Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster Explained (Infographic)

On Feb. 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia  was returning to Earth after a successful 16-day trip to orbit, where the crew conducted more than 80 science experiments ranging from biology to fluid physics. However, the seemingly healthy orbiter had suffered critical damage during its launch, when foam from the fuel tank’s insulation fell off and hit Columbia’s left wing, tearing a hole in it that later analysis suggested might have been as large as a dinner plate.

The damage occurred just after Columbia’s liftoff on Jan. 16, but went undetected. During re-entry, the hole in a heat-resistant reinforced carbon carbon panel on Columbia’s left wing leading edge allowed super-hot atmospheric gases into the orbiter’s wing, leading to its destruction. 

Killed in the Columbia shuttle disaster were STS-107 mission commander Rick Husband and included pilot Willie McCool, mission specialists Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and David Brown, payload commander Michael Anderson and payload specialist Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. 

A subsequent inquiry by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) faulted NASA’s internal culture as much as the foam strike as causes of the shuttle disaster. The Columbia accident ultimately led then-President George W. Bush to announce plans to retire NASA’s space shuttle fleet (which was more than 20 years old at the time) once construction of the International Space Station was complete. A capsule-based spacecraft was planned to replace the shuttles. [Photos: The Columbia Space Shuttle Tragedy]

NASA’s space shuttle fleet resumed launches in July 2005, after spending more than two years developing safety improvements and repair tools and techniques to avoid a repeat of the Columbia disaster. In 2011, NASA launched the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, to complete the shuttle fleet’s role in space station construction. 

Video: Remembering Columbia’s Crew - ‘In Their Own Words’

In 2012, NASA’s three remaining shuttles - Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour - were delivered to museums in Washington, D.C., Florida and California, while the test shuttle Enterprise was delivered to New York City. Under President Barack Obama, NASA was directed to rely on private spacecraft to launch Americans to the International Space Station and return them to Earth. NASA, meanwhile, is developing a new giant rocket - the Space Launch System - and the Orion space capsule for future deep-space missions to an asteroid, the moon and Mars.

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Credit: Karl Tate, SPACE.com Infographics Artist

The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

27 years ago today, one of the most tragic events in the history of the United States space program occurred.  The Space Shuttle Challenger, on what would have been its 10th mission to space, broke apart 73 seconds after takeoff, ending the mission and the lives of all 7 crew members aboard.  But what exactly caused the space shuttle to explode?

The Challenger Space Shuttle (NASA Orbiter Vehicle Designation OV-099) went on nine successful space flight missions before the disaster that occurred on January 28, 1986.  A little over one minute after takeoff, the shuttle began breaking apart.  The issues compounded, and eventually the spacecraft reached complete structural failure and crashed.

While several variables ultimately led to the disaster, the originating cause is believed to be due to an o-ring on the right solid-fuel booster.  Such o-rings are used to form seals between the various fuel compartments on the boosters.  The failure of such an o-ring and the volatility of the fuels surrounding it caused fire to erupt at incorrect places, causing more failures on the Challenger.  More fires erupted and explosions occurred, eventually causing the spacecraft to change course in its upward flight.  At mach 1.92, it is essential that the space shuttle fly at the proper angle to handle the aerodynamic forces being undertaken.  Unfortunately, the correct angle was eventually lost, causing the Challenger to ultimately and catastrophically break apart.

Image Credit: NASA

Seven craters on the Moon were named for the Challenger astronauts. They all sit in a vast basin named Apollo. 
In a Week of Space Tragedy Anniversaries, We Must Continue to Venture Onward
Today marks the second in a week of three tragic anniversaries in space exploration. On Jan. 27, 1967, we lost three astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire. On Feb. 1, 2003, seven astronauts died when Columbia broke apart upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. And Jan. 28, 1986 is when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts on board.

All three of these events were horrible. All three were the results of unlikely chains of events that seemed inevitable afterward. All three sparked immense debate over the dangers and value of exploring space.


And all three should show us how important it is that we carry on that exploration.


There are two ways to look at why slipping loose the surly bonds of Earth is so critical. One is practical. Going into space has given us tremendous advantages in life. Global communication. Weather forecasting. Technology spinoffs that have generated vast economies. The list goes on and on. How many dangerous regimes have collapsed because we can directly see and talk to those being oppressed? How many lives have been saved by advance knowledge of crippling weather events? How much have our lives improved due to the wonderful technology generated? The money spent on space exploration has literally paid us back many fold.


That argument alone is more than enough to support both automated and crewed space exploration. But there’s more.


We are a species of explorers. It’s in our blood, in our makeup. We crave to see what’s around the next corner, what’s over that hill, what’s next in our adventure. Sometimes we learn something massively important, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we come home to tell the tale, and sometimes we don’t. Exploration has fantastic rewards, and grave dangers. But fulfilling our need to explore is its own goal.


