On the morning of February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew of seven astronauts were returning from a 16-day science mission in orbit. On board were commander Rick Husband; pilot Willie McCool; mission specialists Mike Anderson, Dave Brown, Kalpana “KC” Chawla (the first Indian-American female astronaut), and Laurel Clark; and payload specialist Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut.
A successful re-entry burn targeted Columbia to land at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, at 9:16 am.
At 9:00 am, communications with the ship suddenly stopped. Mission controllers at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, attempted for 16 minutes to contact the crew, but they heard only silence. Meanwhile, the crew’s families and the NASA welcoming party at KSC waited and listened for the telltale sonic booms to announce Columbia’s arrival. Those booms never sounded. The scheduled landing time came and went.
Columbia never made it home.
While managers at NASA scrambled to determine what had happened to Columbia, the residents of east Texas were jarred by a continuous cacophony of earth-shaking blasts and booms that lasted for several minutes. Pieces of Columbia fell from the sky for the next half hour along a path 250 miles long and 20 miles wide, stretching from Dallas to Ft. Polk, Louisiana. Among the 40 tons of material that made it to the ground were pyrotechnic devices and storage tanks that still held toxic chemical propellants.
Local law enforcement and emergency responders immediately began to assess the situation and protect the public. Within an hour of the accident, the first remains of a Columbia crew member were found. The magnitude of the grim situation quickly became apparent.
President George W. Bush declared a state of emergency early in the afternoon. That first day, the astronaut corps mobilized from Houston to the debris field to aid in the search for their colleagues. A Mishap Investigation Team from Houston and KSC flew to Barksdale Air Force Base near the Texas-Louisiana border to take command of the debris recovery effort. FEMA, the EPA, NASA, the FBI, the Texas Forest Service—and eventually more than 150 federal, state, and local agencies—established a disaster field office in the civic arena at Lufkin, Texas. It became America’s largest peacetime coordinated agency effort.
Local residents volunteered by the hundreds to participate in search efforts coordinated by the U.S. Forest Service. After hopes were raised by finding several of the crew in the first three days, many miserably cold and damp days subsequently passed without results. However, the now-thousands of searchers were undaunted by the weather or the nearly impenetrable briar thickets of the forest.
Other local residents donated food and served it at the VFW Hall in Hemphill, Texas, about an hour from Lufkin. Townspeople opened their homes to searchers and did their laundry. Telephone companies provided temporary cell towers and wireless telephones at no cost to the government. The townspeople insisted on giving NASA employees whatever they needed; no one wearing a NASA hat was charged for anything in the local grocery stores or restaurants. The outpouring of compassion by the residents, and the commitment and courage of the searchers, were unlike anything NASA had ever seen.
After recovery of the last crew remains, the effort shifted to recovering as much of Columbia’s debris as possible, to protect the public and determine the cause of the accident. The Texas Forest Service recommended that the recovery be staffed by incident management teams supported by wildland firefighters, who were already trained in grid search techniques. Over the next 75 days, firefighters from all over the country combed every square foot of the central six-mile wide debris path. Supporting the search were Navy salvage divers in the lakes and reservoirs and 38 contracted helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
On March 27, 2003, a contracted Bell 407 search helicopter piloted by Jules “Buzz” Mier of Arizona suddenly lost engine power while flying at treetop level over a bayou and crashed. Mier was killed instantly, as was Charles Krenek of the Texas Forest Service. Three other searchers in the chopper sustained serious injuries but survived. The loss of a native son during the search cemented the bond between the citizens of east Texas and NASA. “Their mission became our mission,” which had already been the unofficial motto of the local residents supporting the recovery efforts, took on an even deeper significance.
Altogether, nearly 25,000 people thoroughly searched the debris field, an area the size of the state of Delaware. It was the largest land search and recovery operation in United States history. They recovered more than 80,000 pieces of Columbia, most no larger than a few square inches. The material totaled 84,700 pounds, 38 percent of the spacecraft’s weight during reentry. Every piece was bagged and labeled with the GPS coordinates of its found location, to aid investigators in understanding why and how Columbia disintegrated.
The material was transported by truck to Barksdale Air Force Base and then on to Kennedy Space Center. A hangar at the south end of the Shuttle Landing Facility airstrip served as the site for Columbia’s “reconstruction.” More than 400 engineers and technicians painstakingly examined every piece of debris for forensic evidence.
Images of Columbia’s launch indicated that the left wing may have suffered damage during ascent, so initial attention focused on debris from that part of the vehicle. Recovered pieces of insulating ceramic tile from the underside of Columbia’s left wing were placed on a table that mapped the wing’s layout. Reinforced carbon-carbon panels and support structure from the leading edge of the shuttle’s wings were placed in clear plastic frames that allowed the debris to be examined in three dimensions.
The debris told a compelling story about how the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing had been breached during ascent by a piece of foam that fell off the shuttle’s external tank and struck the vehicle 82 seconds after launch. The unknown gap posed no problems in orbit, but during reentry it enabled searing hot plasma to enter the wing and melt it from the inside. The physical evidence matched the findings of an independent analysis team in Houston, which examined data from Columbia’s internal sensors.
These findings enabled NASA to make necessary corrections to hardware and processes and return the shuttle fleet to flight more than two years later, in July 2005.
Columbia’s recovered debris represents nearly ten times the combined total of material from all previous uncontrolled hypersonic reentries. NASA preserved the material and maintains it in a special facility in the Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC. Researchers can request debris to analyze for the design of future spacecraft. Three doctorates have already been awarded based on the study of Columbia’s debris.
It is a very fitting continuation of Columbia’s mission as a vessel for scientific research. We hope her crew would have been proud of this legacy.
Former Space Shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach was an active leader in the recovery, reconstruction, and preservation of Columbia. He and space historian Jonathan Ward have just published "Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew" (Arcade Publishing, 2018). They will be discussing their book at the "What’s New in Aerospace?" presentation, “The Story Behind the Space Shuttle Columbia Recovery Mission” at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., at 2:00 pm on February 12, followed by a book signing from 3:00-5:00 pm. They will also be signing copies of their book at our Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, on February 11 from noon to 3:00 pm.