"In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the Earth. These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more.
The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on."
-President G.W. Bush on Feb. 1, 2003 after the
Columbia disaster.

"The most complicated machine ever built got knocked out of the sky by a pound and a half of foam. The message that sends to me is that we are walking the razor's edge. This is a dangerous business and it does not take much to knock you off."
-Shuttle Flight Director Paul Hill

Columbia Disaster Facts

The final lift-off of Columbia on the ill-fated STS-107 mission on 1-16-03.The crew of the ill-fated STS-107 MissionA photo during the flight.A photo during the flight.A photo of the moon taken during the flight.Left wing RCC panels.The piece of foam about to hit the wing.The cloud of debris after the foam hits the wing.A test to show the possible damage caused by foam to the RCC panel.
Photos courtesy of NASA

1. Columbia was the first space shuttle orbiter to fly in space on April 12, 1981.
2. Between April 1981 and March 2002, Columbia flew 27 successful missions. Columbia was in 2nd place behind Discovery in the number of space flights by an orbiter in 2003.
3. Columbia was destroyed during re-entry on the return from the 113th shuttle mission on Feb. 1, 2003. All seven astronauts onboard lost their lives. Columbia was returning from a 16 day mission to conduct experiments in low Earth orbit.
4. The thermal protection system of the space shuttle is designed to protect the orbiter from the fiery heat of re-entering the atmosphere. This heat is caused by friction generated by the orbiter traveling at 17,000 mph. About 27,000 thermal tiles are bonded to the orbiter to protect the bottom and sides from temperatures of over 2000 degrees F. The leading wing edges are fitted with
RCC panels, 22 on each wing. This area of the orbiter can heat up to 3000 degrees during re-entry.
5. The disaster was caused by damage to the orbiter's thermal protection system that occurred during the launch on Jan. 16, 2003. A small piece of foam from the external tank
broke off and slammed into the leading edge of the left wing 82 seconds after take-off. It punched a hole approximately 6-10 inches wide in RCC panel #8. This hole allowed superheated gasses to enter the wing during the fiery re-entry and led to the destruction of Columbia only 16 minutes before the planned landing.

From the Report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board:
"The physical cause of the loss of Columbia and its crew was a breach in the Thermal Protection System on the leading edge of the left wing. The breach was initiated by a piece of insulating foam that separated from the left bipod ramp of the External Tank and struck the wing in the vicinity of the lower half of Reinforced Carbon-Carbon panel 8 at 81.9 seconds after launch. During re-entry, this breach in the Thermal Protection System allowed superheated air to penetrate the leading-edge insulation and progressively melt the aluminum structure of the left wing, resulting in a weakening of the structure until increasing aerodynamic forces caused loss of control, failure of the wing, and breakup of the Orbiter."

6. The break-up of
Columbia occurred at a speed of about Mach 19 at an altitude of over 200,000 feet. There was no way for the crew to bail-out at this point of the re-entry. The speed, altitude, and temperatures at this time ruled out any means of
escape.
7. To simplify what happened: the super-hot gasses slowly cooked the left wing of
Columbia during re-entry. The aluminum material the wing was made of began to melt. This caused the shape of the wing to change, which generated drag forces and additional heat. (The flow of the air around the wing should be smooth and is designed to do so in a certain way) This drag tried to pull the shuttle to the left, but the orbiter's computers fought to keep on course by firing thrusters and moving the wing surfaces. Eventually, the flight control system lost the battle and the orbiter went into a spin to the left. The spin put too much stress on the orbiter and caused it to break apart into several large pieces. These pieces then broke into smaller pieces as a result of the speed and temperatures at that time. The crew compartment broke away intact from the orbiter.
8. All seven people aboard
Columbia died when the crew cabin ruptured from stresses about 38 seconds after the shuttle broke up. (Or from a whiplash effect)
9. NASA was aware that
Columbia had been hit by a piece of debris during launch. However, it was decided that the damage to Columbia was probably minor and would not cause a disaster on the return to Earth. This was obviously a major mistake. Human beings make them all the time, unfortunately.
10.
Columbia was in the wrong orbit to go to the International Space Station. This was not an option. There was not nearly enough fuel onboard to make such a big change in the orbit. A spaceship cannot easily change its direction like an airplane can.
11. Would a rescue mission been possible? Yes, but it would have been very risky. The shuttle
Atlantis was being prepared for launch a month later and could have been rushed into service. But any technical problems that cropped up could have doomed this plan. Another option would have been to have the crew attempt to repair the damaged wing in orbit using metal from the crew cabin. Either option would have been very difficult and could easily have failed.
12. The
Columbia tragedy reminds us that space travel is very dangerous. We barely know how to do it. We are just learning how to travel in space like the early explorers who first ventured into the oceans. The astronauts who fly in the shuttle are very courageous people. It is important to remember that between 1988 and 2002, a 14 and a half year period, NASA flew 87 successful shuttle missions in a row. This is an excellent record when compared to other launch systems in the world today.
13. About 30% of the scientific data gathered from the mission was recovered for study here on Earth.
14. Discovery returned the shuttle fleet to space in July 2005.

Design Changes As A Result of the Columbia Disaster

1. The insulation has been removed from some sections of the external tank.
2. The way the foam is applied to the tank has been changed. Theoretically, it is now very unlikely that a large piece of foam can come off the tank and strike the orbiter.
3. Sensors have been installed inside the carbon panels that can detect damage to them.
4. All shuttle launches now go to the International Space Station. If the orbiter was found to have suffered heat shield damage, the crew could stay at the station and wait for another shuttle to rescue them.
5. A special sensor boom is carried by all shuttle missions. The shuttle's robot arm lifts the boom from the cargo bay and looks under the orbiter and scans for any heat shield problems.
6. The shuttle also carries a repair kit that can fix thermal tiles and small holes in the carbon panels on the wings.

 

 Primary Sources

 Report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board
 Jenkins, Dennis R. Space Shuttle : The History of the National Space Transportation System : The First 100 Missions. World Print Limited. 2001.
 Cabbage, Michael and William Harwood. Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia. Free Press. 2004.

 Images courtesy of NASA

Copyright 2004 B. Holt. No part of the content of this site may be reproduced or retransmitted without the prior written consent of the owner. Any use or sale for profit is strictly prohibited. All rights are reserved. (Some logos and graphics used here are copyrighted by their respective owners.)

 

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