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Space Shuttle Columbia disaster

Crew of STS-107 on launch day
( Close up of faces and names)
STS-107 was a space shuttle mission by NASA using the Space Shuttle Columbia. The entire seven member crew was killed on February 1, 2003, when the shuttle disintegrated during reentry into the Earth's atmosphere.

At about 9:00 a.m. EST (14:00 UTC) on February 1, 2003, NASA's Mission Control at Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas lost radio contact with the space shuttle Columbia, at the end of mission STS-107, as it descended from orbit towards Cape Canaveral, near the John F. Kennedy Space Center and Jacksonville, Florida.

Contact was lost while the shuttle was flying at about 203,000 feet (38 miles or 62,000 metres) above north central Texas, at over 12,500 miles per hour (20,000 kilometres per hour = 6 km/s = Mach 18). At time of the communications disruption Mission Control was discussing abnormal sensor readings with Columbia. Columbia began their last message with the words "Roger, uh, buh--" but nothing more was transmitted. Telemetry and tracking data appeared to be lost at the same time. 31 seconds of data followed, but was so highly corrupted that it was rejected by NASA's computers. Analysis of this additional data is continuing, and shows the shuttle fighting to maintain its orientation. The shuttle was expected to land at 9:16 EST; however it failed to arrive and disintegrated over north central Texas.

NASA's Space Shuttle Program Manager, Ron Dittemore, reported that "The first indication was loss of temperature sensors and hydraulic systems on the left wing. They were followed seconds and minutes later by several other problems, including loss of tire pressure indications on the left main gear and then indications of excessive structural heating."

NASA declared an emergency and alerted search and rescue teams in the area.

The re-entry was being shown live on TV as Columbia flew over Dallas, Texas. Video footage showed initially two then multiple smoke trails and flaming debris falling from the sky. Later amateur video footage was broadcast showing the disaster from several different angles. It was clearly apparent that Columbia had suffered a catastrophic structural or mechanical failure.

At about 5:54 PST (8:54 EST), a California news photographer observed pieces breaking away from the shuttle as it passed overhead, as well as a red flare coming from the shuttle itself.

Roughly nine minutes later, at about 9:05, residents of north central Texas reported a loud boom, a small concussion wave and smoke trails and debris in the clear skies above the counties southeast of Dallas. More than 2,000 debris fields, as well as human remains, were found in sparsely populated areas southeast of Dallas from Nacogdoches in eastern Texas, where a lot of debris fell, to western Louisiana and the southwestern counties of Arkansas. Pieces of debris fell from the sky for many minutes and were reported in fields, on roads, and striking buildings, causing some damage and starting some small structure and grass fires. Some minor injuries were also reported as a result of people handling hot items of wreckage, with several dozen going to hospital, although no-one was reported as having been hit by falling debris.

At 14:04 EST, a somber President Bush addressed the nation: "This day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country... The Columbia is lost; there are no survivors." Despite the major setback, the President reassured Americans that the space program would continue: "The cause in which they died will continue... Our journey into space will go on."

Upon procedural review the day after lift-off of video taken during lift-off, it was observed that a piece of insulation foam falling from an external fuel tank had appeared to strike the shuttle's left wing. After some deliberation, it was concluded that the "event did not present a safety concern". Immediately after the disaster, it was suggested there might be a connection. NASA officials refused to speculate and cautioned against making snap judgements about the cause of the disaster, but conceded the incident might be connected. However, they moved swiftly to secure all mission data to ensure no evidence was lost in anticipation of a wide ranging "Mishap Investigation" inquiry. The shuttle program was suspended. NASA also issued warnings to the public that any debris could contain hazardous chemicals, that it should be left untouched, its location reported to local emergency services or government authorities and that anyone in unauthorised possession of debris would be prosecuted.

STS-107 had been delayed for 6 months (the original launch date was 19 July 2002) because of cracks in the propellant feed lines to the 3 main engines - a defect that could have caused catastrophic failure. There are suggestions of a connection between this and the disaster.

With the addition of the first Israeli astronaut to the crew, security surrounding the launch and landing of the space shuttle had been increased to avoid any potential terrorist attack. The Cape Canaveral launch facility, like all sensitive government areas, had increased security measures put in place in the wake of the September 11 attack.

Because of the high altitude of the shuttle when the incident occurred, it is thought highly unlikely that terrorist actions were involved. Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the United States Department of Homeland Security, stated: "There is no information at this time that this was a terrorist incident."

With the Shuttle program suspended, the long term future of the International Space Station is in jeopardy, as the space shuttles were the delivery vehicle for station modules. While the station will probably continue to be supplied in the meantime by the Russian manned Soyuz spacecraft and unmanned Progress ships, it cannot be expanded without the NASA's space shuttles. Russia's space shuttle program was shut down in 1993.

During their mission, the crew had paid tribute to the crews of the Space Shuttle Challenger, lost during launch on January 28, 1986, and Apollo 1, killed in a fire on January 27, 1967.

Columbia's data recorder (which was not a "black box") was found near Hemphill, Texas on March 20, 2003. On March 26 the United States House of Representatives' Science Committee approved funds for the construction of a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery for the STS-107 crew. A similar memorial was built at the cemetery for the last crew of Space Shuttle Challenger.

NASA officials released experimental findings on May 30 proving that the insulation known to have hit the leading edge of Columbias left wing could have created a gap in between protective heat panels. The findings showed that a joint, known as a T-seal, shifted after being hit with foam insulation traveling at the same speed the actual foam was traveling when it hit the left wing. The gap was small, 0.6 cm x 55 cm, but some researchers not on the investigation team have stated that a gap of that size was sufficiently large enough to act as a catalyst for further widening during re-entry. On June 24, the investigators have more confidently stated the flyaway foam to be "the most probable cause" of the wing damage.

Shuttle Crew of Flight STS-107

External Links

Short Term News Links

(These links had articles at them at the time they were published.)
  1. NASA Emergency Notice - 02/01/2003 (http://www.nasa.gov/) - A warning for persons in the crash site area that debris may contain hazardous chemicals.
  2. NASA News Release - 1 PM EST February 1 (http://www.nasa.gov/OKeefe.pdf)
  3. A Reuters Report on the Disaster (http://xtramsn.co.nz/news/0,,3884-2113396,00)
  4. A BBC Report (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/2716369.stm)
  5. A CNN Report (http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/space/02/01/shuttle.columbia/index)
  6. A report from IRN (http://xtramsn.co.nz/news/0,,3884-2113662,00)
  7. A report, with comments, from Fatal News (http://fatal.kiwisparks.co.nz/news?op=article&param=248)
  8. A report on recovery efforts (http://xtramsn.co.nz/news/0,,3884-2114963,00)
  9. A FAQ list about the columbia loss (http://www.io.com/~o_m/columbia_loss_faq_x)

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