On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was reentering Earth's atmosphere after a two-week routine mission when it exploded, killing all seven astronauts aboard and scattering debris across multiple states. It was a horrific tragedy, particularly considering that the shuttle was on its 28th mission and had been a solid vehicle for space exploration and research since the 1980s. What happened to the space shuttle Columbia effectively ended NASA's shuttle program. In 2011, NASA's space shuttle fleet was officially retired. While NASA continues to develop ways to transport astronauts from Earth to the space station and to develop a Commercial Crew Program (CCP), no other programs are currently planned for manned flights. Privately funded missions are becoming the order of the day.
The Columbia accident came 16 years after the 1986 Challenger tragedy in which seven crew members were killed. In that time, promises had been made by those in charge, but shuttle safety was hindered by NASA's internal culture, government constraints, and vestiges of a Cold War-era mentality.
NASA's rule regarding safety first, so prevalent after the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, waned over the years, but it wasn't necessarily the fault of the organization itself. Congress kept the space program on a budgetary diet for years with the expectation that missions would continue to launch on time and under cost. NASA felt the pinch, and the astronauts that lifted off in Columbia suffered the consequences.
The cause of the accident boiled down to a small piece of insulating foam. A little more than a minute after the shuttle's launch, pieces of foam insulation fell from the bipod ramp, which fastens an external fuel tank to the shuttle. As the shuttle was propelled upward at about 545 mph, the foam struck its left wing, damaging panels of carbon heat shield on the wing.
The shuttle and crew suffered no ill effects in space, but once the Columbia entered Earth's atmosphere, the wing was no longer protected from the intense heat of re-entry (as much as 3,000 degrees fahrenheit). The wing broke off, causing the rest of the shuttle to break-up, burn, and disperse.
The team on the ground knew Columbia's astronauts would not make it home and faced an agonizing decision - should they tell the crew that they would die upon re-entry or face suffocating due to depleted oxygen stores while still in orbit?
You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS. If it has been damaged, it’s probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy, successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done until the air ran out?
This was not the first time foam had broken off in space flights. In fact, it had happened several times before (and without incident), so much so that it was referred to as "foam shedding." NASA engineers dismissed the problem of foam shedding as being of no great urgency.
When a NASA engineering manager, Don L. McCormack Jr., told Mission Management Team member Linda Ham of his concerns about the issue, he was told by her that it was "no issue for this mission."
After the horrific crash, Columbia's debris field stretched from Central Texas to Western Louisiana. A team of more than 25,000 professionals and volunteers searched an area of 2.3 million acres to recover everything possible that remained from Columbia. Due to the large area and extensive number of fragments, pieces are still being found to this day.
More than 14 years later, only about 84,000 pieces - or 40% - of Columbia have been recovered and are still being studied.