Natural and Man-Made Disasters


What happened in the Columbia space shuttle disaster?

The U.S. space shuttle Columbia was lost upon its reentry into Earth’s atmosphere on the morning of February 1, 2003. All seven crew members died.

The Columbia was in the skies over Texas about 15 minutes before its scheduled landing at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center when, shortly before 9:00 A.M. (EST), ground controllers lost data from temperature controllers on the spacecraft. Over the next several minutes, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) ground control lost all flight data. At about the same time, witnesses in Texas reported the sound of rolling thunder and debris falling from the sky. Heat-detecting weather radar showed a bright red streak moving across the Texas sky. The shuttle was 40 miles above Earth and traveling at 18 times the speed of sound when it disintegrated, leaving a trail of debris from eastern Texas to western Louisiana. The investigation later revealed that damage to the spacecraft had gone unseen during the mission, causing the Columbia to break apart upon reentry.

The shuttle was commanded by Rick Husband and piloted by William McCool. The mission specialists were Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, and Laurel Clark. The payload specialist was Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. In President George W. Bush’s remarks to the nation that day, he said, “These men and women assumed great risk in the service to all humanity. In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket…. These astronauts knew the dangers, and faced them willingly.”

The Columbia tragedy occurred within a week of the anniversaries of two other deadly NASA disasters: the Challenger explosion on January 28, 1986, and the launch-pad fire that killed three Apollo astronauts on January 27, 1967. After investigating the cause of the Columbia disaster, NASA focused on implementing a new system of sensors to detect potentially fatal damage to spacecrafts while in orbit. NASA relaunched its space shuttle program in late July 2005 with the Discovery.


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