Columbia Disaster

On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was returning from its 28th mission when, 16 minutes to touchdown, the shuttle incinerated and broke apart over Texas. Communication between the Columbia crew and Mission Control captures the last moments of the flight.

7 Accidents and Disasters in Spaceflight History

Closed quarters, vehicles faster than the speed of sound, zero gravity, and extremely volatile rockets. Do any of these things sound particularly prone to accidents? Space travel is tricky work that takes careful calculations and even more careful actions when situations get tough. Here is a list of seven accidents and disasters that have occurred during space expeditions.

ISS Expedition 36: Water Leak in Astronaut’s Suit

The International Space Station (ISS), imaged from the space shuttle Endeavour, December 9, 2000.
Credit: NASA

Luca Parmitano, an Italian astronaut with the European Space Agency, took on a bit of water as he was working outside of the International Space Station (ISS) on July 16, 2013. During a spacewalk on the 36th expedition to the ISS, Parmitano’s helmet began to unexpectedly fill with liquid, and, being in space, the water was free to float around his entire head, eventually making it impossible for him to hear or speak to the other astronauts. Though it might seem like the solution to Parmitano’s problem was obvious, alas, the water was not from a drinking bag but from a leak in a liquid coolant system and would not have been the safest thing to drink. Plus, imagine drinking water that is floating freely in the air—doesn’t seem so easy. The spacewalk continued for over an hour before he was back in the ISS and free from his wetsuit, completely unharmed but in need of a fresh towel (which he received promptly). The accident and subsequent cancellation of the spacewalk made it the second shortest spacewalk in the station’s history.

STS-51-L: Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

Crew of the Challenger 51-L mission: (back row, left to right) Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnik (front row, left to right) Michael Smith, Francis (“Dick”) Scobee, and Ronald McNair, November 1985.
Credit: JSC/NASA

The space shuttle Challenger disaster that occurred on January 28, 1986, marked one of the most devastating days in the history of space exploration. Just over a minute after the space shuttle lifted off, a malfunction in the spacecraft’s O-rings—rubber seals that separated its rocket boosters—caused a fire to start that destabilized the boosters and spread up the rocket itself. The shuttle was moving faster than the speed of sound and quickly began to break apart. The disaster led to the deaths of all astronauts on board, including civilian Christa McAuliffe, a participant in NASA’s Teacher in Space project who was to teach classes and perform experiments while in space. The extended mission of the shuttle included deployment of satellites and the test of tools for studying astronomy and Halley’s Comet. The shuttle’s launch was not widely televised, but the explosion and breakup of the shuttle was visible to spectators on the ground. The launch itself, performed in 26 °F (−3 °C) weather, was predicted to encounter issues by members of the engineering team who knew of the dangers posed to O-rings by such low temperatures. Despite vocalizing these concerns, the mission continued as planned because NASA was against delaying the shuttle’s launch any more, as it had already been delayed multiple times. The disaster resulted in the temporary suspension of the space shuttle program and the creation of the Rogers Commission to determine the cause and fault of the disaster.

Apollo 12: Lightning Strikes and a Head Scrape

Apollo 12 lifting off from the John F. Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida, November 14, 1969.
Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Collection

The second manned lunar expedition, a feat astronaut Charles Conrad called, “a small step for Neil [Armstrong], but…a long one for me,” was not without a few mishaps. As Apollo 12 was beginning to lift off on November 14, 1969, the top of the shuttle was hit by two different lightning strikes that had the potential to compromise the spacecraft and the mission. The first strike was even visible to the spectating audience, creating a stir and concern about the safety of the mission. But despite the scare, it was determined in a quick check of all the spacecraft’s systems that no damage was done to the vehicle, and it set off to the Moon just as planned. It was the return to Earth that caused a little more trouble. As the spacecraft “splashed down” in the ocean during its return to Earth, a strong wave hit the body of the craft, causing it to jostle and swing from its parachutes. This force toppled a 16-mm film camera from where it was secured into astronaut Alan Bean’s head, causing a 1-inch (2.5-cm) cut. Bean turned out A-OK though, as Conrad quickly served as medic and bandaged the wound.

