Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster: Step-by-step graphic reveals exactly what went wrong during the fatal 2003 incident – and how it changed NASA forever

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

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

(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 Columbia Disaster: Mission facts

Mission: Microgravity research mission/SPACEHAB 

Space shuttle: Columbia 

Launch location: Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A 

Launch time: January 16, 2003, 10:39am EST 

Crew: Commander Rick Husband; pilot William McCool; mission specialists Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Clark; and payload specialist Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut 

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

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

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

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

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. 

A foreseeable tragedy: Safety fears over the 1986 Challenger mission were raised but ignored

Challenger was one of NASA’s greatest successes – but also one of its darkest legacies.

It was initially built between 1975 and 1978 to be a test vehicle, but was later converted into a fully fledged spacecraft.

In its heyday, it completed nine milestone missions – from launching the first female astronaut into space to taking part in the first repair of a satellite by an astronaut.

But it was also the vehicle that very nearly ended the space program when a probe into the 1986 disaster found that the shuttle was doomed before it had even taken off.

Crew of the Challenger space shuttle, which exploded in 28 January 1986: (L-R front row) Astronauts Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair and (L-R, rear row) Ellison Onizuka, school teacher Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judith Resnik

Crew of the Challenger space shuttle, which exploded in 28 January 1986: (L-R front row) Astronauts Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair and (L-R, rear row) Ellison Onizuka, school teacher Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judith Resnik

Roger Boisjoly, a NASA contractor at rocket-builder Morton Thiokol Inc, warned in 1985 that seals on the booster rocket joints could fail in freezing temperatures.

‘The result would be a catastrophe of the highest order — loss of human life,’ he wrote in a memo.

On the eve of the ill-fated flight, Boisjoly and several colleagues reiterated their concerns and argued against launching because of predicted cold weather at the Kennedy Space Center.

But they were overruled by Morton Thiokol managers, who gave NASA the green light.

After the accident, Boisjoly testified to a presidential commission investigating the Challenger accident.

The group determined that hot gases leaked through a joint in one of the booster rockets shortly after blastoff that ended with the explosion of the shuttle’s hydrogen fuel.

Boisjoly died in 2012 aged 73.

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