The practical benefits of exploration are our sustenance, but the adventure itself is the flavor. The price we pay for this, sometimes, is counted in human lives. And it’s a terrible price. But we must continue to explore because it’s a part of us.


The very fact that so many people are so deeply affected by these events shows just how profoundly space exploration reaches into us. Any event involving large multiple deaths in a single, searing moment is going to resonate with us, and certainly watching it live on television will magnify that feeling. But in this case, we hold astronauts to a higher level. Like with any dangerous occupation that makes life better for others, risking their lives is part of the job requirement.


At first, it feels like this makes these losses cut even more. But it’s ironic: The astronauts themselves knew the risks and downplayed the significance of them potentially being killed. They thought it was worth the risk, or else they wouldn’t have done what they did. That doesn’t make their loss any easier, but it shows us that we must carry on—who could convey that message better than the ones who themselves sit on top of those rockets?


There are many reasons we lose lives exploring space. It’s inherently difficult and dangerous, a hostile environment that takes supreme and envelope-pushing effort even to reach. And there will always be human errors, those caused by carelessness, rush, politics, greed, and simple mistakes. We can minimize these risks in many ways, but over time, the odds of these mistakes leading to tragedy become inevitable.


The only way to absolutely minimize these risks is to stop exploring. And that’s unacceptable. Ships are safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.


So, for Grissom, Chaffee, and White; for Scobee, Smith, McAuliffe, Onizuka, Resnick, McNair, and Jarvis; for Brown, Husband, Clark, Chawla, Anderson, McCool, and Ramon, and for all the others who gave their lives for this great adventure:


I hope that we have learned from your experience, I hope that we have become better through your experience, and that, while we will never forget what happened to you, we will also remember what you were trying to do, and what you did do.

Credit: Phil Plait

Seven craters on the Moon were named for the Challenger astronauts. They all sit in a vast basin named Apollo.

In a Week of Space Tragedy Anniversaries, We Must Continue to Venture Onward

Today marks the second in a week of three tragic anniversaries in space exploration. On Jan. 27, 1967, we lost three astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire. On Feb. 1, 2003, seven astronauts died when Columbia broke apart upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. And Jan. 28, 1986 is when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts on board.

All three of these events were horrible. All three were the results of unlikely chains of events that seemed inevitable afterward. All three sparked immense debate over the dangers and value of exploring space.

And all three should show us how important it is that we carry on that exploration.

There are two ways to look at why slipping loose the surly bonds of Earth is so critical. One is practical. Going into space has given us tremendous advantages in life. Global communication. Weather forecasting. Technology spinoffs that have generated vast economies. The list goes on and on. How many dangerous regimes have collapsed because we can directly see and talk to those being oppressed? How many lives have been saved by advance knowledge of crippling weather events? How much have our lives improved due to the wonderful technology generated? The money spent on space exploration has literally paid us back many fold.

That argument alone is more than enough to support both automated and crewed space exploration. But there’s more.

We are a species of explorers. It’s in our blood, in our makeup. We crave to see what’s around the next corner, what’s over that hill, what’s next in our adventure. Sometimes we learn something massively important, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we come home to tell the tale, and sometimes we don’t. Exploration has fantastic rewards, and grave dangers. But fulfilling our need to explore is its own goal.

The practical benefits of exploration are our sustenance, but the adventure itself is the flavor. The price we pay for this, sometimes, is counted in human lives. And it’s a terrible price. But we must continue to explore because it’s a part of us.

The very fact that so many people are so deeply affected by these events shows just how profoundly space exploration reaches into us. Any event involving large multiple deaths in a single, searing moment is going to resonate with us, and certainly watching it live on television will magnify that feeling. But in this case, we hold astronauts to a higher level. Like with any dangerous occupation that makes life better for others, risking their lives is part of the job requirement.

At first, it feels like this makes these losses cut even more. But it’s ironic: The astronauts themselves knew the risks and downplayed the significance of them potentially being killed. They thought it was worth the risk, or else they wouldn’t have done what they did. That doesn’t make their loss any easier, but it shows us that we must carry on—who could convey that message better than the ones who themselves sit on top of those rockets?

There are many reasons we lose lives exploring space. It’s inherently difficult and dangerous, a hostile environment that takes supreme and envelope-pushing effort even to reach. And there will always be human errors, those caused by carelessness, rush, politics, greed, and simple mistakes. We can minimize these risks in many ways, but over time, the odds of these mistakes leading to tragedy become inevitable.

The only way to absolutely minimize these risks is to stop exploring. And that’s unacceptable. Ships are safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.

I hope that we have learned from your experience, I hope that we have become better through your experience, and that, while we will never forget what happened to you, we will also remember what you were trying to do, and what you did do.

Credit: