Ten years ago, on January 16, 2003 Mission 28 took off on a 16-day scientific space programme. What was to end on a positive note became an accident that could never be forgotten.

Columbia was the star of the U.S. space shuttle programme. The first space worthy vehicle in the orbital programme, it marked the realisation of a great dream of flying crew on missions from earth to space and back. Not once but many times. Columbia was first launched on April 12, 1981 and flew 27 complete missions. Mission 28 began on January 16, 2003 and was to end on February 1, 2003, a 16-day scientific space programme that should have ended on a positive note.

Lost!

On board were seven crew members and specialists — Rick Husband, commander; William C. McCool, pilot; Michael P. Anderson, payload commander; David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, mission specialists and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist. But all that remained that Saturday was seven lives lost and debris from the craft scattered over a large part of the United States. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that the shuttle was doomed from the start after a hole formed in one of its wings during the launch. This had happened after a piece of insulating foam from an external fuel tank peeled off and hit the wing 81 seconds after lift-off. Little did NASA know that falling foam debris, which happened at times during launches, would cause grief.  On its return, during the intense heat of re-entry, hot gases got into the interior of the wing and destroyed the support structure which caused the rest of the shuttle to break apart.

NASA went about the painful task of finding out the cause of the accident. Wreckage was collected from Texas and Louisiana for months after the accident. Pieces were later sent to an archive and education programme at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The idea is to use parts of the debris as material for study. Parts of the heat shield, wing panels and the protective thermal tiles are the items that are most often requested. The collection, says NASA, includes more than 84,000 individual pieces, most of which are carefully labelled and indexed. 

Only Columbia remains at the space centre. The other shuttles, Discovery and Endeavour, rest in museums, while Atlantis is at Space Center’s privately operated visitors’ complex. In 1986, Challenger and its seven-member crew were lost just after lift-off. As Columbia’s mission was one of education and research, NASA says it will continue that.

Such a long journey

Kalpana Chawla, or KC to her friends, was the first Indian-American woman astronaut.  In a 2003 memorial service, President George W. Bush said: “None of our astronauts travelled a longer path to space than Kalpana Chawla. She left India as a student but she would see the nation of her birth, all of it, from hundreds of miles above.” In another tribute to the astronauts, President Bush said, “On a sad morning three years ago, we learned that a brave astronaut born in India had been lost aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. I know that India will always be proud of Dr. Kalpana Chawla, and so will the United States of America.” Kalpana Chawla’s dream began in Karnal, Haryana. She more or less knew where her career lay after watching planes at the local flying clubs. She once said, “Every once in a while we’d ask my dad if we could get a ride in one of these planes. And, he did take us to the flying club and get us a ride in the Pushpak and a glider that the flying club had.” She went to the U.S. where she received a master’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1984, and then a doctorate in aerospace engineering, in 1988. Her first flight was on Columbia from November 19 to December 5, 1997. She returned to space on January 16, 2003, aboard Columbia again.

In memory

A 15-foot bronze statue of the late William McCool stands in Texas. The left hand of the statue points north toward the flight path of the Columbia Shuttle.  Seven asteroids orbiting between Mars and Jupiter have been named after the seven crew members. The idea was planned by NASA and approved by the International Astronomical Union.  In a message of condolence on February 2, 2003, Valentina Tereshkova, Russia’s first woman cosmonaut, said: “I am deeply grieved by the loss of the crew of Columbia. I express my sincere condolences to the families and friends of the astronauts. I believe that their names will remain as the bright sparkling stars in the universe and will light the way for those who will follow them on the difficult roads of space exploration.” There is also a Patricia Huffman Smith NASA Museum in Texas that looks at the legacy of the shuttle and the experiments it performed from the first mission to the last. Eventually, it will have simulators and a digital learning centre.

On February 1, 2003, disaster struck space shuttle Columbia, on its way back to Earth. There was horror as people watched it break apart and disintegrate. All seven crew members lost their lives. They were returning after conducting nearly 80 experiments in space.