Space Shuttle Columbia Launched On Tragic Mission 10 Years Ago
YAHOO.COM - NASA's space shuttle Columbia
blasted off 10 years ago today (Jan. 16) on a mission that turned out
to be the last for the orbiter and its seven-astronaut crew.
Columbia broke apart upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003. The tragic accident destroyed the shuttle, claimed the lives of all seven astronauts aboard and signaled the beginning of the end for NASA's venerable shuttle program, which retired in July 2011 after 30 years of orbital service.
"If we hadn't had an accident with Columbia, we would probably still be flying the space shuttle," said Wayne Hale,
who served as a flight director for 40 shuttle missions at NASA's
Johnson Space Center in Houston before becoming manager of the shuttle
program in 2005.
"At the time, we were talking about flying the shuttle past the year 2020," Hale told SPACE.com. [Photos: The Columbia Space Shuttle Tragedy]
The second shuttle tragedy
Columbia was the first space shuttle to reach orbit, blasting off on the program's maiden mission on April 12, 1981.
The orbiter launched 27 more times over the years. The last one, on
Jan. 16, 2003, kicked off Columbia's STS-107 flight, a research mission
that carried more than 80 experiments investigating a variety of
questions in fields ranging from biology to fluid physics.
Tragically, Columbia and her crew — commander Rick Husband, pilot
Willie McCool and mission specialists Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla,
David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon — never made it home.
An accident investigation board later concluded that a chunk of foam
broke off the shuttle's external tank and struck the leading edge of
Columbia's wing during launch, punching a hole in the shuttle's heat
shield and leaving it vulnerable to the extreme temperatures experienced
The Columbia disaster was the second major tragedy for the shuttle program. The first came on Jan. 28, 1986, when the shuttle Challenger
— doomed by the failure of a seal called an O-ring on its right solid
rocket booster — disintegrated 73 seconds after blastoff, killing all
seven crewmembers aboard.
Hale has described both accidents as preventable, the result of human error and a lack of attention to detail.
"We thought we were better than we were," he said of the Columbia
disaster. "We became overconfident. We thought we had a mature vehicle
flying in a well-understood environment, and nothing could have been
further from the truth than that."
The beginning of the end
The Columbia accident had far-reaching consequences, and not just for
the friends and families of the astronauts who were lost that day.
The shuttles were grounded for 2 1/2 years, returning to flight in July
2005 after new heat-shield safety tools and inspection protocols were
developed. And the tragedy set in motion the eventual retirement of the
shuttle fleet, which was announced in 2004 and became official in 2011.
Today, all of NASA's remaining space shuttles — Discovery, Atlantis and
Endeavour, as well as the prototype Enterprise — are museum exhibits.
The space agency is developing a new capsule-based spacecraft called
Orion for deep-space exploration, and plans to rely on new private
spacecraft to ferry astronauts into low-Earth orbit for trips to and
from the International Space Station. Until those new spacecraft become
operational, however, NASA is dependent on Russia and its other
international partners to launch supplies and crews into space.
"President [George W.] Bush at the time decided that we needed to do
other things," Hale said. "It changed the whole complex. Not only did
the president decide to retire the shuttle, but other perspectives that
say we need to do deep-space exploration, or perhaps start commercial
space transporation — all of those things came after Columbia."
Friday, December 6 2013 2:18 PM EST2013-12-06 19:18:21 GMT
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