Spaceflight Now STS-107

Shuttle Columbia and crew lost
Posted: February 2, 2003

  STS-107 crew
The STS-107 crew. Seated in front are astronauts Rick Husband, commander, and Willie McCool, pilot. Standing are (from left) mission specialists Dave Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson (payload commander) and payload specialist Ilan Ramon, representing the Israeli Space Agency. Photo: NASA.
The shuttle Columbia suffered a catastrophic failure returning to Earth Saturday, breaking apart 207,135 feet above Texas en route to a landing at the Kennedy Space Center to close out a 16-day science mission. The shuttle's seven-member crew - two women and five men, including the first Israeli space flier - perished in the disaster, the first loss of life on the high frontier since the 1986 Challenger disaster.

Flying upside down and backward over the Indian Ocean, commander Rick Husband and pilot William McCool fired Columbia's twin braking rockets on time at 8:15 a.m. to begin a planned hourlong descent to Florida. Joining them on the flight deck of NASA's original space shuttle were flight engineer Kalpana Chawla and physician Laurel Clark. Seated on the shuttle's lower deck were payload commander Michael Anderson, physician David Brown and Israeli air force Col. Ilan Ramon.

The initial phases of the descent went normally and Columbia crossed above the coast of California just north of San Francisco around 5:51 a.m. local time, or 8:51 a.m. EST, on track for a landing on runway 33 at the Kennedy Space Center just 25 minutes later at 9:16 a.m.

  Landing ground track
Mission control's tracking map shows the shuttle's last known position at the end of the series of red crosses. Photo: Spaceflight Now/NASA TV.
The first sign of anything unusual came at 8:53 a.m., when the shuttle was flying high above the heartland of America.

Telemetry showed a sudden loss of hydraulic system data from the inboard and outboard wing flaps, or elevons, on Columbia's left wing. Three minutes later, sensors in the brake lines and tires of the shuttle's left-side main landing gear suddenly stopped providing data.

The shuttle continued to fly in a normal manner with no hint that a catastrophic failure was imminent.

Then at 8:58 a.m., sensors that monitor temperatures where the shuttle's protective thermal tiles are glued or bonded to the airframe suddenly dropped out followed one minute later by loss of data from landing gear pressure sensors on the left side tires. Columbia's flight computers alerted the astronauts to the pressure indication and one of the crew members acknowledged the alert in a brief call to mission control.

That was the final transmission from the space shuttle. Moments later, all data was lost and the vehicle broke up while traveling 18.3 times the speed of sound. Mission duration to that point was 15 days 22 hours 20 minutes and 22 seconds, translating to 8:59:22 a.m. EST. Wreckage was soon found strewn over a debris "footprint" stretching across eastern Texas and into Louisiana. There was no immediate word on where Columbia's reinforced crew module might have crashed to Earth.

  Mission control
The scene in mission control as contact with the shuttle is lost. Photo: Spaceflight Now/NASA TV.
In a brief address to the nation, President Bush said "this day has brought terrible news and great sadness to our country. ... Columbia is lost. There are no survivors."

"The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today," he said. "The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth. Yet we can pray they are all safely home."

Said NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe: "The loss of this valiant crew is something we will never be able to get over."

Family members were standing by at the shuttle runway to welcome their loved ones back to Earth. William Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space flight and a veteran shuttle commander, praised the astronauts' families for showing an "incredible amount of dignity considering their loss."

"They knew the crew was absolutely dedicated to the mission they were performing," he said, barely able to control his emotions. "They believed in what they were doing and in the conversations with the families, they said we must find what happened, fix it and move on. We can't let their sacrifice be in vain.

"Today was a very stark reminder this is a very risky endevour, pushing back the frontiers in outer space. Unfortunately, people have a tendency to look at it as something that is more or less routine. I can assure you, it is not.

"I have to say as the one responsible for shuttle and (space) station within NASA, I know the people in NASA did everything possible preparing for this flight to make it as perfect as possible," Readdy said. "My promise to the crew and the crew families is the investigation we just launched will find the cause. We'll fix it. And then we'll move on."

The goal of mission STS-107 was to carry out space station-class research in a variety of disciplines, ranging from biology to medicine, from materials science to pure physics and technology development, research that cannot yet be accommodated on the still-unfinished international space station.

More than 80 experiments were on board, most of them in a Spacehab research module in Columbia's cargo bay. To collect as much data as possible, the astronauts worked around the clock in two 12-hour shifts. By all accounts, the crew accomplished all of their major objectives.

At an afternoon news conference, shuttle program Ronald Dittemore and senior flight director Milt Heflin reviewed the telemetry from the shuttle and answered as many questions as possible. NASA's openness during the immediate aftermath of a devastating day was in stark contrast to the strict "no comment" policy implemented in the wake of the 1986 Challenger disaster that frustrated the public and tarnished the agency's reputation for openness.

