On this day in 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-107) disintegrates upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members.The disaster was the second fatal accident in the Space Shuttle program since the ill-fated Challenger, which broke apart and killed its seven-member crew 73 seconds after liftoff in 1986.
After long-range strategic planning at NASA eschewed further Apollo-style deeper space missions in lieu of a low-earth-orbit (LEO) mission model, in 1976 NASA publicly unveiled its first space shuttle, the Enterprise, during a ceremony in Palmdale, California. Development of the spacecraft cost almost $10 billion and took nearly a decade; what followed was a heroic, remarkably productive 30-year service history, crassly underrated by much of the public.
As configured, the space shuttle, or STS, consisted of three major components: a winged orbiter that carried both crew and cargo; an external tank containing liquid hydrogen (fuel) and liquid oxygen (oxidizer) for the orbiter’s three main rocket engines; and a pair of large, solid-propellant, strap-on booster rockets. At liftoff the entire system weighed 2,200 tons and stood 184 feet high. During launch the boosters and the orbiter’s main engines fired together, producing about 7 million pounds of thrust.
The boosters were jettisoned about two minutes after liftoff and were returned to Earth by parachute for reuse. After attaining 99 percent of its orbital velocity, the orbiter had exhausted the propellants in the external tank. It then released the tank, which disintegrated on reentering the atmosphere. Although the orbiter lifted off vertically like an expendable rocket launcher, it made an un-powered descent and landing similar to a glider.
During launch of STS-107, Columbia’s 28th mission and the 115th STS launch overall, a piece of foam insulation broke off from the Space Shuttle external tank and struck the left wing of the orbiter. A few previous shuttle launches had seen similar damage ranging from minor to major from foam shedding, but some engineers suspected that the damage to Columbia was more serious. NASA managers limited the investigation, however, reasoning the crew could not have fixed the problem had it been confirmed.
Reentering Earth’s atmosphere, the left-wing breach allowed hot atmospheric gases to penetrate and destroy the internal wing structure, causing the spacecraft to become unstable and break apart. Investigation revealed the crew would have had less than a minute between the beginning of orbiter disintegration and depressurization. The structural failure of the left wing set off alarms in the cabin, although the crew had no way of knowing that the wing had broken apart as the rear of the orbiter could not be seen from the cabin.
All evidence indicated that the crew frantically tried to regain control of Columbia as it began to spin; the cabin separated from the rest of the orbiter and rapidly depressurized, which would have killed or incapacitated the astronauts within seconds.
After the disaster, Shuttle flight operations were suspended for more than two years, as they had been after the Challenger disaster. Construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was put on hold; the station relied entirely on the Russian Roscosmos State Corporation for resupply for 29 months until Shuttle flights resumed with STS-114 and 41 months for crew rotation until STS-121.
Five complete Shuttle systems were built and used on a total of 135 missions from 1981 to 2011, launched from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Operational missions launched numerous satellites, interplanetary probes, and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), conducted countless science and medical experiments in orbit, and participated in construction and servicing of the International Space Station. The Shuttle fleet’s total mission time was 1322 days, 19 hours, 21 minutes, 23 seconds.
Over those 135 missions, 14 STS astronauts bravely gave their lives in furtherance of the ancient impulse compelling mankind to relentlessly come to know the unknown universe.