The Final Flight of STS-107

The crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Public Domain, NASA

January and February each year mark three of the U.S. space program's most horrifying tragedies: the loss of three astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, the deaths of seven astronauts in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger was destroyed in an explosion, and the third when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart in the upper atmosphere on February 1, 2003. All three taught tragic lessons to the spaceflight community.

 

STS-107: a Productive Flight

The last day aboard Columbia started on a bright note for the crew of STS-107. They were awakened by a rousing rendition of Scotland the Brave in honor of mission specialist Laurel Clark's Scottish heritage. Mission Control followed the wake-up tune with news the astronauts had been waiting for. It was time to come home.

The seven members of the crew (commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool and mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Mike Anderson, David Brown and Israeli payload specialist Ilan Ramon) were coming to the end of a 16-day mission of scientific experimentation, the first shuttle mission in two years that did not visit the International Space Station or Hubble Space Telescope. They had conducted a number of experiments aboard the shuttle and were ready to report their findings upon their return. As Columbia made final preparations for landing, their families gathered at the Kennedy Space Center to watch their loved ones' homecoming.

The shuttle was scheduled to land at 9:16 a.m. and everyone was waiting anxiously to see the "radar signal" of the shuttle's return over the western horizon.

Loss of Signal

Shortly before 9:00 a.m. EST, Mission Control spotted a problem with the orbiter. There was a loss of data from the left wing temperature sensors.

This was followed by a data loss from tire pressure indicators on the left main landing gear. Although this was a problem, it could have simply been a communication glitch. There were procedures in place to deal with it and controllers moved through their checklists accordingly.

Mission Control contacted the shuttle, "Columbia, Houston, we see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last."

They received a reply from Columbia's commander, Rick Husband, "Roger, uh, buh ..."

There was nothing more for several seconds, then—only static.

The shuttle was traveling at 12,500 mph, 18 times the speed of sound, 39 miles above Earth when people across Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana heard unusual sounds coming from the sky. Many others in the western U.S. reported seeing odd flares in the sky. Something was seriously wrong with the orbiter, and Mission Control kept trying to contact the crew, but with no luck. Minutes later, NASA announced that a Space Shuttle Contingency had been declared. The shuttle wasn't coming home. At the Kennedy Space Center, crews hurriedly took the families and friends back to private quarters to await any information.

Debris on the Ground

In the wake of Columbia's breakup within view of millions of people, NASA and the state of Texas put together search teams.

Other government agencies, including the FAA and FBI, began investigations. As search teams spread out, they found debris scattered across Texas and Louisiana. It took searchers weeks to find pieces of the shuttle, and special crews were detailed to search for crew remains. 

About the Crew

So, who were the seven astronauts killed in this tragedy? 

  • Colonel Rick Husband (USAF), space shuttle Columbia mission commander, from Amarillo, Texas. He was married, with two children. This was Husband’s second space shuttle flight and first as flight commander. Just days before the disaster, he had memorialized the astronauts lost in years past.
  • Commander William (Willie) McCool (USN), shuttle pilot, was born in San Diego, California, but grew up in Lubbock, Texas. He was married with three sons. This was his first shuttle mission.
  • Lieutenant Colonel Michael P. Anderson (USAF), a mission specialist, was born in Plattsburgh, New York but considered Spokane, Washington, to be his hometown.  Anderson was selected in 1994 as one of a handful of black astronauts. In 1989, he flew in the space shuttle Endeavour for mission STS-89 to the Russian Space Station Mir.
  • Dr. Kalpana Chawla, a mission specialist, was born in Karnal, India. She held Certificated Flight Instructor's license with airplane and glider ratings, Commercial Pilot's licenses for single- and multi-engine land and seaplanes, and Gliders, and instrument rating for airplanes. She enjoyed flying aerobatics and tail-wheel airplanes. After being selected as an astronaut in 1994, she became the first Indian woman in space aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1997. STS-107 was her second mission.
  • Captain David Brown (USN), a mission specialist, was born in Arlington, Virginia. He was single. He enjoyed flying and bicycle touring. He was a four-year collegiate varsity gymnast. While in college he performed in the Circus Kingdom as an acrobat, 7-foot unicyclist, and stilt walker. After being selected as an astronaut in 1996, this was his first space shuttle flight.
  • Commander Dr. Laurel Clark (USN), a physician, was born in Iowa, but considered Racine, Wisconsin, to be her hometown. She was married and had one child. She served as a flight surgeon and dove with Navy divers and Navy Seals, performing medical evacuations from U.S. submarines. until space beckoned. She became an astronaut in 1996. The Columbia flight was her first space shuttle mission.
  • Colonel Ilan Ramon (Israel Air Force), a payload specialist, was born in Tel Aviv, Israel. He was married to Rona, with whom he had four children. He enjoyed snow skiing, squash. Ramon was Israel’s first astronaut, chosen in 1997. Security was tightened around this launch due to his presence. ​His family said he had been thrilled with being in space aboard the space shuttle Columbia, and emailed home to Israel that he didn’t want to leave.

Columbia's Loss Causes Changes

What caused the orbiter to break apart and burn up on re-entry? Reviews of the launch videos showed a piece of foam from the external fuel tank broke off during launch and slammed into the shuttle's leading wing edge. That caused damage to the protective tiles. Upon re-entry and contact with Earth's atmosphere, the interior of the wing edge was attacked by super-heated gases and eroded away. Eventually, that led to the destruction of the orbiter and the loss of all astronauts aboard.

The investigation to determine the chain of events led NASA to institute stringent regulations and recommendations to toughen shuttle tiles, better secure foam on the external tank, do better pre-flight and on-orbit inspects of the orbiters, and strengthen technical standards. There were no further accidents during the remaining shuttle flights, which ended in 2011. 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.