It’s been just over 21 years since one of the darkest days in NASA history.
On the morning of February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entering the atmosphere over Texas and Louisiana.
All seven astronauts on board (David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool and Ilan Ramon) lost their lives.
The tragic event will be retold in a BBC Two documentary series airing this week on BBC Two. “The space shuttle that fell to Earth.”
Ahead of its launch, MailOnline has revealed a step-by-step graphic showing exactly what went wrong that fateful morning, which changed NASA forever.
Damage to Columbia during the shuttle launch in January 2003 meant that it was not in a position to attempt a safe re-entry.
(LR) David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool and Ilan Ramon lost their lives in the 2003 Colombia space shuttle disaster
The space shuttle Colombia had completed a 16-day mission, officially designated ‘STS-107’ by NASA.
As a research mission, the crew was kept busy 24 hours a day in space performing various tasks related to scientific experiments.
According to NASA, everything largely went smoothly.
“The astronauts exceeded scientists’ expectations in terms of the science obtained during their 16 days in space,” he said in a later statement.
However, a problem during the launch on January 16 would prove fatal.
82 seconds after liftoff, a piece of foam insulation, the size of a briefcase, broke off from the external tank and hit the port wing of the orbiter.
Some NASA ground control personnel were aware of the foam and were concerned about the damage it could cause upon reentry.
On January 23, the eighth day of the mission, J. Steve Stich of mission control notified two crew members (Rick Husband and William McCool) of the foam impact in an email, including a video clip of the impact.
However, Stich assured them that because the phenomenon had occurred on previous missions, it did not cause concern for damage to the vehicle or reentry.
Images show falling foam and damage to the wing during launch:
The space shuttle Columbia, on mission STS-107, launches on January 16, 2003 from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
A chilling video, shared on Reddit in 2022, shows the crew’s last harrowing moments in the cockpit before Colombia began to fall apart.
Engineers on the ground continued to evaluate the impact of the foam impact and requested high-resolution images of the affected area to complete a more thorough analysis, but managers ultimately rejected the request.
It later emerged that some staff were aware of the extent of the damage but said “there was nothing we could do”.
There was no way to repair any suspected damage, as the crew was far from the International Space Station and did not have a robotic arm to repair.
Still unaware of the imminent danger to their lives, on January 28 the Columbia crew paid tribute to their fellow astronauts lost in the Challenger accident 17 years earlier and in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in 1967.
On the day of the crew’s scheduled return, February 1, NASA staff faced the terrible decision of informing the astronauts that they could die on reentry or face orbiting in space until their oxygen ran out.
Those on the ground decided it would be better for the crew not to know the risks.
As Colombia prepared to re-enter the atmosphere, the damage caused by the foam allowed hot atmospheric gases to penetrate and destroy the internal structure of the wing.
As the vehicle began re-entry, this damaged wing section was subjected to extreme heating for a long period of time.
Tragically, this caused the spacecraft to become unstable and break up, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface.
The resulting debris was found scattered across Texas in the following years, including helmets, heat shield plates, and, sadly, the remains of the astronauts themselves.
It is believed that the crew learned of their situation perhaps only a minute or so before the vehicle broke down and likely passed out as soon as their crew module lost pressure.
Mac Powell stands next to what he believes is the suspected damaged left wing of the downed space shuttle Columbia, on his property in Nacogdoches County, Texas, in 2003.
The remains of the space shuttle Columbia lie on the floor of the RLV hangar on May 15, 2003 at Kennedy Space Center, Florida
When Mission Control confirmed that the shuttle had diverted over Texas, flight director Leroy Cain ordered the room locked and all computer data saved for later investigation.
In August 2003, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) published its findings on the cause of the disaster and made a series of recommendations.
The CAIB report criticized NASA’s organizational and safety culture and found similar flaws that led to the Challenger accident in 1986.
After the deadly incident, President George W. Bush’s administration decided to end the Columbia shuttle program.
What’s more, the three remaining shuttles, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor, were grounded until NASA and its contractors could develop means to prevent similar accidents, including kits for in-orbit repairs.
Today, the Orion spacecraft, built for manned missions to the moon as part of NASA’s upcoming Artemis program, has a safety system that allows the manned portion of the launch vehicle to be separated in the event of a launch problem.
Surprisingly, the shuttle Columbia did not have this option.
NASA also reached a $27 million settlement in 2007 with the Columbia families.
The disaster will be retold in a BBC Two documentary series airing this week on BBC Two. “The space shuttle that fell to Earth.”
It covers the unfolding disaster and the consequences shared by the families of the astronauts, as well as the NASA personnel who participated in the mission.