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Space Shuttle Columbia

Updated on February 16, 2014

February 1, 2003

Where were you on February 1, 2003, around eight o'clock in the morning? It was a Saturday in the Central US, and the Space Shuttle Columbia had been in space for a sixteen days. After a successful mission, the shuttle was on its way back to Earth with a tired but happy crew.

Sixteen minutes from home, Columbia disintegrated somewhere over Texas and the lives of those seven brave souls were lost.

STS107-S-001 (May 2001) This is the insignia for STS-107, which was a multi-discipline microgravity and Earth science research mission with a multitude of international scientific investigations conducted continuously during the planned 16 days on orbit. The central element of the patch is the microgravity symbol, µg, flowing into the rays of the astronaut symbol. The mission inclination is portrayed by the 39 degree angle of the astronaut symbol to the Earth's horizon. The sunrise is representative of the numerous experiments that are the dawn of a new era for continued microgravity research on the International Space Station and beyond. The breadth of science conducted on this mission will have widespread benefits to life on Earth and our continued exploration of space illustrated by the Earth and stars. The constellation Columbia (the dove) was chosen to symbolize peace on Earth and the Space Shuttle Columbia. The seven stars also represent the mission crew members and honor the original astronauts who paved the way to make research in space possible. The Israeli flag is adjacent to the name of the payload specialist who is the first person from that country to fly on the Space Shuttle. Image of STS-107 Flight Insignia and description courtesy of NASA/JSC.

Time Magazine, February 10, 2003
Time Magazine, February 10, 2003

Where Were You?

If you're over the age of ten, you may remember where you were that morning. I was home, on my fifteen-acre spread of wild grass just south of Fort Worth, Texas, trying to decide what to fix for breakfast.

Living in the country is quiet for the most part, interrupted by the yodeling of coyotes, hawks crying on the wind, and the low growl of trucks on the interstate highway a half-mile away. But that morning, I heard what sounded like a collision, and my house shook like someone had driven an eighteen-wheeler onto my front porch.

If I had gone out the back door to investigate, instead of the front as I did, I would have seen the now-familiar contrail across the perfectly blue sky. From northwest to southeast, a thin white line of super-heated gasses followed the path of the dying shuttle, leaving bright starbursts behind in its wake.

But I went out the front door to see what had caused that noise and if something had indeed struck my house. And maybe today, I'm glad I found nothing and have no visual memory of the shuttle in the sky. I remember where I was, but the images of the shuttle I know are those we have all seen from the news reports that followed.

Image from TimeINC

First Space Shuttle Launch - STS-1 (1981)

Tremendous tragedy ended the long career of Space Shuttle Columbia, the first shuttle to complete a mission in space. Named after a poetic nickname for the US, and the Command Module of Apollo 11, Columbia launched on April 14, 1981, for a two-day mission. Twenty-six safe and successful missions followed until its final flight on mission twenty-eight, STS-107.

I invite you to watch the video below, to wonder again at the amazing accomplishments that are possible, and to remember the awe we once shared at the beauty and wonder of spaceflight.

The Crew of Columbia STS-107

NASA's official Columbia website provides this list of the seven crew members who died serving their country:

  • Rick D. Husband, Commander, whose childhood dream was to become an astronaut.
  • William C. McCool, Pilot, who loved to see "the eyes light up when you talk to kids" about space.
  • Michael P. Anderson, Payload Commander. "Very early on," he "thought being an astronaut would be a fantastic thing to do."
  • David M. Brown, Mission Specialist 1. As a kid, he thought of astronauts as "movie stars."
  • Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist 2, whose path to become an astronaut began in Karnal, India.
  • Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Mission Specialist 4, who felt "incredibly lucky" to see Earth from the unique vantage point of space.
  • Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist 1. Son of a Holocaust survivor, and an Israel Air Force Colonel, he was that nation's first astronaut.

Crew Photo

This image of the STS-107 shuttle Columbia crew in orbit was recovered from wreckage inside an undeveloped film canister. The shirt colors indicate their mission shifts. From left (bottom row): Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Rick Husband, commander; Laurel Clark, mission specialist; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist. From left (top row) are astronauts David Brown, mission specialist; William McCool, pilot; and Michael Anderson, payload commander. Ramon represents the Israeli Space Agency.

