Columbia - Dept of Defense - Shuttle Disintegration

On the 1st of February, 2003, two RNAF (Royal Dutch Air Force) pilots were training on a Longbow Apache Helicopter (AH-64) out of Fort Hood, Texas.  Practicing maneuvers, the pilots were about 100 feet above ground when they saw a most unusual sight.  They recorded this video, depicting disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia

This rare footage was exceptionally valuable to NASA as investigators attempted to piece together what happened to Columbia.  According to Major Matt Garner, a public affairs officer at Fort Hood:

This [gun] camera is more powerful than others [which recorded shuttle-breakup footage].  It has the exact time, down to the second, along with the direction the camera is looking and exact location of the aircraft.

This video was also a key piece of evidence to individuals assigned the task of investigating what happened to the astronauts.  Note the following from the Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report:

The video recorded from an Apache helicopter operating in the area of Ft. Hood, Texas shows a significant event of two objects with similar luminosity and ballistic number separating simultaneously from the forebody.  The remaining central object maintained integrity for several more seconds in the video.  Shortly after these items peeled away, the remaining object began to lose large pieces of structure.

The conclusion was drawn that these two objects were most likely the upper and lower forward fuselage sections, leaving the crew module (the central object) intact but no longer protected.  Within seconds, the crew module began to lose structural integrity as well. 

...The crew module breakup was rapid (  (See the redacted version of Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, page 1-27, shown as page 67 of 400 in NASA's pdf version.)

The references above begin at footage 00:35 in this official video.  (Follow the upper-middle debris cluster until it disappears, 15 seconds later, at 00:50).

For simulated drawings, of what was likely happening to the crew module at that time, see page 112 of 400 (of the Survival Investigation Report, linked above).  Also, see Figures 1.2-47 (at page 116 of 400) and 1.2-48 (at pg 117) which describe key screen shots, of this video, as follows:

Image from Apache video showing crew module debris (top cluster) and the three main engines (cluster to left of cross hairs).


Image is from the Apache video.  Dotted circle [in Fig. 1.2-48] indicates area where crew module debris is last visible.

At this point, according to the Survival Investigation Report, it was the:

Approximate time at which the crew remains and the majority of the crew module debris completed the free fall to the ground.  (Pg 117 of 400.)

Did the Dutch pilots realize what they were seeing and videotaping?  According to Garner:

They knew the shuttle was coming and had been watching to see it . . .One pilot said his thoughts were immediately of the people that were in the shuttle [because he could tell something was very wrong.]

The video was released by Ft Hood and the Department of Defense on the 12th of February, 2003 - twelve days after Columbia was lost.

What are the pilots saying to each other?  Among other things, we hear:

...We are going to write this up and report it to the commander...

Why were these Dutch pilots training at Fort Hood?  According to the Netherlands Ministry of Defense:

There are eight Dutch Apache combat helicopters stationed at Fort Hood.  The helicopter student pilots who have successfully completed the AH-64 Apache training program at Fort Rucker proceed to take their Initial Qualification Training at Fort Hood.  Once they are operational, the Apache helicopter pilots go back to Fort Hood for their operational currency training each year.

How long have Dutch pilots thus trained in the States?

Dutch aviators from the RNAF have been training at Fort Hood since 1999. They come to Fort Hood after completing flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala., for mission training and tactical flying. Pilots return to Fort Hood to keep up on their training because of limited air space, restrictions on training and limited availability of aircraft in the Netherlands.  (Fort Hood Sentinel, May 27, 2010.)

At the end of the video, we see Columbia's three engines falling to Earth.

The "Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report" tells us that about 46 seconds elapsed between loss-of-signal (LOS) and the catastrophic event (CE):

Phase 3: Loss of signal to Catastrophic Event … 46 seconds in duration. This section discusses key events that affected the crew from LOS at GMT [Greenwich Mean Time] 13:59:32 (EI+923) to the CE [catastrophic event], which began at 14:00:18 (EI+969) (figure 1.1-19). During this period of time at about GMT 13:59:37 (EI+928), loss of control (LOC) of Columbia occurred. LOC marks the beginning of the transition from controlled flight to an uncontrolled ballistic entry. This phase is 46 seconds long. (See page 55 of the 400-page online version of the report.)

The following compilation matches the known videos recorded by various individuals of Columbia—dropping debris as the disintegrating orbiter is en route to her Cape Canaveral base—with the events occurring at Johnson Space Center (where flight controllers realize something is going wrong during the final minutes of the STS-107 mission).

This compilation includes an interpretation of the orbiter during loss-of-control and ends with the video recorded by the Dutch pilots.

See, also:

Columbia - Video of the Crew's Final Minutes

Media Credits

Video online, courtesy U.S. Department of Defense and Fort Hood.


To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"Columbia - Dept of Defense - Shuttle Disintegration" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Feb 22, 2019.
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