“I think the crew would rather not know.”
Seven astronauts perished on February 1, 2003, in NASA’s continuing mission to help save civilization from a dying planet.
The crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia sacrificed their lives so our children and our grandchildren and humanity itself can one day escape the confines of Earth and colonize Mars and other planets and travel beyond to new worlds.
The crew of the Columbia, from left to right: David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Willie McCool, and Ilan Ramon.
The doomed heroes were aboard the heat-shield damaged Space Shuttle when it disintegrated as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.
The disaster was the second catastrophe in the Space Shuttle program. The previous tragedy was the explosion of the Challenger soon after liftoff on January 28, 1986, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
The crew of the Challenger, front row from left: Michael J. Smith, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee and Ronald E. McNair. Back row from left: Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnik.
COLUMBIA DAMAGED DURING LIFTOFF
The fatal problem on the Columbia spacecraft occurred at 81.7 seconds into liftoff. A two-foot-long chunk of insulating foam broke off from the external fuel tank and struck the underside of the orbiter’s left wing heat-resistant panels at 500 miles per hour.
No one on the ground or in the shuttle was immediately aware of what had happened and there was no indication of a problem when initial video of the launch was reviewed two hours later. It wasn’t until enhanced video was viewed the next day that the foam strike was discovered.
Even knowing that the damage could prove catastrophic on re-entry, Mission Control officials decided to downplay the incident to the astronauts.
“There is nothing we can do about the damage,” said Operations Director Jon Harpold. “I think the crew would rather not know. It would be better for them to have a successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry.”
REPAIR OR RESCUE?
Repairing the damaged wing was considered but the spacewalk to accomplish the job was deemed too risky. A rescue mission would have been safer.
The shuttle Atlantis was scheduled to lift off March 1 but could have been launched sooner if crews worked around the clock. It could then link up with Columbia, allowing the crew to abandon their craft and spacewalk over to Atlantis.
But a rescue mission was a moot point. The full extent of the damage to Columbia’s left wing and the peril to the crew was determined too late for the Atlantis to be made ready for launch.
After 16 days in space, the time came for Columbia to return to Earth.
HEAT SHIELDS FLY OFF
As the shuttle streaked over California at 8:54 a.m. Eastern time four sensors in the shuttle’s left wing went dead, and as it crossed from New Mexico into Texas at 8:58 a.m., a heat-resistant tile flew off from the craft.
The first alarm to sound inside the shuttle came four seconds before Columbia spun out of control.
One of the astronauts, believed to be Rick Husband or William McCool, remained conscious for an additional 26 seconds, desperately attempting to save the crew.
One minute later a final unintelligible communication came from the spacecraft.
At 9:00 a.m., observers on the ground could see that Columbia was in pieces. Smoking pieces of the spacecraft, including the remains of the crew, rained down from the sky.
Fourteen heroes aboard the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia gave their lives so humanity can continue to expand its horizon to distant planets and new worlds.