Columbia was NASA’s first operational space shuttle, launched on the STS-1 test flight on April 12, 1981. A veteran of 27 successful missions, Columbia disintegrated on Feb. 1 , 2003, killing all seven astronauts.
Above, left: astronauts Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark work in Columbia’s laboratory module. Above, right: in-flight portrait of the crew of STS-107 comes from an undeveloped roll of photographic film found in the wreckage.
Launch and Ascent: Foam Strike At 81.7 seconds after Columbia’s liftoff on Jan. 16, 2003, pieces of insulating foam separated from the left bipod ramp area on the external fuel tank (closeup, below). Columbia collided with the foam at a relative velocity of about 545 mph (877 kilome-ters per hour).The impact damaged panels of carbon heat shield material on the orbiter’s left wing.
After the foam impact, Columbia’s ascent continued as planned. At 8.5 minutes after launch, the orbiter’s main engines were shut down. A two-minute firing of the maneuvering rockets placed Columbia into Earth orbit.
APPROXIMATE LOCATION OF FOAM STRIKE
Sixteen Days in Space
STS-107 was a research mission in Earth orbit. A docking with the International Space Station was not planned. The crew split into two alternating shifts and worked around the clock. Among the tasks were experiments involving fire in microgravity, compression of granular materials, the formation of crystals and the behavior of fluids. The majority of experiments were located in the SPACEHAB double module in Columbia’s payload bay and on the shuttle’s mid-deck.
Return to Earth: Timeline
ABOVE: FRAMES RECOVERED FROM LAUREL CLARK’S VIDEO CAMERA, TAKEN 15 MINUTES BEFORE COLUMBIA WAS DESTROYED
FEB. 1, 2003
The accident inquiry concluded that the damage to the heat shield material on the leading edge of the left wing allowed hot gas to penetrate the wing, causing significant internal damage. Both the crew and mission control were unaware of this at the time.
8:58:20 a.m.: A heat shield tile (above) is shed at about this time; it is the most westerly piece of debris that was recovered
9:00:04 Columbia’s left wing breaks off
8:59:32 Loss of radio contact
9:00:18 Columbia’s main structure breaks up, crew cabin begins depressurizing
9:00:53 Crew cabin breaks into pieces
Frame from ground-based video of the first observed piece of debris
8:53:46 a.m.: Observers on the ground see Columbia’s glowing trail suddenly brighten
8:55:00 a.m.: Normally at this point in re-entry, the temperature of the wing edge is nearly 3,000 degrees F (1,650 degrees C)
Thermal image of the shuttle Discovery shows typical re-entry hot spots
8:59:37 Columbia is out of control
Evidence indicates the crew was conscious and aware of the loss of control
At depressurization the crew would have been knocked unconscious or killed