Ten years ago Friday, the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed and its seven astronauts killed during the final minutes of its flight.
NASA will mark the 10th anniversary of the accident at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, and take part in an observance at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where three of the astronauts are buried.
Other commemorations Friday include events at a 2-year-old Columbia museum in Hemphill, Texas, where shuttle debris fell. PBS is also airing a new documentary about Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut on Columbia.
The wife of the shuttle’s commander, Evelyn Husband Thompson, said she has seen the film and was overjoyed to see footage of the crew that she’d never seen before. But she wept at the liftoff scene. “Just because I know the end of the story, as we all do now,” she said.
What happened on Feb. 1, 2003:
THE SHUTTLE: NASA’s oldest shuttle, Columbia was returning from a 16-day science mission when it broke apart over Texas, just minutes before it was due to land in Cape Canaveral, Fla. It was brought down by a hole in its hollow left wing, which allowed hot gases to seep in and tear the shuttle apart as it re-entered the atmosphere. The damage occurred during liftoff when a chunk of foam insulation peeled off the shuttle’s fuel tank and struck the wing. Foam had broken off in past, and NASA knew Columbia’s wing had been hit, but didn’t think it was a serious problem.
THE CREW: The accident killed the seven-member crew: Commander Rick Husband, co-pilot William McCool, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Dr. Laurel Clark, Dr. David Brown and Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first spaceman. Husband, Chawla and Anderson had flown before; the rest were on their first flight. The crew spent the mission doing dozens of science experiments.
THE FAMILIES: The astronauts’ families were waiting at a landing strip in Florida for Columbia’s return. After Mission Control lost contact with the shuttle, the families were taken to the astronaut crew headquarters where they were told of the accident. Six of the seven crew members were married; in all, they had a dozen children. Husband had two children; McCool, three sons; Anderson, two young daughters; Clark, a son; Ramon, four children. The youngest is now 15, the oldest 32.
THE AFTERMATH: The three remaining shuttles were grounded while an independent board investigated what went wrong. The panel determined the disaster was caused by the foam strike, but it also faulted poor decision-making at NASA that seemed more worried about future flights than Columbia, saying “little by little NASA was accepting more and more risk in order to stay on schedule.”
The shuttles returned to flight 2 1/2 years later with additional safety measures, including lasers and cameras to check for damage and a repair kit. The shuttles were retired in 2011 and are now in museums.