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 for good. Sure, there were other flights after Columbia, but the recklessness and cost-cutting measures by which the tragedy occurred and was handled put the nail in the coffin for NASA— at least, as far as manned space travel goes—and privately funded missions became the order of the day.
The Columbia accident came 16 years after the Challenger tragedy of 1986 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, which was so prevalent after the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, had 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 launch on time and under cost. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. NASA felt the pinch, and the astronauts that lifted off in the Columbia suffered the consequences of it. Something had to give, and, in 2003, the Columbia did.
The cause of the accident boiled down to a small piece of foam. The crew was doomed from the start, even though they didn't know it for about two weeks — a little more than a minute after the shuttle's launch, a chunk of foam insulation fell from the bipod ramp, while fastens an external fuel tank to the shuttle. It struck the shuttle's left wing and tore a hole in it.
The shuttle and crew suffered no ill effects in space, but once the Columbia entered Earth's atmosphere, the hole allowed super-hot gases inside the wing which ultimately caused the craft's destruction.
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?
In the end, it was decided they best not know either. On his blog, former shuttle project manager Wayne Hale has revealed that Jon Harpold, Director of Mission Operations, told him,
“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. Metal fragments and ash were found by several people in the flight path who also reported hearing a loud "bang." No one on the ground was injured. In just one area of Texas, debris and human remains scattered across 50 sites and pieces are still being found to this day.
More than 14 years later, only about 84,000 pieces — or 40% — of Columbia has been recovered and is still being studied.