s mission specialist. As a kid, David Brown thought of astronauts as “movie stars” and never believed that he could be one of them.

Laurel Blair Salton Clark was another mission specialist who had served as a U.S. Navy captain. She was referred as the flight surgeon who worked on biological experiments onboard.

What caused the drastic end?

Columbia lifting off on its final mission
Columbia lifting off on its final mission

The catastrophic end of this mission is related to its launch itself. According to reports, About 82 seconds after Columbia left the ground, a piece of foam fell from a “bipod ramp,” part of a structure that attached the external tank to the shuttle. Bits of foam had detached in past missions without any serious mishap, so at the time of the mission launch, NASA engineers did not think that the foam carried enough momentum to cause significant damage. Although some engineers had wanted ground-based cameras to take photos of the orbiting shuttle to look for the damage, the officials did not look into it, consequently leading to a big mishap.

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During Columbia’s atmospheric re-entry, hot gases penetrated the damaged tile section and melted major structural elements of the wing, which eventually collapsed. The temperatures rose abruptly within sections of the left wing, and the space shuttle broke into pieces within a few minutes. The craft’s tragic disintegration was recorded by television cameras and U.S. Air Force radar. Its major components and the crew’s remains were recovered later over the following month.

Streaks of Burning debris after Columbia broke down (Image:AP Photo/Tyler Morning Telegraph)
Streaks of Burning debris after Columbia broke down (Image:AP Photo/Tyler Morning Telegraph)

The Columbia space shuttle tragedy was the second tragedy in the Space Shuttle fleet after the Challenger disaster on January 28 in 1986. Undoubtedly, it one of those nerve-wrenching human disasters which the world can never forget.

President’s Address

A few hours after the disaster, President George Bush addressed the nation from the Cabinet Room:

“My fellow Americans, this day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country. At 9:00 a.m. this morning, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our Space Shuttle Columbia. A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas. The Columbia is lost; there are no survivors.

On board was a crew of seven: Colonel Rick Husband; Lt. Colonel Michael Anderson; Commander Laurel Clark; Captain David Brown; Commander William McCool; Dr. Kalpana Chawla; and Ilan Ramon, a Colonel in the Israeli Air Force. These men and women assumed great risk in the service to all humanity.

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. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more.

All Americans today are thinking, as well, of the families of these men and women who have been given this sudden shock and grief. You’re not alone. Our entire nation grieves with you. And those you loved will always have the respect and gratitude of this country.

The cause in which they died will continue. 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.

In the skies today we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see there is comfort and hope. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.”

The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.

May God bless the grieving families, and may God continue to bless America.”

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