Remembering the Columbia Disaster

Marin Rooney, Writer

20 years ago, a team of seven astronauts was supposed to safely return to Earth following a successful mission, but a single piece of debris changed that. 

On February 1, 2003, astronauts David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon died when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during reentry. 

The mission, which was Columbia’s twenty-eighth flight, launched on January 16, 2003. For 15 days, Columbia’s crew worked on 80 different experiments, which focused on life sciences, material sciences, fluid physics, and more. 

While analyzing launch footage, NASA engineers noticed that a piece of foam insulation had struck Columbia’s wing just over one minute into the flight. 

Engineers notified the crew of Columbia but assured them that the damage would not cause any problems. When engineers tried to continue the investigation, managers stopped them. 

The morning of February 1, 2003, began with the Columbia starting its descent back to Earth. When they were just 16 minutes away from landing at Kennedy Space Center, NASA lost contact with Columbia

NASA made multiple attempts to restore contact with the shuttle, but nothing worked. Twelve minutes later, NASA received a call that Columbia was shown breaking up in the sky on TV. 

NASA immediately began a search and rescue operation in Texas and Louisiana, where Columbia was last seen in the sky. Later that day, NASA confirmed the astronauts were lost. 

Over the next two weeks, NASA recovered 84,000 pieces of Columbia. The debris field covered an area of 2,000 square miles in Texas. The crew’s remains were also discovered and confirmed through DNA. 

In 2008, NASA released a report that hypothesized the astronauts had survived the initial breakup of the shuttle, but lost consciousness quickly. It was also confirmed that the piece of foam had played a significant role in the disaster. 

After extensively reevaluating safety procedures, NASA started launching shuttles again in July of 2006. The space shuttle program was eventually retired in 2011. 

Each year, NASA holds the Day of Remembrance, which honors the Columbia crew, along with the Challenger and Apollo 1 crews, who were also killed. 

In 2015, a permanent exhibit called “Forever Remembered” opened at Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Center. The exhibit, which honors both the Columbia and the Challenger, includes debris from both shuttles and personal artifacts from the astronauts. 

The disaster has not held back advancements in space exploration. NASA has put numerous rovers on Mars. The New Horizons spacecraft reached Pluto in 2015, the same year that food was successfully grown in space. Spacecrafts have landed on asteroids and pictures of a black hole have been taken. 

NASA is now looking to the future, hoping to put humans back on the moon by 2025. But the legacy of Columbia and the crew lost lives on. The lessons learned have been applied to every space flight since.