Columbia was named for the sailing sloop captained by Robert Gray who, on May 11, 1792, maneuvered his ship through dangerous inland waters to explore British Columbia and what are now the states of Washington and Oregon.
On April 12, 1981 the long held dream of having a reusable space craft was realized when the all white Columbia lifted off from Cape Canaveral. Named after the first American ocean vessel to circle the globe and the command module for the Apollo 11 Moon landing, Columbia continued this heritage of exploration.
Columbia would be the heaviest of NASA’s orbiters which would later become a disadvantage in not being able to carry heavy payloads, Columbia weighed too much and lacked the necessary equipment to assist with assembly of the International Space Station. Despite its limitations, the orbiter’s legacy is one of ground breaking scientific research and notable “firsts” in space flight.
Columbia went through a major upgrade and overhaul in 1991 and returned to service in February 1992.
In 2003 during liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center, some small sections of foam from the external tank dislodged and struck the leading edge of the orbiter’s left wing. Although at the time, this event had been seen, it wasn’t thought to have been a problem, but, after completing a successful mission to the International Space Station, as the Columbia was making its final approach high above southwest United States, it became apparent to Mission Control there was a sudden and catastrophic problem on board the returning orbiter.
As the orbiter appeared to observers on the ground as a bright spot of light moving rapidly across the sky, signs of debris were beginning to be seen as it crossed over California at 8:53:46 a.m. The superheated air surrounding the orbiter suddenly brightened, causing a noticeable streak against the darkened sky.
During the next 23 seconds ground observers saw 4 more events of debris coming off the orbiter. Just as Columbia crossed into Nevada, a bright flash was seen at 8:54:25 a.m. The orbiter is now travelling at Mach 22.5. Over the next 4 minutes Columbia streaked across the Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas sky.
In Houston’s Mission Control, re-entry appeared normal until 8:54:24 a.m. when one of the Systems officers informed the Flight Director that 4 hydraulic sensors in the left wing were indicating that readings were below minimum raising an immediate concern from Mission Control.
At 8:56:30 a.m. Columbia initiated a roll reversal from right to left. At about 8:58:00 a.m. the orbiter travelling at Mach 19.5 shed a Thermal Protection System tile. Searchers later found that tile in a field in Littlefield, Texas, just northwest of Lubbock. At 8:59:15 a.m. the Flight Director was informed that pressure readings in the left main landing gear tires and been lost and the Flight Director told the Capsule Communicator to let the crew know. At 8:59:32 a.m., Mission Control received a broken response from Columbia’s commander “Roger, [cut off in mid word]. This would be the last communication from the crew and any further telemetry.
Videos made by observers on the ground at 9:00:18 a.m. showed the orbiter disintegrating but Mission Control was not yet aware of the orbiter’s destruction. It was normal for Mission Control to lose radio and telemetry readings from a landing shuttle at this precise moment. Mission Control began doing a search of radio frequencies hoping to reestablish contact. It wasn’t until 9:12:39 that one of the team members in Mission Control received a cell phone call from someone who had been watching live television coverage of the Columbia breaking up during re-entry. When the Flight Director was informed of this, he said “Lock the doors.” This was a standard procedure when something unexpected happens and all the data must be preserved for the following accident investigation.
Within hours after the accident, President Bush declared East Texas a federal disaster area. Over the following days and weeks, parts were being recovered from eastern Texas and Louisiana. The debris field began south of Ft. Worth and ended in Ft. Polk Louisiana. Although there is visual evidence that debris also fell in Nevada, Utah and New Mexico, none of that has yet to be recovered. To date, the western most found debris was in Littlefield, Texas.
All debris collected was decontaminated if necessary, then tagged with information concerning its location. Pictures were taken of the debris in its found location. It was then collected and cataloged and ultimately sent back to the Kennedy Space Center where it is being housed in large warehouse. Unlike recovered Challenger debris, Columbia’s debris is not being buried so that future investigators might use the debris for reference.
In all, more than 30,000 people spent over 1.5 million man-hours searching for Columbia’s remains. As a result of those efforts, 84,000 pieces of Columbia were recovered, accounting for 84,900 pounds of the spaceship, which represents only 39 percent of Columbia’s total weight.
Columbia Accident Investigation
Some 7 months after the Columbia tragedy, NASA concluded its assessment of the accident and what if anything could be learned. That report noted that under the operating guidelines in place at the time, the crew was doomed just moments after liftoff when a piece of External Tank foam smashed into the wing. As a result of that analysis, all future missions would go to great lengths to make sure all of the tiles had not been catastrophically damaged.
Although it was evident the operating guidelines for re-entry had no contingency plan for a problematic re-entry as in this case, that ultimately, there was no safety measures that could be used to insure the safety of the crew. The Columbia depressurization occurred so rapidly that the crew members were incapacitated within seconds.
The report made 30 recommendations for improving equipment, training, improved helmets and seat restraints.
Although none of the crew members survived this accident, canisters on board the Columbia that contained a scientific experiment on microscopic nematode worms were recovered and the worms were still alive.
At 81.9 seconds after launch of STS-107, a chunk of foam from the External Tank dislodged and struck the leading edge of Challenger’s left wing like an exploding snowball. The accident investigation team estimated the chunk of foam to be travelling between 400 and 600 mph relative to the orbiter.
During the debris recovery process a substantial amount of upper and lower right wing structure was recovered, but comparitively little of the left wing structure was ever found.
Even though the initial impact of the foam most likely caused only a small section of damage, because of its location it allowed super-heated gases that typically formed around the orbiter during reentry. Those heated gases found their way through the damaged area, and compromised the entire left wing structure. Aluminum has a melting point around 1200 degrees, but the hot gases forming in the breach would have reached 8,000 degrees. As the wing lost its shape, there was a decrease in lift and a continuing increase in drag on the left wing