"We're devastated because of the events that unfolded this morning," Dittemore said. "There's a certain amount of shock in our system because we have suffered the loss of seven family members. And we're learning to deal with that. Certainly, a somber mood in our teams as we continue to try to understand the events that occurred, but our thoughts and our prayers go out to the families.

"As difficult as this is for us, we wanted to meet with you and be as fair and open with you (as possible), given the facts as we understand them today," he said. "We will certainly be learning more as we go through the coming hours, days and weeks. We'll tell you as much as we know, we'll be as honest as we can with you and certainly we'll try to fill in the blanks over the coming days and weeks."

An internal NASA team of senior managers was named to handle the initial investigation into the disaster. An independent team of experts also was named to ensure objectivity. All flight control data and shuttle telemetry was impounded and "tiger teams" were formed to begin the painful tasks of sifting the data and coordinating the recovery of debris.

Dittemore said the shuttle fleet will remain grounded until engineers pinpoint what went wrong with Columbia and determine what corrections might be necessary.

Columbia's flight was one of only two remaining on NASA's long term launch schedule that does not involve the international space station. NASA had planned to launch the shuttle Atlantis around March 6 to ferry a fresh crew to the station and to bring the lab's current occupants back to Earth after 114 days in space.

Around 9:30 a.m. Saturday, flight controllers informed Expedition 6 commander Kenneth Bowersox, flight engineer Nikolai Budarin and science officer Donald Pettit that Columbia had been lost during re-entry.

Bowersox and his crewmates have enough on-board supplies to remain aloft aboard the station through June. In fact, an unmanned Russian Progress supply ship is scheduled for launch Sunday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan. That launch will proceed as planned, officials said.

If the shuttle fleet remains grounded through June, the station crew could be forced to abandon the station and return to Earth aboard a Russian Soyuz lifeboat. Fresh lifeboats are delivered to the station every six months to ensure the crew has a way to bail out in case of problems with the shuttle fleet or some other in-flight emergency.

With enough supplies on board to last Bowersox and his crewmates until late June, "there's some time for us to work through this," Dittemore said. "Right now, certainly there is a hold on future flights until we get ourselves established and understand the root cause of this disaster."

Dittemore provided a sense of the loss felt by NASA and its contractors when he said "it's an emotional event, when we work together, we work together as family member and we treat each other that way. ... It's a sad loss for us.

"We understand the risks that are involved in human spaceflight and we know these risks are manageable and we also know they're serious and can have deadly consequences," he said. "So we are bound together with the threat of disaster all the time. ... We all rely on each other to make each spaceflight successful. So when we have an event like today, when we lose seven family members, it's just devastating to us."

  Ron Dittemore
Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore discusses the launch incident. Photo: Spaceflight Now/NASA TV.
Columbia blasted off on the 113th shuttle mission Jan. 16. The climb to space appeared uneventful, but about one minute and 20 seconds after liftoff, long-range tracking cameras showed a piece of foam insulation from the shuttle's external tank breaking away and hitting Columbia's left wing. The foam came from near the area where a forward bipod assembly attaches the nose of the shuttle to the tank. The debris hit the left wing near its leading edge.

Entry flight director Leroy Cain said Friday a detailed analysis of the debris impact led engineers to believe there was no serious damage. Columbia was not equipped with a robot arm for this Spacehab research mission and the impact area was not visible from the shuttle's crew cabin.

Whether the debris caused enough damage to compromise the integrity of the wing's thermal protection system is not yet known. But when the failure occurred, the shuttle was experiencing maximum heat loads of nearly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

"If we did have a structural problem or a thermal problem, you would expect to get it at the peak heating," he said. "The most extreme thermal environment was right at mach 18 and that's where we lost the vehicle."

The shuttle Challenger was lost 17 years ago by the failure of an O-ring seal in one of the ship's two solid-fuel boosters. All seven crew members perished, including New Hampshire social studies teacher Christa McAuliffe. McAuliffe's backup, Idaho teacher Barbara Morgan, witnessed the disaster from the NASA press site 4.2 miles from Challenger's launch pad.

In a painful footnote to Saturday tragedy, Morgan was once again at the Kennedy Space Center, this time as a full-time astronaut awaiting launch in November on Columbia's next mission. Morgan is the first member of a new class of educator astronauts, part of a program initiated by O'Keefe to help generate more student interest in science and technology.

Since the educator-astronaut program was announced last month, more than 1,000 teachers have expressed interest or been nominated as potential candidates by students, family members or friends. The status of that program, and the impact of Columbia's loss on Morgan's flight, is not yet known.

But as President Bush promised family members and the nation Saturday, "the cause for which they died will continue. ... Our journey into space will go on."