February 1, 2013
Remembering The Columbia Tragedy 10 Years Later
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Today we remember a tragedy that took the lives of seven astronauts, ten years ago, when space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over the Texas sky upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.
Ten years ago from today, at 7:59 a.m., reports started coming in of a loud explosion and what seemed like fiery debris coming down from the East Texas sky.
Crew members of the STS-107 mission had just wrapped up 16-days in orbit, and were heading home after conducting many international scientific investigations, and completing what would be their final mission for NASA.
As space shuttle Columbia began to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, a damaged Thermal Protection System (TPS) would be the downfall, and the vex that burned a horrific memory into the witnesses of the incident, and the families of the victims.
During launch, a piece of foam insulation about the size of a small briefcase had broken off from Columbia's external tank, and struck the leading edge of the left wing, damaging the TPS. This system is what helped to shield the space shuttles from the heat generated from atmospheric compression during re-entry.
Engineers suspected damage, but NASA managers acted a little apathetic to the event because they had determined that little could be done if problems were found. This drew eventual criticism from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, concluding that the organizational structure and processes were flawed, compromising the safety of the mission.
As astronauts Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon made their way back home from space, the worst-case-scenario took place over the heads of residents from Fort Worth, to Tyler, Texas.
At 7:58 a.m., central time, Columbia shed a Thermal Protection System tile, which turned up in a search in Littlefield, Texas, just northwest of Lubbock.
A little over a minute later, the phrase "Roger, uh, bu-" was heard by Mission Control from the mission commander, but mid-sentence, communication failed, and almost immediately the shuttle began to disintegrate.
Eyewitnesses stood below and watched as the Orbiter began to break-up overhead, leaving a trail of debris for miles and miles, and burning a memory into the hearts of every American that can never be forgotten.
Just 12-minutes after the destruction of the spacecraft, NASA flight director ordered search and rescue teams to the debris area, and mission data was then preserved for investigation.
Over 2,000 pieces of debris were uncovered throughout Texas, including some human remains. NASA asked residents who reported debris to leave the material untouched, because it could have contained hazardous chemicals. Volunteers throughout East Texas helped accompany search teams, and provide communications support, as Americans found a way to work together in the midst of another tragedy.
The last piece of debris was uncovered by Nacogdoches authorities in 2011, during a dry year in Texas where lakes had little water to hide what they possessed below. Calls came in to NASA of a 4-feet diameter piece of debris uncovered in the dry lake-bed, and NASA eventually identified this piece as a "PRSD: power reactant storage and distribution."
Since the tragedy, NASA began a new safety procedure for space shuttles, where pilots would flip the spacecraft around so the International Space Station could get a glimpse of the undercarriage of the Orbiter. This helped ensure that they would be able to spot any damage that may have occurred after launch.
Ten years ago can feel like yesterday in times of tragedy, but the hardships from the event has left a trail of memories that can't be shaken, but will help to shape the continued exploration of space.