Columbia Space Shuttle Explosion - COLUMBIA IS LOST

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This NASA image depicts flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center at 9:15:04 a.m. on the morning of February 1, 2003.  It is moments after the shuttle Columbia broke-up during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.  Data on the displays is frozen because Columbia is no-longer producing tracking data.  On the right, we see the last-confirmed position of the orbiter. 


A normal shuttle reentry into Earth’s atmosphere (called the “entry interface”) begins at 400,000 feet altitude. Five minutes before the entry interface, the shuttle is approximately 4,400 nautical miles (5,063 statute miles) from the landing site, traveling at speeds that can reach Mach 25.1 (as in this flawless re-entry and landing by Endeavour).

Columbia began preparations for reentry at about 8:16 a.m. EST. She broke through Earth’s atmosphere at an angle, somewhere between 28-38 degrees, with NASA tracking all data.

At 8:53 a.m. EST, temperature sensors showed the shuttle’s left wing was getting hotter.

While in her reentry mode, traveling at about Mach 18.3, Columbia began to fall apart. Immediately after the tragedy, NASA managers considered several possible causes for the failure.

A seam at the wheel well door could have been impacted by the breakaway debris, the loss of thermal tiles could have caused a series of catastrophic failures or a combination of other problems could have been responsible.

Not until months later, during a thorough investigation, did officials realize that the leading edge of the orbiter's left wing was struck by a briefcase-sized piece of insulation (as depicted in these videos) weighing less than two pounds. The damage was not to the heat tiles but to a breach in one of the gray panels coated with an even stronger protective material:  reinforced-carbon-carbon.

Because of that significant gash in her wing, Columbia became a fireball around 9 a.m. EST, sixteen minutes before her scheduled landing. With very short notice of serious problems, the crew likely realized - in the shuttle’s final moments - that they were about to die.

NASA officials acknowledge that Columbia began to lose parts while flying over California, but while over Texas, the shuttle disintegrated. People on the ground heard what appeared to be a series of sonic booms. Others with video recorders in hand, trying to capture the shuttle as it returned to home base, unexpectedly recorded the mission’s demise.

Because the shuttle was flying so fast, its debris field covered hundreds of miles. As bits and pieces of the orbiter rained on the earth, Doppler radar recorded the event as though it were part of a weather pattern.

Damaged heat tiles - some so charred that their black ceramic coating is completely gone, leaving just the white silica base material - were found within Columbia's debris field. Recovered shuttle pieces, laid out in a hanger at the Kennedy Space Center, also helped investigators determine why the shuttle disintegrated:

  • Columbia's "Black Box," which recorded data from the beginning of the flight to nearly its end, provided the Accident Investigation Board with unique information. (This video includes the improbable story of how Columbia's "black box" was found.)

  • Columbia's main engine powerhead was a fortunate find in Louisiana on the 1st of April, 2003.

  • Columbia's left wing (shown here during Orbit Five on the first day of the flight) was the focus of discussion since the mission was lost. An underside piece of that wing (located forward and inboard of the corner of the left main landing gear door) was found within a week after the orbiter disintegrated.

  • Columbia's right main landing gear door was found in three pieces (depicted in this NASA photograph from front to back).

  • One of Columbia's right main landing gear tires.

  • Columbia's left inboard main landing gear tire.

  • The orbiter's left wheel well.

  • The nose gear was recovered with its tires still intact.

  • The crew hatch was sent to the Kennedy Space Center's reconstruction hanger.

  • Remains of a fallen astronaut were recovered in Hemphill, Texas.

On the day of the disaster, President George W. Bush (who first took the oath of office on the 20th of January, 2001) told a stunned nation:

The Columbia is lost; there are no survivors.

On Tuesday, February 4th, families of the crew members (twelve children were left behind) attended a memorial service for their loved ones. (Scroll to the end to view the video.) Many heartfelt words were spoken and thousands of NASA colleagues shared their grief. But it is with the words of the family members - those who lost the most - that we close this story:

On January 16th, we saw our loved ones launch into a brilliant, cloud-free sky. Their hearts were full of enthusiasm, pride in country, faith in their God, and a willingness to accept risk in the pursuit of knowledge -- knowledge that might improve the quality of life for all mankind.

Columbia's 16–day mission of scientific discovery was a great success, cut short by mere minutes -- yet it will live on forever in our memories. We want to thank the NASA family and people from around the world for their incredible outpouring of love and support. Although we grieve deeply, as do the families of Apollo 1 and Challenger before us, the bold exploration of space must go on. Once the root cause of this tragedy is found and corrected, the legacy of Columbia must carry on -- for the benefit of our children and yours.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Feb 01, 2003

Updated Last Revision: Feb 01, 2017

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"COLUMBIA IS LOST" AwesomeStories.com. Feb 01, 2003. Jan 18, 2020.
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