U.S. space shuttle Columbia broke up on February 1, 2003, that claimed the lives of all seven astronauts on board just minutes before it was to land at the Kennedy Space Centre. It was Columbia’s 28th mission, STS-107, on January 16, 2003. STS-107 was a flight dedicated to various experiments that required a microgravity environment. The crew comprised commander Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, payload specialist Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut among others.
• This 16-day mission was dedicated to research in physical, life, and space sciences, conducted in approximately 80 separate experiments, comprised of hundreds of samples and test points. The seven astronauts worked 24 hours a day, in two alternating shifts.
• The payload consists of First flight of SPACEHAB Research Double Module; Fast Reaction Experiments Enabling Science, Technology, Applications and Research (FREESTAR); first Extended Duration Orbiter (EDO) mission since STS-90.
• As Columbia was re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, it broke apart over Texas at approximately 9:00 AM Eastern Standard Time at an altitude of 60 km (40 miles), showering debris across south-eastern Texas and southern Louisiana.
• The disintegration of the craft was recorded by television cameras and U.S. Air Force radar. Its major components and the remains of the crew were recovered over the following month in Florida.
• The destruction of Columbia followed by almost exactly 17 years after the loss of Challenger in a launch accident on January 28, 1986.
• Films (recording) showed that a piece of insulating foam broke loose from the external propellant tank and struck the leading edge of the left wing approximately 81 seconds after lift-off.
• Bits of foam had detached in past missions without serious mishap, and, at the time of the Columbia launch, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) engineers did not think that the foam carried enough momentum to cause significant damage.
CAUSE OF THE DISASTER
• During Columbia’s atmospheric re-entry, hot gases penetrated the damaged tile section and melted major structural elements of the wing, which eventually collapsed.
• Subsequent investigation by NASA and the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board uncovered a number of managerial shortcomings, in addition to the immediate technical reason (poor manufacturing control of tank insulation and other defects), that allowed the accident to happen
The investigation focused on the foam strike from the very beginning. Incidents of debris strikes from ice and foam causing damage during take-off were already well known, and had damaged orbiters, most noticeably during STS-45, STS-27, and STS-87
COLUMBIA ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION BOARD
• An independent investigating board was created immediately after the accident. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, or CAIB, was chaired by retired U.S. Navy Admiral Harold W. Gehman, Jr. and consisted of expert military and civilian analysts who investigated the accident in detail.
• The space shuttles did not have flight data recorders intended for after-crash analysis. Instead, the vehicle data were transmitted in real time to the ground via telemetry. Since Columbia was the first shuttle, it had a special flight data OEX (Orbiter Experiments) recorder, designed to help engineers better understand vehicle performance during the first test flights.
• The recorder allowed the CAIB to reconstruct many of the events during the process leading to breakup.
• On August 26, 2003, the CAIB issued its report on the accident. The report confirmed the immediate cause of the accident was a breach in the leading edge of the left wing, caused by insulating foam shed during launch.
• The report also delved deeply into the underlying organizational and cultural issues that led to the accident.
• The report was highly critical of NASA's decision-making and risk-assessment processes.
• It concluded the organizational structure and processes were sufficiently flawed that a compromise of safety was expected, no matter who was in the key decision-making positions.
• The CAIB report found that NASA had accepted deviations from design criteria as normal when they happened on several flights and did not lead to mission-compromising consequences.
• The board made recommendations for significant changes in processes and organizational culture.
SPACECRAFT CREW SURVIVAL INTEGRATED INVESTIGATION TEAM (SCSIIT)
• On December 30, 2008, NASA released a further report, titled Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, produced by a second commission, the Spacecraft Crew Survival Integrated Investigation Team (SCSIIT). NASA had commissioned this group.
• According to the report, the crew did not have time to prepare themselves. Some crew members were not wearing their safety gloves, and one crew member was not wearing a helmet. New policies gave the crew more time to prepare for descent.
• The crew's safety harnesses malfunctioned during the violent descent. The harnesses on the three remaining shuttles were upgraded after the accident.
• The key recommendations of the report included that future spacecraft crew survival systems should not rely on manual activation to protect the crew.
OTHER SPACE DISASTERS AND ACCIDENTS
1. SS EXPEDITION 36: WATER LEAK IN ASTRONAUT’S SUIT
Luca Parmitano, an Italian astronaut with the European Space Agency, took on a bit of water as he was working outside of the International Space Station (ISS) on July 16, 2013
2. APOLLO 12: LIGHTNING STRIKES AND A HEAD SCRAPE
• As Apollo 12 was beginning to lift off on November 14, 1969, the top of the shuttle was hit by two different lightning strikes that had the potential to compromise the spacecraft and the mission.
• The first strike was even visible to the spectating audience, creating a stir and concern about the safety of the mission.
• But despite the scare, it was determined in a quick check of all the spacecraft’s systems that no damage was done to the vehicle, and it set off to the Moon just as planned.
• It was the return to Earth that caused a little more trouble. As the spacecraft “splashed down” in the ocean during its return to Earth, a strong wave hit the body of the craft, causing it to jostle and swing from its parachutes.
3. SOYUZ 1: PARACHUTE FAILURE
• Vladimir Komarov was one of Soviet Russia’s first group of cosmonauts selected to attempt space travel. He was also the first person to enter outer space twice, though his second time would sadly be his last.
• During the expedition of Soyuz 1, the Soviets’ first space vehicle intended to eventually reach the Moon, Komarov encountered issues with the design of his spacecraft that led to his death.
4. STS-51-L SPACE SHUTTLE CHALLENGER DISASTER
The Space Craft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean just after 73 seconds of take-off.
5. APOLLO-SOYUZ TEST PROJECT: POISONOUS GAS LEAK
• The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in July 1975 was a feat of both space travel and politics: it was the first joint U.S. and Soviet spaceflight and marked the end of the space race between the two countries.
• The two spacecraft—the American holding three astronauts and the Soviet two cosmonauts—met in orbit around the Earth and docked to each other, allowing the space explorers to travel between the vehicles.
• They exchanged pleasantries and gifts and executed some experiments, each group speaking in the other’s native language to smooth communication and blur the barriers between the two countries.
• It was during re-entry that a malfunction with the RCS, the reaction control system that controls altitude, caused poisonous nitrogen tetroxide to enter the cabin where the American Apollo astronauts were seated.