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Stephen Hackett's blog about things that light up and make noise. 512 Pixels is about Apple, technology, journalism and design.

On the Columbia Disaster

Ten year ago, the space shuttle Columbia launched for the last time.

The mission — STS–107 — was the 113th flown.

Everything was normal until re-entry, but the disaster was a result of an incident at take-off. A briefcase-sized piece of foam came off the external tank, striking Columbia on the leading edge of the left wing.

Such foam strikes were considered normal. In fact, on STS–112, a 4”x5”x12” section of foam came off the external tank and struck Atlantis’ left solid rocket booster, leaving a 3“ deep dent just shy of 4” wide.

Turns out, the foam that struck Columbia damaged its thermal protection system, which was made up of a grid of tiles designed to stand up to the heat generated on the shuttle during re-entry.

The strike was caught by numerous cameras at launch, and the tapes were reviewed by NASA. However, as the Columbia Accident Investigation Board would find, the agency decided that in a vacuum of reliable information, the mission would continue as planned.

Director of Mission Operations John Harpold was quoted as saying:

You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS (thermal protection system). 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?

Sadly, Harpold was right: the crew died unexpectedly while re-entering the atmosphere.

Hot gas entered the left wing. While traveling at Mach 19.5 at an altitude of 209,800 feet, the shuttle shed its first Thermal Protection System tile.

17 seconds later, the shuttle began to pitch and yaw, and 58 seconds later, Columbia began to break up. At 8:59:32 EST on February 1, Mission Commander Rick D. Husband uttered the last communication received from the shuttle:

Roger, uh, bu – [cut off in mid-word] …

In the following weeks, debris (including human remains) were found from southeast of Dallas, through East Texas and part of Arkansas.