20 years ago, negligent damage caused NASA’s Columbia space shuttle to disintegrate on its return to Earth. All seven crew members died.
On the morning of February 1, 2003, then US President George W. Bush issued a statement live on American television. It was the second time in his still short presidency that Bush had to deliver bad news to American society. What he had to say would shake America and indeed the entire world.
“My countrymen, this day has brought terrible news and great sorrow to our country. Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.”
A few hours earlier, a sensor had picked up strain on the left wing and unusual heating in several sections of the shuttle’s wings. But this warning was not shown to the crew. And within minutes, Columbia’s return to Earth turned into tragedy, with the deaths of its seven crew members.
Columbia was the first active space shuttle for the American space agency Nasa. The Orbiter, as it was also known, was a white airplane-shaped spacecraft that became a symbol of NASA’s space program and, more generally, of space exploration from the late 1970s to the 1980s.
From 1981 to 2003, Columbia flew 28 times, including the fateful final mission. Columbia STS-107 was a routine mission to conduct science experiments in space, launched from the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida on January 16, 2003.
However, the mission had problems from the start: a piece of foam, used to insulate the space shuttle’s supercooled fuel, broke off from one of the rockets during launch from Earth and hit the orbiter’s left wing.
On the second day of the mission, NASA discovered what had happened, but it was decided to proceed with the mission without repairing the damage or rescuing the astronauts.
The crew was notified of the debris impact via email from mission control, but was assured that “the same phenomenon has been observed on many other flights” and that there were “absolutely no concerns” that it would affect atmospheric re-entry. the earth.
But when Columbia began its return after about two weeks in space, the decision to do nothing about the detected damage proved wrong and fatal.
the fate of the astronauts
After the accident, a team of investigators from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (Caib) was tasked with investigating the causes. He concluded that when the foam was lost during launch, an external thermal protection system broke.
The damage allowed “superheated air” to melt the orbiter’s aluminum structure, eventually causing Columbia to disintegrate upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Investigators found debris strewn on the ground.
The astronauts on the shuttle likely experienced rapid decompression due to the rupture, about 1:30 minutes after their last transmission to Mission Control. Then the connection was lost.
It is unclear whether this decompression was the cause of death. The astronauts likely also suffered serious physical trauma when the spacecraft suddenly started spinning. When it disintegrated, their bodies would have been exposed to extreme heat from atmospheric friction. Finally, there was the impact with the ground. All this was seen by those who had come to the John F. Kennedy Space Center to watch the landing.
Space flight is still difficult and dangerous
The 2003 crash of Space Shuttle Columbia shows how dangerous and difficult it was—and still is—to make spaceflight happen. At the time, the CAIB committee described spaceflight as still in a “developmental” phase—and this was 30 years after the Apollo program, which put men on the moon. These missions were a great success for space exploration in general, but they were also marred by technical difficulties and tragedies.
A 2022 research paper noted that the highest fatality rate in spaceflight was in the 1960s. The lowest was in the 1990s—and “since 2003, no astronaut deaths have been reported.” The study authors estimated an overall mortality rate (deaths from spaceflight) of 5.8% at the time of the article’s publication.
“With increased international cooperation and maintenance of the International Space Station (ISS), the number of manned space flights and days spent in space has steadily increased, and there have been “steadily lower incident and accident rates.”
Spaceflight is no less difficult today than it was 20 years ago or in the 1960s, but space agencies have introduced reforms and improved safety regulations as knowledge and experience in space has increased.
Is NASA to blame for the Columbia accident?
The commission of inquiry concluded that there were “organizational causes” for the disaster. This suggests that NASA, as an agency, bears some responsibility for what happened. But no employee or other agency has faced any charges related to the accident in Columbia.
It is possible that the lives of the crew could have been saved. Although it considered it unlikely that the damage to the orbiter could have been repaired in space, the CAIB called it “challenging but possible” to launch Atlantis, another space shuttle, to rescue the Columbia astronauts.
Working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Atlantis could have been prepared for launch on February 10 — five days before Columbia ran out of food and other resources, researchers estimated. But this plan was never implemented, or even considered.