Remembering Columbia and Kalpana Chawla, The Columbia Shuttle Disaster on Feb 3, 2003

Columbia, the glorious and a revolutionary masterpiece ever created in the history of Astronomy took its last breath oh February 1st 2003. The most unforgettable day in the history of NASA.

A brief, WHAT and HOW???

Columbia, which had made the shuttle program’s first flight into space in 1981, lifted off for its 28th mission on January 16, 2003. The name of the mission was STS-107. This was a dedicated mission for various experiments that required a microgravity environment. The crew comprised commander Rick Husband; pilot William McCool; mission specialists Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Clark; and payload specialist Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut. As Columbia was re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, it broke apart over Texas at approximately 9:00 am Eastern Standard Time at an altitude of 60 km showering debris across provinces of Texas and Louisiana. This chaotic disaster of the craft was recorded by television cameras and U.S. Air Force radar. Some of its major components and the remains of the crew were recovered over the following month.


Crew of the space shuttle Columbia (left to right): David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon. The shuttle broke up catastrophically on February 1, 2003, killing all aboard.

After Catastrophe:

Gradually, the cause of the Columbia disaster was determined to be launch-related. Films showed that a piece of insulating foam broke loose from the external propellant tank and struck the leading edge of the left wing approximately 81 seconds after lift-off. Bits of foam had detached in past missions as well and which has not made any serious damage to shuttles. So during the Columbia launch, NASA engineers did not think that the foam carried enough momentum to cause significant damage which was an obvious reaction, but this was their greatest mistake. In fact, as demonstrated in post-accident tests they found that the foam was capable of punching a large hole in the reinforced carbon-carbon insulation tiles which protected the shuttle’s nose and wing leading edges from the extreme heat of atmospheric re-entry. Although some engineers had wanted ground-based cameras to take photos of the orbiting shuttle to look for damage, the request did not get to the right officials.

After all these post disaster tests engineers found that during Columbia’s atmospheric re-entry, hot gases penetrated the damaged tile section and melted major structural elements of the wing, which eventually collapsed. Data from the vehicle showed rising temperatures within sections of the left wing as early as 8:52 am, although the crew knew of their situation for perhaps only a minute or so before vehicle breakup. Subsequent investigation by NASA and the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board uncovered a number of managerial shortcomings, in addition to the immediate technical reason (poor manufacturing control of tank insulation and other defects), that allowed the accident to happen.

Whatever may be the reason and whoever may be the defaulter for this great disaster, but the real truth is we have lost 7 valuable lives and among them one was India’s first female Astronaut. If we will turn the pages of Space history then we can find many major accidents. But with the flow of time we have forgotten but when it comes about Columbia, it actually made a deep scar in all of our heart which will never heal.


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