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This Day in History: The Space Shuttle Columbia explodes

On this day in 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia explodes above the skies of Texas. Columbia had once been the first space shuttle to launch into space! Now it would become the second to lose its entire crew.

That first flight had been truly remarkable. “[It] was the first time astronauts launched on a vehicle that had not first been tested in an unmanned flight,” Columbia’s first pilot would write. “It was the first crewed vehicle to use solid rocket boosters, and it was the first spacecraft to return to a landing on a runway.”

Columbia's last crew. From left to right: Mission specialist David Brown, commander Rick Husband, mission specialist Laurel Clark, mission specialist Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist Michael Anderson, pilot William McCool, and Israeli payload specialist Ilan Ramon.

Columbia was just a little bit different from the newer space shuttles that would soon follow. She was heavier; she had instrumentation that they lacked. Indeed, a launch director at the Space Shuttle program, Michael Leinbach, would describe her as “the beloved black sheep of the fleet.” The team assigned to her, especially, “loved Columbia and her quirks.”

Columbia departed from Earth for the final time on January 16. It seemed like the perfect launch. Signs of trouble didn’t appear until NASA later began reviewing launch videos.

The videos showed that a piece of foam had torn away from the external fuel tank during the launch. That foam hit Columbia’s left wing, although it was impossible to tell exactly where it had hit or how bad the damage was. Should NASA get the intelligence community involved? Through classified channels, intelligence could get better pictures of Columbia in orbit.

NASA might be able to get a clearer picture of the damage.

Inexplicably, the idea was rejected. “‘Prove to me that it’s not safe to come home’ demonstrates a very different management culture than does ‘prove to me that it is safe to come home,’” Leinbach would conclude. But that’s what seemed to be happening. Legitimate concerns were dismissed. NASA ended up deciding that the tougher material on the leading edge of the wing could hold up under a foam strike. Foam had fallen off before. Everything would be okay.

All of this would add up to disaster for Columbia’s crew.

Her re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere began uneventfully enough. She was expected to cross the country beginning on the west coast, finally landing in Florida at 9:16 a.m. Mission Control didn’t receive its first sign of trouble until 8:54.

Temperature readings from Columbia’s left wing were going awry. Sensors began to go dead. At 8:59:32, Columbia’s commander was speaking when he literally cut out mid-word. At roughly the same time, people on the ground heard loud booms and rumbling sounds. House windows vibrated. Knick-knacks fell off shelves. People saw smoke trails overhead.

Less than 16 minutes from a safe landing, Columbia would break apart as it crossed the sky near Dallas. The orbiter’s wreckage would later be found strewn across Texas and Louisiana.

Seven crew members had been lost: They were husbands and wives, mothers and fathers. Four of them were traveling into space for the first time. Of these, one was an Israeli astronaut—the first Israeli in space.

“In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine,” President George W. Bush told the nation, “it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket . . . . These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly . . . .”

Today, we remember a tragedy. But we also remember the daring, pioneering spirit that has always made America great.

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