John M. White

STS-107 Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

Mar 3, 2023
On January 16, 2003, seven astronauts climbed aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia and launched into space for a seventeen-day mission.

Those brave astronauts are pictured and identified below:

Front row, left to right: Colonel Rick Douglas Husband, U.S. Air Force, Mission Commander; Kalpana Chawla, Ph.D., Mission Specialist; Commander William Cameron McCool, U.S. Navy, Pilot.

Back row left to right: Captain David McDowell Brown, M.D., U.S. Navy, Mission Specialist; Captain Laurel Blair Salton Clark, M.D., U.S. Navy, Mission Specialist; Lieutenant Colonel Michael Phillip Anderson, U.S. Air Force, Mission Specialist; Colonel Ilan Ramon, Israeli Air Force, Payload Specialist. (NASA)

Photograph of the Space Shuttle Columbia Crew lost in the tragic accident of the space shuttle on February 1st, 2003.
Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 flight crew. 

The Mission

This mission was to conduct a number of different experiments, most of them located in the RDM (Research Double Module), which was carried in the cargo bay of the shuttle.

It augmented the orbiter mid-deck section by providing an additional 10,000 pounds of payload and extra space for experiments.

A schematic view of the SpaceHab inside the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Columbia
The SpaceHab unit

The SpaceHab was designed to fit inside the cargo bay of space shuttles and was a pressurized, mixed-cargo carrier to include various quantities and sizes of supplies, as well as hardware for conducting experiments.

The Columbia crew also conducted an Orbital Acceleration experiment.

The cargo bay also carried an Extended Duration Orbiter pallet with extra nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and helium, which the space shuttle crew could use.

A photo of the EDO, or Extended Duration Orbiter, which was carried aboard the Columbia Space Shuttle on its fateful 2003 flight.
The EDO, or Extended Duration Orbitor module.

The Launch

During the launch on January 16th, a piece of foam 21-27 inches long separated from the External Tank 81.7 seconds after liftoff and 0.2 seconds later struck the reinforced carbon panels on the left wing of the shuttle.

Here is the footage of the debris strike that occurred at T+81.9 seconds:

If you look carefully at the GIF above, you can see a white object fly off the ET (External Tank) and strike the underside of the left wing of the orbiter, and fly off to the left. 

The external tank carried liquid hydrogen (LH2), stored at −253 °C and a smaller tank carrying liquid oxygen (LOX), stored at  −183 °C.

To maintain these temperatures, the tank was covered with insulating foam to keep the liquids cold and to prevent ice from forming on the exterior of the tank.

Once all of the fuel was spent, the external tank (which was connected to the orbiter) was separated from the orbiter and allowed to reenter the atmosphere, where it would break apart. The remaining pieces would fall into the ocean.

Post Launch Examination

After each shuttle launch, the NASA Intercenter Photo Working Group conducts a review of videos taken during the launch. The group's analysis team did not discover the debris strike until two days after launch.

However, the group was unable to determine the amount of damage to the orbiter as none of the cameras recording the launch had a clear view of the debris striking the wing.

As a result, NASA, United Space Alliance, and Boeing created a Debris Assessment Team to figure out how much damage had been caused to the orbiter's left wing.

The Boeing team created a software model to predict what damage had been done to the orbiter's RCC (reinforced carbon-carbon) panels on the left wing. The Intercenter Photo Working Group believed that the orbiter's RCC tiles were damaged and that the orbiter's aluminum skin would be unprotected in that area.

Members of the Debris Assessment Team made multiple requests to the DoD (Department of Defense) to get imagery of the orbiter. 

Linda Ham

However, the imagery request was soon rescinded by NASA Management Team Chair Linda Ham after she investigated the origination of the request. 

Ham never consulted with the Debris Assessment Team and cancelled the imagery request because it had not been made through official channels.

Once the imagery request had been cancelled, the Debris Assessment Team did not make any further requests for imagery.

Ham's attitude, and her dismissal of dissenting points of view from engineers, were determined to be part of the larger cultural problem at NASA.

As a result, Ham was demoted and transferred out of her management position in the Space Shuttle program.