See related articles:

Apollo 13

5 unforgettable moments

NASA astronaut

Soyuz 1: Parachute Failure

Vladimir Komarov was one of Soviet Russia’s first group of cosmonauts selected to attempt space travel. He was also the first person to enter outer space twice, though his second time would sadly be his last. During the expedition of Soyuz 1, the Soviets’ first space vehicle intended to eventually reach the Moon, Komarov encountered issues with the design of his spacecraft that led to his death. The mission plan for Soyuz 1 was a difficult one: the spacecraft was to orbit Earth and then have a rendezvous with Soyuz 2. The two vehicles would have precisely matched their orbital velocities to test the first step in docking two spacecraft together. After Komarov was in orbit around Earth and it was time for Soyuz 2 to launch and meet him, problems with the spacecraft that had been largely ignored became apparent, and the Soyuz 2 mission was halted. The mission control was able to determine that one of the solar panels on Soyuz 1 had not deployed and was limiting the power to the spacecraft dramatically. Equipment that needed the power from this solar panel was malfunctioning, creating difficulties in controlling the vehicle. It was decided that the mission could not continue, and Komarov began preparing for his return to Earth. After some trouble breaching the atmosphere, the parachutes on Soyuz 1 were deployed but did not unfold correctly, making the spacecraft impossible to slow down. Soyuz 1 crashed into Earth on April 24, 1967, killing cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. Komarov was the first fatality in spaceflight and, since his death, has been honored with memorials and monuments near the site of the crash and in Russia for his bravery and skill.

Mir-18: Exercise Equipment to the Eye

Shannon Wells Lucid, exercising on a treadmill aboard the Russian space station Mir on March 28, 1996.
Credit: NASA

Space explorers need to stay in good physical health during their time in outer space. Because of this necessity, space stations have exercise equipment that astronauts or cosmonauts can use to stay fit. During a mission to the Mir space station in 1995, astronaut Norman Thagard was attempting to do just that with a piece of exercise equipment for performing deep knee bends. The equipment used a strap of elastic that is secured to a foot in order to create resistance. While Thagard was exercising, one of the straps snapped off of his foot and flew upward, hitting him in the eye. After the initial shock of the injury, Thagard was in pain and had trouble looking at light (something hard to avoid in outer space). After being prescribed steroid eye drops, which apparently the space station had readily available, Thagard’s eye began to heal and all was back to normal.

STS-107: Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster

Crew of the space shuttle Columbia (left to right): David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon. The shuttle broke up catastrophically on February 1, 2003, killing all aboard.
Credit: NASA

The disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003, as it reentered the atmosphere was another of the most traumatic accidents in the history of space expedition. The Columbia disaster was the second that occurred during NASA’s space shuttle program after the Challenger, also causing widespread sadness and concerns about the space programs. The accident was caused during liftoff by the breaking off of a piece of foam that was intended to absorb and insulate the fuel tank of the shuttle from heat and to stop ice from forming. The large piece of foam fell on the shuttle’s left wing and created a hole. Though NASA officials were aware of the damage, the severity of it was unclear because of the low-quality cameras used to observe the shuttle’s launch. Knowing that the foam regularly had fallen off of previous shuttles and had not caused critical damage, NASA officials believed there was nothing to worry about. But when the Columbia attempted reentry after its mission was complete, gases and smoke entered the left wing through the hole and caused the wing to break off, leading to the disintegration of the rest of the shuttle seven minutes from landing. The entire crew of six American astronauts and the first Israeli astronaut in space died in the accident. NASA’s space shuttle program was again suspended after this disaster. Despite the tragedy, an experiment performed during the expedition that studied the effects of weightlessness on the physiology of worms was recovered from the wreckage. The worms, left in a petri dish, were still alive, a symbol of the dedication of the Columbia crew and a monument to their efforts.