Image of STS-107 shuttle Columbia crew in orbit and description courtesy of NASA/JSC

Columbia Memorials

Although many memorials and tributes were created to honor the crew of Columbia, the most significant is The Patricia Huffman Smith Museum in Hemphill, Texas, not far from the place where the nose cone and the remains of the crew were found. In addition to historical information on the shuttle and the space program, each crewmember is remembered in a separate area where memorabilia is on permanent display. The museum also chronicles the search and recovery effort that included many civilian volunteers.

This image is of the Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Image credit: Tim1965 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 Launch

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board determined that the loss of Columbia was a result of damage sustained during launch when a piece of foam insulation broke off and compromised one of the shuttle's wings. The Space Shuttle program was delayed for two years after the accident while the investigation was ongoing and changes were made to address this problem in future missions. Although some plans were made to allow rescue in space if damage occurred and appeared to threaten the return of the shuttle through the atmosphere, these plans were never needed.

As you watch the video below, in all its perfection, consider the complexity and innovation necessary to push that rocket safely into space. It is a pure miracle that every manned launch, except one, was successful...if not without error.

Tenth Anniversary - February 1, 2013

Other space shuttles continued Columbia's legacy for over twenty more missions before the last flight of Discovery launched July 8, 2011. Ongoing space exploration includes the International Space Station, unmanned missions to Mars, and more. But the promise and potential of the Space Shuttle program suffered a heavy blow when the Columbia was lost.

Perhaps on the tenth anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, February 2013, we can all pause to remember the brave crew who were dedicated to the spirit of discovery and exploration. And honor all those who gave their lives in search of a dream.

Space Shuttle Columbia

A timed exposure of the first Space Shuttle mission, STS-1, at Launch Pad A, Complex 39, turns the space vehicle and support facilities into a night-time fantasy of light. Image courtesy of NASA/JSC

Learn More

To learn more about the Space Shuttle Columbia, her history, and her crew, see:

NASA's Columbia Home Page

Columbia on Space.com

Space Shuttle Columbia Wiki Page

Columbia Disaster Wiki Page

DVDs About the Space Shuttle

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Share your memories, and feel free to leave comments and suggestions here. Thanks.

What Do You Remember about the Columbia Disaster?

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    • HardyGirl profile image
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      HardyGirl 4 years ago

      @BartsBestBizIdeas: Thanks for sharing your memories. And I agree!

    • BartsBestBizIdeas profile image

      BartsBestBizIdeas 4 years ago

      I remember where I was with BOTH shuttle accidents...When Challenger exploded in 1986, I was at work at my office when a co-worker returning from lunch was excitedly voicing that the space shuttle "blew up"...I remember that at first no one believed him...then sadly we tuned in news on the radio...after work I sat in shock watching the replays on TV.

      With Columbia, I was at home doing some work on the computer when I heard the breaking news broadcast over the radio. I remember thinking, "Oh God, we lost another one!"

      But as tragic as these accidents are, it would be an even greater tragedy not to continue exploring and using outer space for the benefit on mankind.

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      momideas 4 years ago

      I am embarrassed to say I do not remember where I was and how I heard of this event, and perhaps when.

      I do not watch news, read papers, and was not living in the US any longer by then.

    • profile image

      tomoxby 4 years ago

      Nice tribute lens. I don't remember where I was when I heard about it but I was glued to the TV watching for information once I did learn. An important part of space history.

    • chas65 profile image

      chas65 4 years ago

      I remember it very well. We were on a buying trip in England at the time. We were living in Dallas and had several clients with us from East Texas, where some of the debris fell. So we were getting most of our info from BBC.

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      RockingChairWisdom 4 years ago

      I can't remember where I was specifically on that day but I do remember the event and the various news broadcasts. With family in Texas somewhat in the path of Columbia it was believed there could have been some of the debris in the area.

      If the government wishes to discontinue the space shuttle program at least there appears to be an effort for private ventures.

      Thanks for honoring those who lost their lives that day.

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      Margot_C 4 years ago

      Great lens and great tribute. I was working out on the treadmill when I saw the news on TV. Very tragic!