NASA remembers crew of doomed Columbia shuttle - WDAM-TV 7-News, Weather, Sports-Hattiesburg, MS

Space shuttle Columbia tragedy remembered 10 years later

The crew of STS-107 died while trying to land the space shuttle Columbia at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL on Feb. 1, 2003. (Source: NASA) The crew of STS-107 died while trying to land the space shuttle Columbia at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL on Feb. 1, 2003. (Source: NASA)

(RNN) - Although 10 years have passed since seven astronauts died aboard space shuttle Columbia, images of flaming debris falling to ground are still vivid in our country's collective memory.

The Columbia was returning from a 16-day mission designated STS-107 when it disintegrated upon reentry into the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003.

An investigation into the accident determined the shuttle sustained major damage when a piece of foam insulation broke off from the main fuel tank and struck the leading edge of the Columbia's left wing.

The accident unfolded before millions of people in the South, with remainders of the shuttle visible from California to Louisiana as they fell to earth.

Shreveport, LA-area resident Ronny Kellar was about to take a shower when she heard Columbia breaking apart.

"I heard a rumble and ran outside to see the smoke streams shooting through the sky directly overhead," Kellar said.

Along the shuttle's final approach route, people hoping to catch a glimpse of Columbia gazed into a silent sky.

"We were on the beach watching for its re-entry that would be visible in our northwest sky," said West Gulfport, MS resident Wayne Watkins. "When it didn't happen, we knew there was something wrong, and got home and caught the tragedy on the news."

After traveling millions of miles, the crew of the Columbia was 16 minutes from reuniting with their family and friends when the shuttle suffered catastrophic damage.

Rick Husband

A colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Husband applied to NASA four times before finally being selected for the astronaut program. In college, he wrote NASA a letter asking what it would take to someday become an astronaut. When he received a package of information outlining the necessary steps, that became his blueprint and his eventual ticket to space. Husband served as the commander of Columbia, his second mission in orbit. He left behind a wife and two children.

Willie McCool

McCool logged more than 2,800 hours of flight time as a Navy pilot before becoming an astronaut in 1996. He served as Columbia's pilot on his first and only space mission. He left behind a wife and three children. His hometown of Lubbock, TX, pays tribute to McCool with a bronze statue in his likeness.

Michael Anderson

A Lt. Colonel in the Air Force, Anderson served as Columbia's Payload Commander. Like a lot of astronauts, he decided he wanted to go to space as a child. "Very early on, I just thought being an astronaut would be a fantastic thing to do," he is quoted as saying. Columbia was his second trip into space. Anderson is survived by a wife and two daughters.

David Brown

A captain in the U.S. Navy, Brown served as the Mission Specialist of STS-107, NASA's name for the mission Columbia would embark upon. During college, Brown worked as an acrobat, unicyclist and stilt walker for a circus. He got a doctorate in medicine, became a flight surgeon and eventually a pilot. Columbia was Brown's first space mission. During a memorial service honoring the Columbia astronauts, President George W. Bush said of Brown, "His brother asked him several weeks ago what would happen if something went wrong on their mission. David replied, 'This program will go on.'"

Kalpana Chawla

As President Bush noted at the Columbia memorial service, perhaps no one traveled farther to reach space than Chawla. She left her native India to study aerospace engineering in Texas and Colorado and served as the second mission specialist aboard Columbia, her second flight into space. She left behind a husband. Bush noted, "When the sad news reached her hometown, an administrator at her high school recalled, 'She always said she wanted to reach for the stars. She went there and beyond.'"

Laurel Clark

An astronaut who always said her most important job was being a mom to her son, Clark served as a mission specialist aboard Columbia. She earned a doctorate in medicine and worked as a Navy flight surgeon on her way to the space program. Columbia was her first trip to space. "We're incredibly lucky to be able to be working where we are up above the Earth and being able to see our planet from that vantage point," she said.

Ilan Ramon

The first Israeli in space and the son of an Auschwitz survivor, Ramon came to NASA by way of the Israeli Air Force. He completed more than 4,000 hours of flight time in Israeli aircraft. Ramon was survived by a by a wife and four children. A son, who followed his father's footsteps as an Israeli fighter pilot, tragically died in a crash in 2009.

After flying 125,204,911 miles and orbiting the Earth 4,808 times, Columbia's demise was sealed by something the size of a backpack.

The piece of foam that nicked the wing was estimated to be a 20-by-10 inch piece that was 6 inches thick weighed 2.4 pounds.

Despite the relatively small size of the foam, it damaged a vital component to the shuttle's wing: the thermal protection system (TPS), which protects the shuttle against the heat of re-entry up to 2200 degrees.

The TPS is made up of what NASA engineers call "reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) panels." When the foam broke off from Columbia's fuel tank, it hit an RCC panel on the leading edge of the left wing. The force of the impact caused an irreparable hole.

Testing after the Columbia disaster discovered the hole in Columbia's RCC panel was about 16-by-17 inches.

Although the Columbia Accident Investigation Board explored several ways the crew could have repaired the shuttle, many NASA officials said there was nothing that could have could have been done, even if they crew had known about the damage.

The shuttle took off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL on Jan. 16, 2003 and was anticipated to land there as well.

The final Columbia accident report would take more than 5 years to finish. Salvaging wreckage from the spacecraft was the largest accident debris search in history, with thousands investigators searching an area stretching from central Texas into Louisiana.

STS-107 is one of three failed missions that killed astronauts since NASA was established 55 years ago.

The three-man crew of Apollo 1 was killed during a launch pad test on Jan. 27, 1967. The crew's pure oxygen-filled capsule caught fire during the test and they were unable to escape before the fire consumed the cabin.

Seven astronauts were killed aboard the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. A faulty O-ring on one of the shuttle's rocket boosted failed. The shuttled exploded 1 minute and 13 seconds after takeoff.

NASA will remember all three missions during a special ceremony Friday, which will include a wreath laying ceremony at the Arlington National Cemetery astronaut memorial. Several people will speak at the event, including Evelyn Husband-Thompson, the widow of shuttle Columbia mission commander Col. Rick Husband.

NASA Television will air a wreath-laying ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center starting at 10 a.m. ET.

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