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project: Poisonous Gas Leak

American astronaut Thomas P. Stafford and Soviet cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov in the passage between the Apollo Docking Module and the Soyuz Orbital Module during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, July 17, 1975.
Credit: Johnson Space Center/NASA

Columbia, MO Natural Disasters and Weather Extremes

The chance of earthquake damage in Columbia is lower than Missouri average and is much lower than the national average. The risk of tornado damage in Columbia is lower than Missouri average and is higher than the national average.

Earthquake Index, #758

The earthquake index value is calculated based on historical earthquake events data using algorithms. It is an indicator of the earthquake level in a region. A higher earthquake index value means a higher chance of an earthquake.

Volcano Index, #1

The volcano index value is calculated based on the currently known volcanoes using algorithms. It is an indicator of the possibility of a region being affected by a possible volcano eruption. A higher volcano index value means a higher chance of being affected.

Tornado Index, #810

The tornado index value is calculated based on historical tornado events data using algorithms. It is an indicator of the tornado level in a region. A higher tornado index value means a higher chance of tornado events.

Other Weather Extremes Events

A total of 3,517 other weather extremes events within 50 miles of Columbia, MO were recorded from 1950 to 2010. The following is a break down of these events:

Volcanos Nearby

No volcano is found in or near Columbia, MO.

Historical Earthquake Events

No historical earthquake events that had recorded magnitudes of 3.5 or above found in or near Columbia, MO.

No historical earthquake events found in or near Columbia, MO.

Historical Tornado Events

A total of 50 historical tornado events that had recorded magnitude of 2 or above found in or near Columbia, MO.

Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster Explained (Infographic)

On Feb. 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia was returning to Earth after a successful 16-day trip to orbit, where the crew conducted more than 80 science experiments ranging from biology to fluid physics. However, the seemingly healthy orbiter had suffered critical damage during its launch, when foam from the fuel tank's insulation fell off and hit Columbia's left wing, tearing a hole in it that later analysis suggested might have been as large as a dinner plate.

The damage occurred just after Columbia's liftoff on Jan. 16, but went undetected. During re-entry, the hole in a heat-resistant reinforced carbon carbon panel on Columbia's left wing leading edge allowed super-hot atmospheric gases into the orbiter's wing, leading to its destruction.

Killed in the Columbia shuttle disaster were STS-107 mission commander Rick Husband and included pilot Willie McCool, mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and David Brown, payload commander Michael Anderson and payload specialist Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut. [Share Your Thoughts on Columbia]

A subsequent inquiry by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) faulted NASA's internal culture as much as the foam strike as causes of the shuttle disaster. The Columbia accident ultimately led then-President George W. Bush to announce plans to retire NASA's space shuttle fleet (which was more than 20 years old at the time) once construction of the International Space Station was complete. A capsule-based spacecraft was planned to replace the shuttles. [Photos: The Columbia Space Shuttle Tragedy]

NASA's space shuttle fleet resumed launches in July 2005, after spending more than two years developing safety improvements and repair tools and techniques to avoid a repeat of the Columbia disaster. In 2011, NASA launched the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, to complete the shuttle fleet's role in space station construction.

In 2012, NASA's three remaining shuttles - Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour - were delivered to museums in Washington, D.C., Florida and California, while the test shuttle Enterprise was delivered to New York City. Under President Barack Obama, NASA was directed to rely on private spacecraft to launch Americans to the International Space Station and return them to Earth. NASA, meanwhile, is developing a new giant rocket - the Space Launch System - and the Orion space capsule for future deep-space missions to an asteroid, the moon and Mars.

Instant History: Our First Report - Feb. 1, 2003
Columbia Missing on Re-Entry, Crew Presumed Lost

A Tragedy Repeated: Sequence of Reentry Events and Cause of Breakup

A frame from a tape recording taken by the crew 4 minutes before the breakup (Credits: NASA).

Columbia reentered the atmosphere with a breach in the Reinforced Carbon-Carbon (RCC) left wing leading edge near Panel 8. This breach was a main cause of the accident, since it allowed super-heated air, estimated to be about 2,760°C, to penetrate behind the TPS, destroying the insulation that protected the leading edge support structure and melting the aluminum wing spar. This resulted in thermal degradation of structural properties of the left wing. At Entry Interface (EI) plus 555 seconds, video from the ground shows pieces of material shedding from the orbiter, which continued to fly its pre-planned flight profile. Later, over the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area at about 60,960m, the increasing aerodynamic forces caused catastrophic damage to the left wing. At EI+613s, when the super-heated air had penetrated to the outside of the left wheel well, and destroyed the four hydraulic sensor electrical cables, controllers on the ground saw the first anomalies in telemetry data. At EI+727s, Mission Control noted an increase in left wheel well hydraulic line temperatures.

At EI+790s, the two left main gear outboard tire pressure sensors began trending upward, then off-scale low. At EI+834s, a sharp change in the rolling tendency of the orbiter occurred along with additional shedding of debris. In an attempt to maintain attitude control, the orbiter responded with a sharp change in aileron trim, likely due to wing deformation. At EI+917s, the data showed a significant increase in positive roll and negative yaw, an indication of increased drag on and lift from the damaged left wing.

The shuttle flight control room in Houston’s Mission Control Center at JSC right after flight controllers lost contact with the Space Shuttle Columbia (Credits: NASA).

The flight control system attempted to compensate for this increased left yaw at EI+921s by firing two aft right yaw Reaction Control System (RCS) jets continuously. By EI+927s, the third RCS yaw jet began firing continuously and at EI+928s the fourth and last right yaw RCS jet began firing continuously. It is probable that hydraulic pressure to the aero-control surfaces was lost at EI+928s when hot plasma burned through all four hydraulic lines in the area of the left wheel well. This loss of control and beginning of orbiter pitchup marks the transition from a controlled glide to an uncontrolled ballistic entry with orbiter aero-thermal breakup at EI+970s.

Failure of the crew module resulted from the thermal degradation of structural properties, which resulted in a rapid catastrophic structural breakdown rather than an instantaneous explosive failure. Separation of the crew module assembly from the rest of the orbiter likely occurred at the interface with the payload bay. The crew module, pressurized compartment, and outer forebody separated at EI+1004s. Debris assessment indicates that cabin depressurization probably occurred when the lower cabin structure impacted the forebody structure. Increasing aero-thermal loads resulted in the total destruction of the crew module and forebody by EI+1021s. From data and analysis it appears that the destruction of the crew module took place over a period of 24 seconds, beginning at an altitude of approximately 42,672m and ending at 32,000m. The death of the crew was due to blunt force trauma and hypoxia (Ref [1] pp 70-77 [2] pp 1-63, 72).

– In the video below, an analysis of the reentry of Columbia.

Tag: Columbia Disaster

The first debris began falling to the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am. The last communication from the crew came one minute later. Columbia disintegrated in the skies over East Texas at 9:00am eastern standard time.

The idea of a reusable Space Transportation System (STS) was floated as early as the 1960s, as a way to cut down on the cost of space travel. The final design was a reusable, winged “spaceplane”, with a disposable external tank and reusable solid fuel rocket boosters. The ‘Space Truck’ program was approved in 1972, the prime contract awarded to North American Aviation (later Rockwell International), with the first orbiter completed in 1976.

Early Approach and Landing Tests were conducted with the first prototype dubbed “Enterprise”, in 1977. A total of 16 tests, all atmospheric, were conducted from February to October of that year, the lessons learned applied to the first space-worthy vehicle in NASA’s orbital fleet.

STS-1, the first mission of the “Space Shuttle” program launched aboard “Columbia” from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. It was April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of the first human spaceflight aboard the Russian capsule Vostok 1.

It was the first, and (to-date) only manned maiden test flight of a new system in the American space program.

This first flight of Columbia would be commanded by Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young, and piloted by Robert Crippen. It was the first of 135 missions in the Space Shuttle program, the first of only two to take off with external hydrogen fuel tanks painted white. From STS-3 on, the external tank would be left unpainted, to save weight.