Reentry

About 45 minutes before the deorbit burn was scheduled, Mission Commander Husband and Mission Specialist McCool began the reentry checklist. 

At 8:15:30 am, the crew successfully executed the deorbit burn, which lasted two minutes and 38 seconds.

At 8:44:09, Columbia entered the earth's atmosphere at an altitude of 400,000 feet.

Four and one-half minutes later, after reentry, a sensor began recording higher than normal amounts of stain on the left wing. This caused the orbiter to yaw to the left; however, neither the crew nor the ground controllers noticed because of the flight control system correcting for the yaw.

Immediately the sensors in the left wheel well reported a rapid rise in temperature.

At 8:53:46 am, Columbia crossed the California coast; it was traveling at Mach 23 at an altitude of 231,600 feet.

Columbia continued its reentry as it traveled over Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.

At around 8:57 am, the orbiter shed several pieces of debris. 

 An image of the shuttle Columbia showing debris falling off the left wing. The image was taken at the Starfire Optical Range at the Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico
An image of the shuttle Columbia shows debris coming off the left wing.

This image was taken by the Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

Observers on the ground then noticed a sudden increase in brightness in the air around the orbiter.

The disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia over the Southern United States
The disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia over the Southern United States

Observers in Texas reported seeing signs of debris from the orbiter.

A photograph of parts of the space shuttle Columbia as it disintegrated upon reentry to the earth's atmosphere on February 1, 2003.
The space shuttle Columbia disintegrating over the USA on February 1st, 2003.

At 9:00:18 am, Columbia began its catastrophic breakup, and all on-board data recording ceased.

By 9:00:25 am, the orbiter split in two, which then caused the crew compartment to collide with the interior wall of the fuselage. 

This resulted in the depressurization of the crew compartment, and the orbiter continued to break up into smaller pieces.

Within a minute after the breakup, the pieces were too small to be detected from ground-based videos.

The crew experienced the first lethal event when the crew compartment depressurized. One of the crew members was not wearing a helmet, and while they had seat belts on, the inertial reel system failed to secure the crew sufficiently.

The helmets were not conformal to their heads, allowing head injuries to occur inside the helmet. 

The crew also likely suffered significant thermal trauma from the hot gas entering the disintegrating crew module, burning the crew members. 

Once the crew model fell apart, the astronauts were violently exposed to windblast and, possibly, a shock wave, which stripped the suits from their bodies.

In addition, the crew members' bodies were in an environment with little to no oxygen, low atmospheric pressure, and both high temperatures from deceleration combined with extremely low ambient temperatures.

Ultimately, their bodies impacted the ground with lethal levels of force.

By 9:35 am, all crew remains, and shuttle debris had impacted the ground.

And so, on February 1, 2003, we lost the Columbia and her crew, a terrible day for our country.

The Cause

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) was convened shortly after by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, to determine the cause of the accident.

The CAIB members first examined the debris fields and then moved their operations to Johnson Space Center.

Four teams were created to investigate NASA's management and program safety, training and crew operations, technical aspects of the accident, and how the NASA culture affected the Space Shuttle program.

The CAIB released its final report in August 2003.

In that report, the CAIB determined that damage to the left wing was the probable cause and that it was the damaged RCC panel that led to the in-flight breakup of Columbia.

Could The Astronauts Have Been Saved?

In its report, the CAIB discussed options that could have been used to save Columbia's crew.

Because Columbia was carrying the Extended Duration Orbiter (see above), it could have continued in orbit for another 30 days.

Space Shuttle Atlantis was being prepared for flight in March 2003 and had NASA management chosen to launch a rescue mission, it might have been possible to rescue the crew.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but rarely useful in a case like this.

Sadly, seven brave and talented astronauts lost their lives in the pursuit of space exploration.

A dangerous undertaking no matter what.

I hope you enjoyed this trip through some of the history of aviation. If you enjoyed this trip, and are new to this newsletter, sign up to receive your own weekly newsletter here:: Subscribe here.

Until next time, keep your eyes safe and focused on what's ahead of you, Hersch!

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