Columbia (OV-102) was the oldest shuttle in America’s space transport fleet. Refitted, she was launched into space on the 16th of January, 2003. The mission - STS 107 - would be totally dedicated to scientific experiments.
Studying photographs and videos from the launch, NASA's team saw evidence that debris had broken loose from the external fuel tank. While some of the engineers thought this posed no risk to the shuttle, others were extremely concerned. Members of the team e-mailed each other about the possible scenarios which could develop, including a catastrophic loss of the mission.
As Columbia approached America's west coast, during the final hour of flight, all appeared well. Reentry maneuvers completed, the orbiter was just about to make landfall over California when one of her sensors showed an abnormal reading. As the shuttle streaked toward a landing at Cape Canaveral, more sensors went offline.
Inside the orbiter, the crew was preparing to land. Kalpana Chawla was videotaping her colleagues as the red glare of reentry showed through the portholes. Joking they wouldn't want to be outside at that moment, the crew had no idea the shuttle was about to blow up.
In this story behind the disaster, meet the astronauts and watch what is left of their last video. Learn how the shuttle flies and whether pre-orbit bailouts are possible.
Read the e-mails exchanged by NASA employees as they debated whether debris had damaged the shuttle. Observe an animation of a normal landing compared to what happened with Columbia. See the test simulation, videotaped by NASA, demonstrating why the shuttle exploded. And ... examine the orbiter debris after it fell to earth, then was reassembled post-explosion.
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