Initially, there were four fully functional orbiters in the STS program: Columbia joined after the first five missions by “Challenger”, then “Discovery”, and finally “Atlantis”. A fifth orbiter, “Endeavor”, was built in 1991 to replace Challenger, which broke apart 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986, killing all seven of its crew.

All told, Columbia flew 28 missions with 160 crew members, traveling 125,204,911 miles in 4,808 orbits around the planet.

STS-107 launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on January 16, 2003.

Eighty seconds after launch, a piece of insulating foam broke away from the external fuel tank striking Columbia’s left wing, leaving a small hole in the carbon composite tiles along the leading edge.

Three previous Space Shuttle missions had experienced similar damage and, while some engineers thought this one could be more serious, none was able to pinpoint the precise location or extent of the damage. NASA managers believed that, even in the event of major damage, little could be done about it.

These carbon tiles are all that stands between the orbiter and the searing heat of re-entry.

December 2, 1988 ‘Atlantis’ mission narrowly missed repeting the Columbia disaster, four days later. “More than 700 heat shield tiles were damaged. One tile on the shuttle’s belly near the nose was completely missing and the underlying metal – a thick mounting plate that helped anchor an antenna – was partially melted. In a slightly different location, the missing tile could have resulted in a catastrophic burn through”. H/T

For Columbia, 300 days, 17 hours, forty minutes and 22 seconds of space travel came to an end on the morning of February 1, 2003. Over the California coast and traveling twenty-three times the speed of sound, external temperatures rose to 3,000° Fahrenheit and more, when super-heated gases entered the wing’s interior.

231,000 feet below, mission control detected four unconnected sensors shut down on the left wing, with no explanation. The first debris struck the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am. The last communication from the crew came about a minute later.

Columbia disintegrated in the skies over East Texas at 9:00am Eastern Standard Time.

Debris and human remains were found in 2,000 locations from the state of Louisiana, to Arkansas. The only survivors were a can full of worms, brought into space for study.

“Mon Landscape” by Petr Ginz

Payload Specialist Colonel Ilan Ramon, born Ilan Wolferman, was an Israeli fighter pilot and the first Israeli astronaut to join the NASA space program.

Ramon is the son and grandson of Auschwitz survivors and family member to several others, who didn’t live to tell the tale. In their memory, Colonel Ramon reached out to the Yad Vashem Remembrance Center, for a holocaust relic to bring with him into space.

Petr Ginz was incarcerated for a time in the Theresienstadt ghetto, where he drew this picture. A piece of teenage imagination: the Earth as it may appear, from the moon.

Petr Ginz was destined to be murdered in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, though his drawing survived. He was fourteen years old. Colonel Ramon was given a copy, a young boy’s drawing of a safer place. This would accompany the astronaut, into space.

Today, the assorted debris from the Columbia disaster numbers some 84,000 pieces, stored in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. To the best of my knowledge, this drawing by a boy who never made it out of Auschwitz, is not among them.

Andrew “Drew” Feustel is a car guy, with fond memories of restoring a 󈨇 Ford Mustang in the family garage in North suburban Detroit.

When he’s not fixing cars he’s an astronaut, and veteran of two space missions. He was also for a time a colleague of Colonel Ramon. The pair had several close friends, in common.

The ‘car guy’ in space thing seems to have worked. NASA reports “The spacewalkers overcame frozen bolts, stripped screws and stuck handrails, four new or rejuvenated scientific instruments, new batteries, a new gyroscope and a new computer were installed. | NASA photo

In March 2018, Feustel left for his third spaceflight, this one a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station. Before he left, Rona Ramon, widow of the Israeli Astronaut, gave him another copy of Petr Ginz’ drawing.

The circle was closed. This fruit of a doomed boy’s imagination once again broke the bonds of space. This time, to come home.

The Shuttle that Never Came Home

Columbia was the first fully operational orbiter of the Space Shuttle Program. Its inaugural flight was on 25 th March 1981. More than two decades later, STS-107 was Columbia’s 28 th mission.

