1 February 2003, 14:00:25 UTC


1 February 2003, 09:00:18 a.m., Eastern Standard Time: Space Shuttle Columbia, nearing the end of Mission STS-107, traveling Mach 19.5 (13,434 miles per hour, 21,620 kilometers per hour) at 209,800 feet (63,950 meters) over Texas, suffered catastrophic structural failure and disintegrated. All seven members of the crew were killed.

81.7 seconds after liftoff on 16 January, Columbia was at approximately 66,000 feet (20,100 meters) altitude and 12.5 miles (20.1 kilometers) down range, accelerating through Mach 2.46 (1,623 miles per hour, 2,612 kilometers per hour). Several pieces of insulating foam broke off of the external fuel tank (what NASA referred to as “foam shedding”) and struck the leading edge and underside of Columbia‘s left wing. It is believed that at least one of these pieces of foam punctured a hole in the wing’s surface, estimated to be 6 inches × 10 inches (15 × 25 centimeters).

Columbia was scanned as it passed overhead the Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, at approximately 7:57 a.m., CST, (13:57 UTC) 1 February 2003. Debris can be seen coming from the shuttle’s left wing. (NASA Johnson Space Flight Center)

During reentry, the internal structure of the wing was no longer protected by the heat resistant material of the leading edge. The extreme heat caused structural failure.

Space Shuttle Columbia (OV-102) launches on Mission STS-107, 16 January 2003. (NASA)

Columbia (OV-102) was America’s first space shuttle. It flew into space for the first time 11 April 1981. STS-107 was its 28th flight. During those missions, Columbia orbited the Earth 4,808 times and spent 300 days, 17 hours, 40 minutes, 22 seconds in space flight. 160 astronauts served aboard her. She traveled 125,204,911 miles (201,497,722 kilometers).

The Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over North America during reentry, 1 February 2003. (AP)
The Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over North America during reentry, 1 February 2003. (AP)


Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 flight crew. Front row, left to right: Colonel Rick Douglas Husband, U.S. Air Force, Mission Commander; Kalpana Chawla, Ph.D., Mission Specialist; Commander William Cameron McCool, U.S. Navy, Pilot. Back row, left to right: Captain David McDowell Brown, M.D., U.S. Navy, Mission Specialist; Captain Laurel Blair Salton Clark, M.D., U.S. Navy, Mission Specialist; Lieutenant Colonel Michael Phillip Anderson, U.S. Air Force, Mission Specialist; Colonel Ilan Ramon, Israeli Air Force, Payload Specialist. (NASA)

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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6 thoughts on “1 February 2003, 14:00:25 UTC

  1. I was at IAH when that happened and saw the news on CNN-Pilots who had just landed confirmed and said they had seen the streaks in the sky. I called my NASA friend who was not on duty at the time-obviously he was shocked. He spent a lot of time later leading a recovery team. Very sad day.

      1. i was appalled that a leading edge strike by fast moving foam could be so lethal to an aircraft that was designed to make Hyper mach approaches in controlled flight to a very low subsonic landing. i have not read the entire report and only scanned the synopsis 4 years ago but did anyone stand up and say why isn’t the leading edge a titanium structure designed to take a beating and stay aerodynamic. the mania for weight reduction is to blame so the mythical 50,000 to 65,000 pound payload could be met as i think the Hubble was right at the upper level of the payload capability. after the 1986 nightmare why wasn’t engineering and structural strength given the absolute priority over the other things and why was a fuel tank needed that required a silly foam covering why wasn’t the foam internal and a state of the art carbon fiber covering used? answer is : no damn money left to spend and more mania for payload max numbers. damn NASA and its moronic, myopic and cowardly culture. a true Bureaucracy where everyone knows this eternal truth: if you make “Waves” you make yourself a truncated or terminated career.

  2. Arguably a very complicated glider, but a glider nonetheless.

    A simple slip may have saved the day but it was not part of the emergency procedures.

    It seems the pressure to “follow procedures” gets in the way of the first rule in any emergency. That being FLY THE DAMN AIRPLANE.

  3. The foam on the tank was there to maintain the fuel temp so it had to be there. The problem was the white paint used on the first two flights had been discontinued for a weight savings of 1 ton (2000 lbs). Way was it painted to start with, it was pintes to stabilize the foam and minimize the chances of the now frozen foam (rock you might as well say) from coming off. Colombia died because somebody wanted to save 2000 ibs and the cost of painting. They gambled a crews lives on that and lost. 🙁

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