It’s been just over 21 years since one of the darkest days in NASA’s history.
On the morning of February 1, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it reentered the atmosphere over Texas and Louisiana.
The seven astronauts aboard – David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool and Ilan Ramon – all lost their lives.
The tragic event is being retold for a BBC Two documentary series airing from this week on BBC Two, ‘The Space Shuttle That Fell to Earth’.
MailOnline has revealed a step-by-step graphic showing exactly what went wrong on that fateful morning, which changed NASA forever.
Damage to Columbia sustained during the shuttle’s launch in January 2003 had meant it wasn’t fit to attempt a safe reentry
(L-R) David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool and Ilan Ramon lost their lives in the Space Shuttle Colombia disaster in 2003
Space Shuttle Colombia had completed a 16-day mission, officially designated as ‘STS-107’ by NASA.
As a research mission, the crew was kept busy 24 hours a day in space performing various chores involved with science experiments.
Largely things had gone smoothly, according to NASA.
‘The astronauts exceeded scientists’ expectations in terms of the science obtained during their 16 days in space,’ it said in a later statement.
However, one issue during launch on January 16 would later prove fatal.
At 82 seconds after blast-off, a piece of foam insulation, about the size of a briefcase, broke off from the external tank and struck the port wing of the orbiter.
Some NASA ground control staff had been aware of the foam and were concerned about the damage it could do upon reentry.
On January 23, the mission’s eighth day, J. Steve Stich from mission control notified two of the crew – Rick Husband and William McCool – of the foam strike in an email, including a video clip of the impact.
However, Stich assured them that because the phenomenon had occurred on previous missions, it caused no concern for damage to the vehicle or for reentry.
Footage shows the foam falling and the damage to the wing during launch:
The Space Shuttle Columbia, on mission STS-107, launches January 16, 2003 at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida
A chilling video, shared on Reddit in 2022, depicts the final harrowing moments of the crew in the cockpit before Colombia began to fall apart
Engineers on the ground continued to assess the impact of the foam strike, requesting high-resolution imaging of the affected area to complete a more thorough analysis – but ultimately managers turned down the request.
It later emerged that some members of staff had been aware of the extent of the damage but said there was ‘nothing we can do’.
There was no way to repair any suspected damage, as the crew were far from the International Space Station and had no robotic arm for repairs.
Still unaware of the imminent danger to their lives, on January 28 the Columbia crew paid tribute to their fellow astronauts lost in the Challenger accident 17 years earlier and in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in 1967.
By the day of the crew’s scheduled return on February 1, NASA staff faced the terrible decision over whether to let the astronauts know that they may die on re-entry or face orbiting in space until the oxygen ran out.
Those on the ground decided that it would be better if the crew were spared knowledge of the risks.
As Colombia prepared to re-enter the atmosphere, the damage caused by the foam allowed hot atmospheric gases to penetrate and destroy the internal wing structure.
When the vehicle began reentry this damaged section of the wing was subjected to extreme entry heating over a long period of time.
Tragically, this caused the spacecraft to become unstable and break apart, about 40 miles (60km) over the surface of Earth.
The resulting debris was found scattered across Texas in the following years, including helmets, heat shield tiles and, sadly, the remains of the astronauts themselves.
It’s thought the crew knew of their situation for perhaps only a minute or so before vehicle breakup and likely blacked out as soon as their crew module lost pressure.
Mac Powell stands next to what he believes to be the suspected damaged left wing from the fallen space shuttle Columbia, on his property in Nacogdoches County, Texas in 2003
Columbia Space Shuttle debris lies floor of the RLV Hangar May 15, 2003 at Kennedy Space Center, Florida
When Mission Control had it confirmed that the shuttle had broken up over Texas, Flight Director Leroy Cain ordered the room on lock-down and all computer data saved for later investigation.
In August 2003, Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) released its findings into the cause of the disaster and made a series of recommendations.
The CAIB report criticized NASA’s organisational and safety culture, finding similar faults that led to the 1986 Challenger accident.
After the deadly incident, president George W. Bush’s administration decided to put an end to the Columbia shuttle program.
What’s more, the remaining three shuttles, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour, were grounded until NASA and its contractors could develop means to prevent similar accidents, which included kits for repairs in orbit.
Today, the Orion spacecraft, built for manned missions to the moon as part of NASA’s upcoming Artemis programme, has a safety system that allows the manned part to be separated from the launch vehicle in case of a launch problem.
Shockingly, the Columbia shuttle did not have this option.
NASA also reached a $27million settlement in 2007 with the Columbia families.
The disaster will be retold for a BBC Two documentary series that airs this week on BBC Two, ‘The Space Shuttle That Fell to Earth’.
It covers the unfolding disaster and fallout shared by the astronaut’s families, as well as NASA staff who were involved in the mission.