Inside mission control, engineers performed all the last minute checks. Everything seemed nominal. Entry Flight Director LeRoy Cain gave Shuttle commander Rick Husband the go-ahead to initiate deorbit and reentry procedures. But nine minutes after entry interface into the Earth’s atmosphere, the ground team encountered the first hint of abnormality.

Telemetry indicated that hydraulic fluid temperatures had suddenly gone off-scale low. The sensors measuring the data were all located in the aft of the Shuttle’s left wing. There was no commonality that could explain the fault and all other hydraulic system indications were good. Soon, loss of tire pressure on the left side followed, with the readings again going off-scale. This was already bad news for the Shuttle. Columbia could not make a landing while losing tire pressure. Further losses of sensors in the nose gear and main gear compounded the nervous atmosphere in mission control.

Then all communications from Columbia ceased abruptly. Patchy communications were expected during re-entry, but not deathly silence. All efforts from Houston to hail Columbia failed. Even the radar used to track the Shuttle did not spot anything. The Shuttle’s trajectory was timed to perfection. So there was no way for it to be ‘late’. The absence of communication and tracking data could mean only one thing.

“Lock the doors”, remarked flight director Cain. It was a standard procedure to cut off contact with the outside world and keep all information within the room. Just as in a crime scene.

Meanwhile, reports were coming in from Texas, which lay along Columbia’s descent path, of people spotting fireballs and falling debris from the sky. There were no doubts left. Space Shuttle Columbia and crew were lost.

[cleveryoutube video=”cbnT8Sf_LRs” vidstyle=𔄣″ pic=”” afterpic=”” width=”” quality=”inherit” starttime=”” endtime=”” caption=”Inside Mission Control, the Flight Controllers become aware of Columbia’s failed reentry.” showexpander=”off” alignment=”left” newser=”” margin=”true”]

What Broke on Columbia that Caused the Tragedy?

Shuttle Columbia and its crew were lost during re-entry when the incredible heat that is generated from atmospheric friction entered the interior of the left wing, causing it to melt from within until it failed and broke free. When this occurred the shuttle spun out of control and disintegrated.

It is believed the seven astronauts died instantly.

Heat protection tiles and thermal blankets cover most of the shuttle to act as its heatshield. The nose cap and leading edge of the wings are protected by panels of reinforced carbon carbon (RCC), a composite material capable of withstanding 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A small hole in the left wing's leading edge initially allowed the heat inside the wing. As the material eroded away the breach grew larger until the wing was consumed.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board will say they are positive — but can't conclusively prove — that a piece of foam insulation fell from the shuttle's external tank about 82 seconds after launch and struck the left wing's leading edge, damaging a panel of the RCC material.

It's likely that the object seen via military radar floating from Columbia during the second day of the mission was a piece of the shuttle's heatshield, which either caused the breach in the left wing or contributed to making it larger.

Reconstruction of the recovered debris at the Kennedy Space Center, an analysis of data recorded during the launch and re-entry, as well as the results of tests in which foam was shot at heatshield material all independently back up the theory.

It's more than circumstantial evidence and less than proof positive. Beyond a reasonable doubt describes it best.

Next page: How Could it Happen?

Columbia Disaster History Minute Cross Curricular History and Close Reading Pack

This resource features a two-page article on the Columbia space shuttle disaster which connects to a cross-curricular integrated history and close reading lesson with material for geography and science as well. This no prep packet is great for sub plans or bell ringers and is just one lesson in a series, called History Minutes.

Included in this resource:

  • How to Guide
  • 2-Page Reading on the Columbia Disaster
  • Annotation Guide
  • 5-Step Close Reading Activity
    • Main Idea
    • Vocabulary
    • Comprehension Question
    • Prove Your Idea
    • Writing

    Although this is a distance learning resource because it is easily completed by students on their own, it is NOT digital. It is a PDF resource.

    If you would like to take a glimpse at a similar resource, a free portion of “Machu Picchu” is avaliable at the following link. I hope you enjoy it.

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    Watch the video: The Columbia Disaster Was Worse Than You Thought (January 2022).