‘A searing chapter of my life’: Remembering the Columbia tragedy 20 years on

The Columbia crew who took off from Florida on January 16, 2003 – the shuttle broke up on re-entry (Pictures: Nasa/WFAA)

Saturday, February 1, 2003, dawned bright across Texas, the clear blue sky stretching to all four corners of the horizon. At 8.58am there still wasn’t a cloud to be seen, just a small spot, high in the north-west.

It was the space shuttle Columbia and her seven-strong crew re-entering the atmosphere, the growing trail in their wake stitching a brilliant white seam between space and our world. After 16 days in orbit they were back, en route to touchdown in Florida, travelling at around 1,700mph.

But just as fast as the shuttle itself was the realisation by observers that something wasn’t right. As she blazed more and more fiercely, that single bright spot streaking across the sky became two – a second, smaller fireball chasing the first. Soon there were three, then four, and within seconds, Columbia broke apart.

While onlookers and TV cameras watched, the burning fragments continued their race across the sky, the fates of those on board unconfirmed but seemingly sealed.

Yet in Mission Control and on the tarmac, no one was yet aware of the scale of the unfolding disaster.

At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, then Nasa administrator Sean O’Keefe was waiting alongside the crews’ families.

‘It was a day I’ll never, ever forget a single detail of,’ says O’Keefe. ‘It was a searing chapter of my professional and personal life. 

‘I was standing with the families on the runway waiting for the shuttle to return as normal. We were watching the countdown clock, which is similar to the launch clock – 3, 2, 1 – and you can set your watch by it. So [when the shuttle didn’t appear] the mood very shortly went from excitement, elation and anxious anticipation of seeing their loved ones to confusion and despair.’

Nasa historian Dr Jennifer Ross-Nazzal picks up the story.

‘If you look at the communication going on at Mission Control at that time, there were some, what they call, “off nominal events” that started popping up which they started to notice,’ says Ross-Nazzal. ‘But the flight director asked his controllers if everything was okay, and his guidance, navigation and control officers said they didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.

Flight director Leroy E Cain (right) and capsule communicator Charles O. ‘Scorch’ Hobaugh (centre)
in the moments after confirmation that Columbia had broken up over Texas (Picture: Nasa)

‘It wasn’t until they received a phone call from an off-duty flight controller who had seen it happen that they knew.’

Back in Florida, O’Keefe was keenly aware that, alongside the families, was the largest media cohort seen in many landings. Their interest had been piqued by crew member Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut.

‘This was 18 months after 9/11, and every law enforcement agency and security organisation was convinced this would be a high target event, subject to any number of terrorists who wanted to make a statement,’ says O’Keefe.

‘Well it turned out not to be that at all, we figured that out within the first few hours, but that’s why there were so many people there, and the thought of the relatives having boom mics and cameras shoved in their faces was enough to prompt me to say it’s time to move, time to get them somewhere else.’

The Columbia crew

  • Rick D. Husband, commander
  • William C. McCool, pilot
  • Michael P. Anderson, payload [cargo] commander
  • David Brown, mission specialist
  • Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist
  • Laurel Blair Salton Clark, mission specialist
  • Ilan Ramon, payload specialist

When the confirmation came through, that all seven crew had perished, it fell to the head of flight crew operations to break the news.

‘Unfortunately one individual was charged with that task, and that was Bob Cabana,’ says Ross-Nazzal. ‘It was his first mission in that role. 

‘I can’t imagine how horrible it must have felt, and what he witnessed relaying that information to the families.’

From left: Rick D Husband, William C McCool, David Brown, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon, Michael P Anderson and Kalpana Chawla (Picture: Nasa)

Rick D Husband, William C McCool, Michael P Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Blair Salton Clark and Ilan Ramon. The seven Nasa astronauts who blasted off from Florida at 10.39am on January 16, never to return home.

O’Keefe spoke with President Bush to update him on the situation, and arranged a call with the families. 

Columbia’s re-entry path and break-up (Picture: Nasa/

Meanwhile, the recovery mission of Space Transportation System (STS) 107 began immediately, spanning seven states as debris from the shuttle fell to Earth from 200,000ft, covering an area hundreds of miles long and 10 miles wide. Multiple government agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the FBI, joined forces in collecting debris and recovering the crew.

Clark and Husband on board (Picture: Nasa)
Columbia pilot McCool (Picture: Nasa)
Clockwise from bottom left: Anderson, Chawla, Ramon and Brown (Picture: Nasa)
The view from Columbia in orbit (Picture: Nasa)

Why they perished became clear during a near-seven month investigation by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB). Eighty-two seconds after lift off, a portion of foam dislodged from the external tank (ET) struck the shuttle’s left wing, leaving a roughly 16” square hole in the exterior.

‘We’d seen foam shed from the ET for more than 20 years, so people thought it was just something that happened,’ says Ross-Nazzal. ‘I think a lot of people in management thought that the reinforced carbon carbon on the area where it was hit was pretty resilient, that foam didn’t have the capability to damage it.

‘I remember people talking about the foam strike on TV and how foam could never do that type of damage to a vehicle – I mean, it’s just foam right? It doesn’t weigh anything.’

