Remembering the Columbia Crew

Remembering the Columbia Crew

On this day in 2003, seven brave astronauts – six Americans and an Israeli — lost their lives in the space shuttle Columbia tragedy (STS-107).

  • NASA Commander Rick Husband
  • NASA Pilot William McCool
  • NASA Payload Commander Michael Anderson
  • NASA Mission Specialist David Brown
  • NASA Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla
  • NASA Mission Specialist Laurel Clark
  • Israeli Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon

While attention will be focused today on the release of President Obama’s FY2011 budget request – which by many accounts will include cancellation of the human space flight program that emerged in the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy – we should not forget those who gave their lives in pursuit of the exploration of space and the science that can be conducted there.

Fate ordained that the three tragedies that have taken the lives of astronauts in mission-related accidents occurred within a few days of each other on the early winter calendar: Apollo 204 on January 27, 1967; the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986; and the space shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003. NASA held a “Day of Remembrance” for all three jointly on January 29, but it seems fitting to mention each of them individually here.

STS-107 was one of the few space shuttle flights in recent memory that was not associated with construction or utilization of the International Space Station (ISS). Instead, it was dedicated entirely to science experiments. (Read a short CRS report from 2006 that summarizes the tragedy, its investigation, and the shuttle’s return to flight in 2005.) During its return to Earth after 16 days in orbit, Columbia disintegrated when superheated air entered one of its wings through a hole caused by a piece of foam that had come off of the shuttle’s External Tank during launch. The extreme heat – a normal part of reentry – caused the wing to fail structurally, creating aerodynamic forces that led to the disintegration of the orbiter. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) concluded that the tragedy was caused by both technical and organizational failures.

Not quite a year after the tragedy, President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration to return humans to the Moon and someday go to Mars. The announcement responded to a major criticism by CAIB that for the past three decades, NASA had lacked “any national mandate providing … a compelling mission requiring human presence in space.” The Vision for Space Exploration was intended to be that mandate. Today, it is the program that President Obama reportedly will seek to cancel in his FY2011 budget.

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