REMEMBERING COLUMBIA

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Image Credit & Copyright: NASA.

“And for the whole time I was growing up, for as long as I can remember, any time anyone asked me what I wanted to be it was, “I want to be an astronaut.” – Commander Rick Husband.

CREW (clockwise from top left). David M. Brown: U.S. Navy captain trained as an aviator and flight surgeon. Brown worked on a number of scientific experiments. This was his first spaceflight.

Laurel Blair Salton Clark: U.S. Navy captain and flight surgeon. Clark worked on a number of biological experiments. This was her first spaceflight.

Michael P. Anderson: U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and physicist who was in charge of the science mission. He also flew on STS-89 which saw Endeavour venture to MIR space station.

Ilan Ramon: Colonel in the Israeli Air Force, veteran of Operation Opera and the first Israeli astronaut. This was his first spaceflight.

William C. McCool: Mission Pilot and U.S. Navy commander. This was his first spaceflight.

Kalpana Chawla: Indian-born aerospace engineer and first Indian-American astronaut. This was her second spaceflight as she flew onboard Columbia during STS-87 .

Rick D. Husband: Commander, U.S. Air Force colonel and mechanical engineer, who piloted a Discovery during the first docking with the International Space Station (STS-96).

“This cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose; it is a desire written in the human heart. We are that part of creation which seeks to understand all creation. We find the best among us, send them forth into unmapped darkness, and pray they will return. They go in peace for all mankind, and all mankind is in their debt.”George W. Bush February 4, 2003 at the STS-107 Memorial Service at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Houston TX.

On February 1, 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew were in the process of re-entry having completed a successful 14 day mission when at 08:54:24 EST the MMACS Officer alerted the Flight Director to the first signs of a problem in Mission Controls telemetry. Four hydraulic sensors in the Space Shuttles left wing were reading “Off scale low” meaning that for some reason the sensors had failed. Experienced witnesses in California and Nevada had already been witnessing anomalies they were not used to seeing as Columbia passed high overhead. For the next few minutes Mission Control was in dialogue with Columbia as more and more sensor failures and abnormal readings came in. At 08:59:32 EST with Commander Husband in mid-sentence, all communication and telemetry to Mission Control was lost……..Space Shuttle Columbia and her Crew of 7 astronauts had been lost…….

Witnesses viewed and recorded Columbia as many of the pieces streaked through the skies leaving a debris field through Texas, Louisiana and parts of Arkansas. To this day debris is still slowly being reported, recovered and added to the collection back at the storage location in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Cape Canaveral. Initial recovery of debris was placed in a reconstruction configuration at the Reusable Launch Vehicle Hangar located at the landing strip across the lot from the shuttle Mate/De-Mate structure.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, convened by NASA to determine the cause of the disaster came to the conclusion that at 82 seconds after launch a briefcase sized piece of foam that shed from the External Fuel Tank had struck the leading edge of the left wing, creating a hole. That hole, upon re-entry allowed the passage of super-heated gasses to enter the shuttle structure causing a catastrophic failure of the machine. This “debris shedding” as it is called was a well-known and accepted aspect to launch. The piece that had become free and struck Columbia was the “left bipod foam ramp”. There had been several instances of this exact piece coming free in previous launches.

Astronaut Dr. Sally Ride who also served on the Rogers Commission that investigated the Challenger accident noted striking similarities in the two disasters. “Since no machine is perfect, the problem comes down to identifying which known problems are an acceptable risk and which are not. In these two examples, shedding foam and failing O-rings, the organization failed to react correctly to the seriousness of the problem: in both cases, whereas engineers recognized the seriousness of the problem, NASA management dismissed both the evidence and the engineers’ expertise and ultimately decided to continue with the mission, with catastrophic results.” Richard Feynman, while serving on the Rogers Commission had submitted a personal addition to the final report that is all too relevant to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report. In it, he wrote: “It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? … we could properly ask, ‘What is the cause of management’s fantastic faith in the machinery?” – Sally Ride.

Space Shuttle Columbia (OV-102) was the first Space Shuttle to launch (STS-1) on April 12, 1981 and had completed 27 successful missions when it catastrophically disintegrated nearing the end of its 28th mission. It’s named after the Boston, Massachusetts based sloop captained by American Robert Gray. On May 11, 1792, Gray and his crew maneuvered the Columbia past the dangerous sandbar at the mouth of a river extending more than 1,000 miles through what is today south-eastern British Columbia, Canada, and the Washington-Oregon border. The river was later named after the ship. On a more directly patriotic note, “Columbia” is considered to be the feminine personification of the United States. The name is derived from that of another famous explorer, Christopher Columbus. It was also the only orbiter with no external air lock so even had the crew known of the situation they could not have mated to the International Space Station (ISS) for safety. Even as the Shuttle program came to a close in 2011, small advances had been made in “on-mission” tile repair but there was still no way to fix a leading wing Reinforced Carbon-Carbon (RCC) section. Had the exact problem happened again to another orbiter they would have to await rescue in the ISS for there was no fix possible.

“Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on. In the skies today we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see, there is comfort and hope. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name.” Because of His great power, and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home. May God bless the grieving families. And may God continue to bless America.” – President George W. Bush Feb 1, 3003 from the White House Cabinet Room.

Remembering Columbia STS-107 NASA History: http://history.nasa.gov/columbia/index.html

NASA Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 page: http://www.nasa.gov/columbia/home/index.html

NASA STS-107 Mission Photos: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/gallery/images/shuttle/sts-107/ndxpage1.html

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