The moment during take-off when the damage occurred (Picture: Nasa)
Tests during the investigation replicated the damage (Picture: Nasa)

But as the CAIB determined, that piece of foam, when colliding with the shuttle moving at 2,300 feet per second, was absolutely capable of causing such damage – the result of which meant upon reentry, superheated atmospheric gases seeped into the wing and caused significant damage, destabilising the shuttle which then broke apart.

‘What it really boils down to, and what people hear at Nasa have called it, is a failure of imagination,’ says Ross-Nazzal. 

Yet some could well imagine the damage caused by the strike, which was identified the day after liftoff, but the CAIB also discovered ‘organisational barriers that prevented effective communication of critical safety information and stifled professional differences of opinion’ among other management and safety failings.

‘There were certainly people who were concerned, who’d seen the strike, and there were discussions about asking for photos from the Department of Defense looking at debris assessments [make clearer],’ she says. ‘And there were Boeing engineers who were looking at this and reached out but they found that management didn’t respond to their queries, to their concerns.’

Then Nasa administrator Sean O’Keefe speaking at a memorial for the crew (Picture: Nasa)

For O’Keefe, the report was not an easy read.

‘A lot of things in the report were very critical and extremely blunt, candid, and it was tough to read, but that was the honest truth of what happened – and the truth doesn’t get any better with age, so you’ve got to take it on. It was hard to read.

‘But I’d like to think the legacy of Columbia is an agency, a group of people, who stepped up, admitted to the failures we had, acknowledged the unbelievably tragic and deadly errors that had been made and went about the business of discovering and fixing it promptly – and then rededicating ourselves to the exploration mission they had all given their lives for. 

‘And to do it better than we’d ever done it before.’

Nasa paid tribute to the crew by naming hills on Mars in their honour (Picture: Nasa)

Doing it better than ever before includes improved communication at all levels.

‘Today there’s a real emphasis on improving communications and making sure that there’s a diversity of opinion,’ says Ross-Nazzal. ‘That people can come and ask questions, people can say “I disagree” openly – because there was this sense there wasn’t that opportunity during Columbia.

‘Had there been, we might have had a different outcome.’

President George Bush, seen here paying tribute to the crew, spoke to their families on the day (Picture: Nasa)

Columbia was the third major accident in Nasa’s history following Apollo 1 in 1967 – when a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal claimed the lives of the three astronauts on board – and Challenger in 1986, which exploded shortly after take-off.

Last week, hundreds of people – including the families of Columbia’s crew – gathered in Houston for Nasa’s Day of Remembrance, honouring those lives lost in the pursuit of space exploration. 

The space mirror memorial at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center (Picture: Nasa)

‘We set this up to say, let’s not just talk about the next big mission, or whatever our next audacious aspiration is,’ says O’Keefe. ‘No, we need to stop and realise what happens when you get it wrong – because it didn’t happen once, it happened three times, in a big way.

‘The people gathered on this day are passing along what they remember about it so the next generation takes this very, very seriously.

‘Here’s the consequence when you get it wrong, and that’s important.’

Naming flames and future Covid care

STS-107, the 113th flight of the space shuttle program, was a research mission. Working alternating shifts, divided into a blue team and red team, the astronauts carried out experiments 24 hours a day on more than 30 projects, including those focusing on prostate cancer, ozone monitoring and bone loss.

Too nerdy? How about fireballs?

‘The team were really excited about some of the experiments, especially one to create flame balls in space,’ says Nasa historian Dr Jennifer Ross-Nazzal. ‘They created the longest flame ever burned in space – 81 minutes – and apparently they were naming the flame balls, so I think they must have been having a good time.’

Kelly was the name of that record flame, and on January 23, the blue team’s wake-up call was Burning Down The House by Talking Heads in honour of their ground-breaking experiments.

Laurel Clark during research on board Columbia (Picture: Nasa)

‘John Clark, Laurel’s husband, said she was just very bubbly and excited. She was in awe of the science they were doing and he could just tell she was really satisfied and joyful about what was happening in orbit.’

Clark, on her first mission to space, was also closely involved in the Advanced Respiratory Monitoring System (ARMS) study which, reports Ross-Nazzal, included the discovery that patients’ lung capabilities can be improved by lying on their front while in hospital. 

Not a headline-making discovery you might think, but almost two decades later, that knowledge was essential in the life-saving treatments of Covid-19 patients who lay prone (on their front) while on ventilators as the virus swept the globe.

The space shuttle Columbia (Picture: Nasa)

End of one era – the beginning of another

Following the Columbia tragedy, Nasa’s space shuttle fleet were grounded for more than two years. While Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis all returned to duty, the space shuttle programme came to an end with completion of the International Space Station in 2011.

‘The high cost of operating the shuttle and concerns about its safety led Nasa to end the programme and rely on commercial vehicles, such as the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing Starliner, to transport astronauts to the International Space Station,’ says UK Space Agency launch systems lead Mauro Augelli. ‘This decision was also the spark to the impressive competition on the different launch systems to put those vehicles in orbit that shaped a completely different scenario in the next 20 years.

‘The loss of the Columbia shuttle also led to increased international collaboration in the space industry. With a greater focus on developing safer spacecraft and improving international cooperation in space exploration.’

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