20 years ago, negligence of a damage resulted in the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia, from NASA, during its return to Earth. The seven crew members died.
On the morning of February 1, 2003, the then president of the usa George W. Bush issued a statement live on American television. It was the second time in his still short presidency that Bush had to deliver bad news to American society. What he had to say would shake America and, indeed, the entire world.
“My countrymen, this day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country. The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.”
A few hours earlier, a sensor had registered strain on the left wing and unusual heating in several sections of the space shuttle’s wings. But this warning was not displayed to the crew. And in a few minutes, the Columbia’s return to Earth turned into a tragedy, with the death of its seven crew members.
Columbia was America’s first active space shuttle. US space agency Nasa. The orbiter, as it was also known, was a white, airplane-shaped spacecraft that became a symbol of NASA’s space program and, more generally, of space exploration from the late 1970s to the 1980s.
From 1981 to 2003, Columbia flew 28 times, including the fateful final mission. Columbia STS-107 was a routine mission to conduct scientific experiments in space, launched from the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida on January 16, 2003.
However, the mission had problems right from the start: a piece of foam, used to insulate the space shuttle’s supercool fuel, broke loose from one of the rockets during launch from Earth, and hit the left wing of the orbiter.
On the second day of the mission, NASA discovered what had happened, but it was decided to proceed with the mission without repairing the damage or rescuing the astronauts.
The crew was notified of the debris impact by email from mission control, but were assured that the “same phenomenon has been seen on several other flights” and that there were “absolutely no concerns” about it affecting re-entry into the atmosphere. from the earth.
But when Columbia began its return after about two weeks in space, the decision to do nothing about it of the damage identified proved to be wrong and fatal.
fate of astronauts
After the accident, a team of investigators from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (Caib) was in charge of investigating the causes. She concluded that when the foam came loose during launch, it ruptured an external thermal protection system.
The damage allowed “superheated air” to melt the orbiter’s aluminum structure, eventually causing Columbia to disintegrate upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Investigators found debris scattered on the ground.
Astronauts aboard the shuttle likely experienced a rapid depressurization due to the rupture, about 1:30 minutes after their last transmission to Mission Control. Then the connection was lost.
It is unclear whether this depressurization was the cause of death. The astronauts also likely suffered severe physical trauma when the spacecraft suddenly began to spin. When it disintegrated, their bodies would have been exposed to extreme heat resulting from atmospheric friction. Finally, there was the impact on the ground. All of this was witnessed by those who had come to the John F. Kennedy Space Center to watch the landing.
Spaceflight is still difficult and dangerous
The 2003 crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia illustrates how dangerous and difficult it was and still is—to accomplish spaceflight. At the time, the CAIB commission described spaceflight as still in the “developmental” phase—and that was 30 years after the Apollo program, which put humans on the moon. Those missions were a great success for space exploration in general, but they were also marred by technical difficulties and tragedies.
A 2022 research paper noted that the highest fatality rate in spaceflight was in the 1960s. The lowest was in the 1990s—and “since 2003, no astronaut deaths have been reported.” The study authors calculated a total fatality rate (deaths from spaceflight) of 5.8% at the time of publication of the article.
“With increased international cooperation and maintenance of the International Space Station (ISS), the number of manned spaceflights and days spent in space has steadily increased”, and there have been “consistently lower rates of incidents and accidents”.
Spaceflight is no less difficult today than it was 20 years ago or in the 1960s, but space agencies have introduced reforms and improved safety regulations as knowledge and experience in space has increased.
Is NASA to blame for the Columbia accident?
The commission of inquiry concluded that there were “organizational causes” for the disaster. This suggests that the Nasa, as an organization, bears some responsibility for what happened. But no employee or any other organization has suffered any allegations regarding the Columbia accident.
It is likely that the lives of the crew could have been spared. While deeming it unlikely that the damage to the orbiter could have been repaired in space, CAIB called it “challenging but feasible” to launch Atlantis, another space shuttle, to save the Columbia astronauts.
With round-the-clock work, seven days a week, Atlantis could have been prepared for launch on Feb. 10 — five days before Columbia ran out of food and other resources, investigators estimated. But this plan was never put into practice, or even considered.