20 Years of the Columbia Space Shuttle Tragedy: What Was It Like? Could you avoid it?

Exactly 20 years ago, on February 1, 2003, seven astronauts – six Americans and one Israeli – died in one of NASA’s greatest tragedies: the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the US sky, just minutes before its scheduled landing.

To honor the victims, and all the astronauts who have already lost their lives in space missions, NASA held a “Remembrance Day” ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Memorial (KSC, Aug. acronym in English), in Florida.

“This year marks the 20th anniversary of the loss of crew during the reentry of mission STS-107. For some, it feels like a lifetime. For others, it feels like yesterday. But for our agency, it’s a moment that lives right here in the present , shaping our culture, shaping our decisions and helping us forge the path forward,” said KSC Director Janet Petro.

Created in 1991, the Space Mirror memorial displays the names of the mission crew: Rick Husband (commander), William McCool (pilot), Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kapala Chawla, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon — the first Israeli to fly on the space.

Wille McCool (center) and Rick Husband (right), lead the crew in this photo from takeoff day, January 16, 2003

Image: Karl Ronstrom/Reuters

The Space Shuttle

The Space Shuttle was a sophisticated and innovative vehicle. It was launched vertically, like a rocket, but on the way back, it landed on a runway, with landing gear, like a normal aircraft.

It was the world’s first reusable spacecraft, so it was a more convenient and cost-effective way to go into space. The program ran between 1981 and 2011, with five different buses in operation: Challenger, Try to make an effortDiscovery, Atlantis and Columbia (the first to be launched).

See the best moments of a round trip to the International Space Station (ISS):

Many successes (such as the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and the construction of the ISS), and 14 dead, in two serious accidents – the first occurred on January 28, 1986, with the explosion of the Challenger (mission STS-51-L) , one minute after takeoff, killing all seven crew members.

With Columbia (STS-107), 17 years later, it was different, as a two-week space trip was successful, in which astronauts carried out important scientific research on microgravity.

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Space Shuttle Columbia launches STS-107, February 1, 2003

Image: NASA

The accident

  • Columbia lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on January 16, 2003.
  • The accident happened 15 days later, during the return to Earth.
  • The space shuttle disintegrated as it flew over Texas bound for Florida, where it would land.
  • The crash was caused by a crack in the carbon heat shield on the left wing tip.
  • A minute and a half after launch, a piece of the foam liner on the external fuel tank broke off at 400 mph (640 km/h) and caused it to malfunction.
  • This was undetected at the time it occurred and Columbia continued her voyage.
  • NASA only realized that the shuttle had been hit the next day, when it was already in orbit, during the analysis of launch images.
  • Because foam impacts were not uncommon, the agency chose not to investigate the vessel, looking for any damage that could threaten its safety.
  • As it reentered Earth’s atmosphere at high speed, the intense heat and friction caused the hole to grow larger and larger.
  • Superheated plasma seeped through the wing structure and Columbia began to melt and disintegrate.

From the ground the view was like a large multiple meteor, recorded by Air Force radar and television channels.

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Debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia, disintegrating over Texas (USA)

Image: AP/Scott Lieberman

Could the tragedy have been avoided?

The US government set up an independent committee called the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) to investigate the accident. In the following months, about 84,000 pieces were recovered, equal to about 40% of the shuttle’s weight. Some remains of the astronauts were also found and identified by DNA.

Essentially, it turns out to be bad luck: the foam impact occurred at the exact moment it caused catastrophic damage, in one of the few parts of the ship that lacks any form of redundancy.

But even NASA’s decisions, which ignored its own flight rules and safety culture, were called mistakes. The agency continued the mission as normal, although it knew that the insulating foam was peeling off the external fuel tank and that there could be significant damage to the wing.

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Wreck recovered from Columbia, during ‘reassembly’ to investigate the causes of the accident

Image: NASA/Reuters

If the agency realized the malfunction as soon as it happened and decided to take action, would it be possible to save the mission?

Well, that would be very difficult. The ship was already doomed as soon as it was hit, but, in theory, it could try to save the astronauts.

Investigators have suggested a movie-worthy action: send the space shuttle Atlantis into space for a moving rescue. It would position itself upside down over the Columbia, and astronauts would jump from ship to ship, in a risky maneuver.

It would be a race against time to prepare Atlantis (which has been partially dismantled) and create a bold plan from scratch. Columbia could fly for up to a month on the supplies (air, food and fuel) she carried.

Four of the best astronauts would be chosen, as there would be no room for error. The risks would be tremendous: more lives and another ship could be lost.


The tragedy prompted a reformulation of the US space program, which has become more conservative. Several changes have been made to avoid further tragedies.

  • Space exploration has been suspended; first as mourning and then to understand the causes of the accident.
  • The administration of then President George W. Bush decided to end the Space Shuttle program.
  • The remaining three space shuttles (Try to make an effortDiscovery and Atlantis) became operational again in 2005, for the completion of the ISS.
  • Subsequent launches occurred during the day (to facilitate damage visualization) and with another shuttle on emergency standby, as well as a contingency plan involving the ISS.
  • In 2011, Atlantis made its last voyage and the program was deactivated.
  • NASA has been restructured and some employees involved in the mission have been reassigned.

From then on, the US space agency was no longer able to get astronauts into space on its own. Thus began the partnership with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, for launches from Kazakhstan, with the Soyuz rocket.

This gap also paved the way for private aerospace companies, which flew commercial and scientific payloads and astronauts into space for years to come. The most important is SpaceX, with the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule.

Just recently, 11 years later, NASA was once again able to go into space on its own, from North American soil and with its own technology. In November 2022, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket sent the Orion capsule on its way to the Moon, on the Artemis 1 mission.

More accidents

January is a fateful month for space exploration. 2023’s “Remembrance Day” marked three tragedies that will never be forgotten: 20 years of Columbia; 37 years of Challenger; and also 56 years of Apollo 1.

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Astronauts Roger Chaffee (left), Edward White II (center), and Virgil Grissom, who died in the crash, test the controls and perform the first tests of the Apollo 1 flight deck

Image: NASA

The first mission of the Apollo program, which brought man to the moon, had a terrible chapter: in a ground test, the spacecraft caught fire, killing its three astronauts by asphyxiation, on January 27, 1967.

“This day is obviously to honor our professionals who lost their lives. But more importantly, let’s not forget the hard lessons learned from space tragedies like Columbia,” said Bob Cabana, NASA associate administrator and former astronaut.

Other ceremonies around the country commemorated the date. At the Johnson Space Center in Houston, a flyby by the T-38 jet concluded the celebration at the Astronaut Memorial Grove, where trees were planted for every dead NASA astronaut.

Wreaths and flags were placed at Langley Research Center in Virginia, Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and Stennis Space Flight Center in Mississippi.

“Remembrance Day is about pausing, remembrance and celebrating the legacy of the Nasa family, those who gave their lives for further discovery. While this is always a solemn day, it is also a day of gratitude. We are grateful that these adventurers have shared their lives with us and improve life on Earth,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.

“As we continue to expand humanity’s reach in this new age of space exploration, we must always embrace NASA’s core value of safety,” he added.

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